Oscar-winning superstar Clint Eastwood‘s filmography is just too large and too juicy to choose only five from, so to make the picking and choosing easier, I’ll go decade by decade, starting with the 1960s—the decade that made Eastwood a star.
Obviously, the 1960s are easier to choose from with only seven titles, but I still have to rank them.
- Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Thanks to the Man With No Name, Eastwood was already a star and well on his way to becoming a superstar when he shared the screen with Richard Burton in this exciting and deliciously violent man-on-a-mission blockbuster. It was a monster hit, so Eastwood would never have to co-star again unless it was his choice.
- Hang ‘Em High (1968)
Hollywood’s attempt at producing a Spaghetti Western works surprisingly well, maybe because Malpaso (Eastwood’s just-created production company) was behind it. The plot is pretty straightforward: Jed Cooper (Clint) is lynched for a crime he didn’t commit, left for dead, survives, and sets out to bring his would-be murderers to justice.
What really works is Eastwood’s star power and the movie’s style.
Gritty, violent, fast-paced, and very well cast… On top of Eastwood, you have the beautiful (and doomed) Inger Stevens, Ed Begley, Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson, Sam Peckinpah favorite L.Q. Jones, and a couple of kids named Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern.
- A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Other than watching Eastwood become a star (in a role first offered to Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson), something else I love about what is now called the “Dollars Trilogy” is watching Sergio Leone discover who he is as a director.
A Fistful of Dollars was 34-year-old Leone’s second time behind the camera; he had no budget (reportedly around $250,000), so he poured everything he had into the film’s style and not only created a box office hit and a career for himself, he made an enduring classic. This plagiaristic remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 classic Yojimbo has lost nothing over 57 years. It’s still exciting, mythic, mean as a rabid dog, tough, and cool as hell.
Ennio Morricone (credited as Dan Savio), who would score the entire trilogy, works a miracle here and lifts the movie to a whole other level.
- For a Few Dollars More (1965)
Due to the Kurosawa lawsuit (which Leone would lose), Fistful would not be released in the U.S. until 1967, but it still broke records in Italy, and Leone immediately went ahead with his sequel, this one with a larger budget (somewhere between $500,00 and $700,000).
Full of style, violence, cruelty (that mother and her baby!), and wit, here is where the operatic began to creep into Leone’s work (that’s a compliment) and where Leone’s gift for perfect casting is apparent. Gian Maria Volonté is still one of the most formidable and charismatic antagonists Eastwood has ever faced, and who can ever say enough about Klaus Kinski and Lee Van Cleef?
Van Cleef lighting that match off of Kinski’s deformed hump… Throughout this classic you find yourself frequently laughing out loud without realizing it.
Eastwood’s power as a star, presence, and actor is forever cemented here. Surrounded by Big Performances in a production filled with flamboyance, he owns the screen with his stillness.
Has there ever been a better “sizing up” scene than Eastwood and Van Cleef shooting up each other’s hats?
This one also contains my favorite Morricone score of the three.
With a reported budget of about $1.2 million, Leone created an unforgettable epic that is now remembered, rightly, as one of the greatest movies ever made.
In Lee Van Cleef, and most especially Eli Wallach, Leone finds two of the screen’s most unforgettable villains. I would go so far as to argue that Wallach steals the movie from Clint.
Not a single one of its 161 minutes is wasted. In fact, this movie is so perfect that the extended version, which is supposedly the director’s cut, adds about 18 minutes that feel so out of place, I plunked down some serious money for a Blu-ray copy of the original.
All I can tell you is that I love the “Dollars Trilogy” so much that it was what I chose to inaugurate my new high-def projector with a few years ago—and I think I’m going to watch it again this weekend.
P.S. Although Eastwood is advertised as The Man with No Name, he actually does have (or is given) a name in each of these. In Fistful he’s called “Joe.” In Dollars he’s called “Manco” (which means “one-armed”). In Ugly, he’s “Blondie.”