There are plenty of strong contenders, like Toy Story and Lord of the Rings, but Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy is the best movie trilogy ever made.
Whenever the question of the greatest movie trilogy ever made is posed, a lot of usual suspects are bound to come up: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Toy Story trilogy, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a landmark technical achievement that adapted the unadaptable; the Toy Story trilogy tells three perfectly structured stories building up to an organic, definitive, heartstring-tugging conclusion (although it’s now marred by an unnecessary fourth installment); and the Before trilogy is one of the most powerful and emotionally engaging love stories ever told.
They’re all great trilogies – as are the Bourne, Evil Dead, and Back to the Future trilogies – but there’s one that tops them all. None of these trilogies have redefined a genre, captured the essence of cinema, and stood the test of time quite like Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy.
A lot of trilogies stumble on the third film, like the original Star Wars trilogy with the Ewoks and second Death Star in Return of the Jedi or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy with the emo behavior and multitude of villains in Spider-Man 3. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II could’ve been the greatest two-part movie ever made, but the unwelcome addition of The Godfather Part III has instead made Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece a subpar trilogy. Sometimes, trilogies suffer from one weak link, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Producing a perfect film trilogy is a lot trickier than it sounds. Making one great movie is a near-impossible feat; making three great movies, each one greater than the last, requires the assistance of divine intervention. The Dollars trilogy is perhaps the only movie trilogy with a great first movie, an even greater second movie, and an even greater third movie. And it doesn’t hurt that Ennio Morricone’s groundbreaking, operatic western music – just as recognizable as any of the themes composed by John Williams or Danny Elfman – permeates throughout each film.
The Dollars trilogy revolves around Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” character – also known as “Joe,” “Manco,” and “Blondie” – a cool-as-ice bounty hunter who wanders the dusty landscapes of the Old West in search of injustice. The trilogy kicked off with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, one of the most influential movies ever made. Through the lens of reimagining Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (so closely that it’s almost a shot-for-shot remake in some places), Leone used Fistful to define the spaghetti western. He’d grown up on John Ford’s classic westerns, enjoying the breathtaking cinematography and well-crafted action scenes but lamenting the black-and-white morals and tame violence. With its remorseless revisionist take on western iconography, A Fistful of Dollars launched an entire subgenre of blood-soaked Italian westerns.
It was such a cultural landmark that following it up with a sequel would’ve been considered a fool’s errand. But the Man with No Name returned in 1965’s For a Few Dollars More, in which he teamed up with a fellow sharpshooting antihero, played by a mesmerizing Lee Van Cleef, to bring in a heavily guarded bounty that neither of them could handle alone. This escalated the conflict from Fistful and told a brand-new story while remaining true to Eastwood’s character and Leone’s brutal vision of the West.
The third movie is often where a franchise drops the ball: Jaws 3-D, Superman III, Alien 3, Rambo III, Scream 3, Blade: Trinity, Batman Forever, X-Men: The Last Stand, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Halloween III: Season of the Witch – the list goes on and on and on. In the case of the Dollars trilogy, the third movie is by far the greatest.
After collaborating on two bona fide masterpieces, Eastwood and Leone managed to top their own achievements with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The 1966 threequel isn’t just the best Dollars movie; it might be the greatest western ever made. Leone uses another deceptively simplistic premise – this time, Blondie (“the good”) races two other guys (“the bad” and “the ugly”) to a cache of Confederate gold buried in a cemetery – to tell a quintessential adventure story on the frontier; a three-hour everything-but-the-kitchen-sink western epic.
All three movies in the Before trilogy are perfect, even bringing the story of Jesse and Céline to an end with just the right mix of closure and ambiguity in Before Midnight, but its dialogue-driven narratives would work just as well as a stage play. The Dollars trilogy, on the other hand, is pure cinema – and Leone’s command of cinematic techniques is unparalleled. The plot and character beats in the Dollars trilogy are conveyed entirely through sound and visuals, using recurring motifs like a music box that signifies Lee Van Cleef’s motivation for revenge. The climactic shootout in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has some of the sharpest editing in movie history, cutting between tighter and tighter closeups of the titular trio before they finally draw their pistols and fire.
Unlike Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, the Dollars trilogy doesn’t tell an ongoing, serialized story. In this sense, it’s a lot more like another common pick for the greatest film trilogy of all time: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Both the Dollars and Dark Knight trilogies consist of three separate character studies of an antihero linked together by a recurring cast. But the crucial difference with the Dollars trilogy is that the third chapter has the grandiosity and finality to feel like the conclusion of an ongoing narrative.
The finale is where Nolan’s trilogy didn’t manage to stick the landing. Batman Begins offered a refreshingly gritty portrait of the Bat and a more in-depth telling of his origin story than ever before. The Dark Knight followed it up with a standalone neo-noir that pits Bats against his arch-nemesis and holds up as arguably the ultimate Batman movie. Unfortunately, that became the trilogy’s downfall. The Dark Knight Rises couldn’t top The Dark Knight. Tom Hardy gives a delightfully eccentric performance as Bane, but it pales in comparison to the iconic sadism of Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker. In trying to top The Dark Knight, Nolan went too big and ended up staging the French Revolution on the streets of Gotham while Bruce Wayne was confined to a hole in the ground with a broken back for the majority of the runtime.
The shortcomings of overambitious finales like The Dark Knight Rises, Spider-Man 3, and The Matrix Revolutions make the craft, vibrancy, and timelessness of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly all the more impressive. And what’s even more impressive is that Leone made these movies a year apart. The makers of the Star Wars sequel trilogy had twice as long and couldn’t even come up with a coherent storyline.