Clint Eastwood owes a great deal to Sergio Leone, who jump-started the actor’s movie career with the Dollars trilogy of “spaghetti westerns.” His collaboration with Leone gave him the seeds of his screen persona. It also foretold many of Eastwood’s obsessions as a director. Obsession No. 1 is revenge.
The most unusual treatment of the subject occurs in the second Dollars film, For a Few Dollars More (1965), in which Eastwood’s Man With No Name teams up with a bounty hunter, Col. Mortimer, to track down a bandit named Indio. While flashbacks reveal that Indio raped Mortimer’s sister and killed her lover, Leone and his co-screenwriters complicate the audience’s feelings, portraying Indio not as a stock bad guy, but a man who acted from dark compulsion—and who uses opium to dull the memory of his crimes. Eastwood’s post-Leone films are likewise interested in the psychic toll exacted by violence and corruption on heroes, victims, and society. Eastwood’s violence is also Leone-esque, mixing operatic exaggeration with a down-and-dirty quality reminiscent of exploitation films and battlefield atrocity photos. When wronged characters finally get revenge, they receive only dark, momentary pleasure from it—nothing lasting, much less healing.
The undercurrents of despair, numbness and ugliness in Eastwood’s movies demand that they be taken seriously, as psychic X-rays of the species. Should they be? For all Leone’s sensitivity to fine shadings of feeling, the Mortimer-Indio conflict in For a Few Dollars More is still settled—finito!—with a bullet. Eastwood’s post-Leone pictures are similarly loyal to genre basics, whether the film is a star vehicle directed by someone else or a labor of love helmed by Eastwood himself.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door. To watch more of his video essays, visit Moving Image Source and The L Magazine. To read a full transcript of the video’s text, click here. To read and/or view Part 1, click here.