Of this quartet three are Spaghetti Westerns and one is an actual Western. I'll review them individually.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
It's strange to think that there's never been an honest film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest. There was an adaptation in 1930 called Roadhouse Nights, however 1961's Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa was more significant, and subsequently inspired this 1963 Western incarnation (as well as 1996's Last Man Standing).
Clint plays his signature man-with-no-name character, who rides into a lonely town where he finds two gangs at war with each other. Feeling that there might be some fistfuls of money to be made from the situation he plays both sides while reaping the benefits and rewards.
Since I have seen Last Man Standing many times much of this film was already familiar to me (the similarities are numerous) and therefor didn't draw me in, but I can certainly see the appeal. The dark humor transcends the time period and it's straight-forward enough to not alienate those who are not fans of spaghetti-westerns.
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Life is cheap out in the Old West, unless you're a bounty hunter, in which case it's a profitable way to make a living. With so many roustabouts getting up to no good it was inevitable that Indio, the biggest and baddest of all, would attract the attention of two men with very different motives.
Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and Monco (Eastwood) eventually cross paths and form a tenuous partnership to catch Indio, who has just been broken out of jail by his loyal men and is planning a big bank robbery. Mortimer and Monco work together, and against each other, in order to bring him in, and all his men, to maximize their rewards.
It's a long film, but it has enough time to indulge in over-the-top moments. I especially like Clint and Van Cleef squaring up to each other by shooting hats. It's ridiculous, but good. Some of the widescreen photography is particularly memorable. It's all grainy, gritty stuff but it's a rough edge you just don't get anymore, which is a loss to modern movie which all just look too slick.
Ennio Morricone also provides a wonderful score that's utterly timeless and turns many scenes into an overblown opera.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)
In the last of the so-called 'Dollars' trilogy Eastwood now plays a man called Blondie (despite clearly having brown hair) who has hooked up with Tuco, a bandit with an amusingly long list of crimes, to run a reward-and-release scam with various towns and cities across the Old West. Soon tiring of Tuco's behavior, Blondie ends their volatile partnership and heads off on his own.
Angered by the double-cross, Tuco exacts a laborious revenge on Blondie, but just as the punishment reaches its zenith under a burning hot sun in a remote part of the desert a wagon carrying dead Confederate soldiers interrupts. With his last breath, the sole surviving Rebel tells Tuco of a stash of treasure buried in a cemetery, and, while Tuco is distracted, tells Blondie what grave it is buried under. Their difficult partnership is quickly restored as they trek across the West, through Civil War conflicts, towards the treasure.
So far I've only covered the Good and Ugly. The Bad just so happens to be Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), a ruthless mercenary who has also learned of the hidden loot and eventually crosses paths with his rivals. He has the least screen time, but is necessary as a pure villain to lessen the crude vulgarity of Tuco.
It's a long film. But it's not about the destination, it's about the journey, and Sergio Leone allows himself plenty of time and space to indulge in quirky idiosyncrasies. I especially like Tuco having a bubble bath in the midst of his current location being blown to smithereens.
Villains always interest me, and actors mostly choose villains over heroes as they make for better characters. Blondie may comfort dying soldiers and play with kittens, but he's just too bland. Angel Eyes, is hardcore, and a better character, but he's nothing compared to Tuco. Eli Wallach owns this film, and takes most of the screen time away from Eastwood and Van Cleef. The scene where he searches the cemetery, as the camera spins around and around and around has such a beautiful innocence to it. Even though Tuco may have killed and robbed many this scene makes him seem like an easily excitable child at heart. It's absolutely wonderful.
If you've got an evening free, and just don't know how to spend 3 otherwise empty hours, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a fine way to spend them.
Hang 'Em High (1968)
Clint plays Jed Cooper, a cowpoke who is escorting his new herd across a river when he is ambushed by a posse who accuse him of being a murdering rustler. Satisfied with hanging him on the spot, they take off, leaving him there. But Cooper ain't quite dead yet, and after being acquitted by a hardcore Judge (Pat Hingle) he's recruited as a lawman to go after the men who saw fit to hang him without fair trial.
I suppose it's a western Death Wish, but it has a strong anti-capital punishment theme. Cooper may be out for revenge, but he still believes in a fair trial and stands up for those who deserve leniency. It's also the first time I've really seen Clint in a vulnerable role, and Dirty Harry director Ted Post manages the lengthy, and well-written dialogue scenes well. I just wish he shot the film in a scope aspect ratio as the flat-shot photography often makes it look like an old TV movie.
Not a classic, but it does have some powerful scenes that will stay with you and really make you think about taking a life for taking a life.
All four movies are presented in 1080p in their OAR (the first in 2.40:1 and the last in 1.85:1) with appropriately grainy transfers and minimal print damage and DTS HD-MA sound. A fair amount of extras are included.