Sex and the Single Gunslinger
Movies featured in this here essay: Sergio Leone's spaghetti western trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
There’s something deliciously ripe going on in director Sergio Leone’s deservedly popular spaghetti western trilogy, featuring A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. These stylized studies of frontier brutality are orgies of more than simply violence. Early on Leone develops a schtick around the incessant inhalation of noxious substances derived from the tobacco plant and the recurrent deployment of handheld projected missiles that he soon builds to a fevered crescendo in the middle child of his trio, For a Few Dollars More. He indulges in a certain sexually-charged imagery lifted straight from film noir, but which he adeptly adapts to the demands and rigors of the spaghetti western genre of which he was both creator and master. Though Leone appears to back off some from the first two film’s steady leer in the series wildly successful finale, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I reckon an argument could be made that it’s really just an elaborately staged menage a trois between Eli Wallach, Lee van Cleef and Clint Eastwood. Anyways, throughout his magnificent trilogy, Leone crams his work with the sorta man on man action that would have made those most infamous ancient Greeks proud.
Sergio Leone’s Wild West is a man’s world. That may not be strong enough. It’s more like a man’s MAN’S world. The only women on display here are either idealized madonnas or sluttish tramps; put another way, they are women you can only dream of having, or those you simply wouldn’t dream of having. Women are an afterthought throughout Leone’s west, and there ain’t much evidence that the men are competing for their affections. So, in this land nearly bereft of female presence, where women folk are rarely seen and never heard, what are the men to do with all that pent up energy? Why, they play with their guns. That, and they light up. Constantly. The ubiquitous tobacco smoking vessels, whether cigars, cigarettes or pipes, and the lighting of same becomes a ritual that brims with either homo-eroticism or naked aggression (or, as I am wont to say, why not both?) When Lee van Cleef strikes a match on the hunchback of a young and deranged-looking Klaus Kinski (which distinguishes him in only one way from his later roles), he’s laying claim to territory AND igniting a spark (in more ways than one.) It is an act that is equal parts seduction and consummation. Van Cleef has a well-groomed, high-cheek-boned androgyny which is accentuated by his designer handgun that comes with its own extra-long handle for greater accuracy (heh!) This is a gun, by the by, which Eastwood’s character attempts to diminish by claiming he’d be ashamed to possess such a weapon. Their partnership in For a Few Dollars More is built on an interesting contrast—Eastwood is young (van Cleef calls him "boy"), masculine, cigar-smoking rugged, pre-verbal man of action, while the elder (Eastwood calls him "old man") van Cleef is more elegant, feline (love those whiskers), verbose, refined, pipe-smoking man with a plan. This is the sorta mentorship relationship that juiced up a lotta those Greek philosopher's sex lives, and it seems rather transparent that this pair is the western’s version of the romcom’s feuding love puppies.
The lighting and smoking of the phallic cigars/cigarettes/pipes frequently occur in a sexual framework reminiscent of the best noirs, such as all those sexy Bogie/Bacall/Huston films, where smoking is used pre- and post-coitally (it’s also used as a substitute for sex), and more interestingly, in perhaps my favourite example of nascent oral fixation, Simon Renant’s charged and sexually ambiguous deployment of cigarettes and their evocatively sultry smoke in Clouzot’s Quai des Orfevres. But what is interesting with Leone, what is unusual and perhaps even unique--for its time, at least--is the use of tobacco smoking in a muy-masculine milieu in a decidedly homo-erotic manner.
The fellas in Leone’s films are seething cesspools of hatred and frustration whose only satisfaction—however fleeting—is found in pursuit and acquisition of money, mostly through the capturing and/or extermination of other men. But to what purpose? The violence verges mighty close to being an end in and of itself. After all, the gun play (do we have to cite Freud here on the sexual significance of guns? I think not) is essential to their identity and masculinity. The real man is quick on the draw, and shoots with deadly accuracy. Leone also has his characters use their weapon playfully—witness, for example, the first meeting of Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Lee Van Cleef’s Col. Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More, where the two men exchange opportunities to show off their talents with their weapons by blasting the other man’s hat all over the dusty streets of Sante Fe. Tying it all nicely together with the aforementioned smoke-as-sex imagery, each man impressed by the other’s dexterity soon become partners. How to consummate such a relationship? Why, light up, of course!