Was watching Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More again for a piece I'm writing for The Believer on sequels. The DVDs have interviews with Christopher Frayling, Leone's biographer; Frayling talks about the acting style of Gian Maria Volonte, the bad guy. Volonte, he says, had had a distinguished career on the stage and had an extremely theatrical, flamboyant style which stood in sharp contrast to the laconic, understated style of Eastwood; by the time Leone made For a Few Dollars More he was starting to get irritated by the excesses of Volonte, to the point of having him make multiple takes of the same scene to wear him down. I'd always heard the same thing of Leone's method in directing Rod Steiger in Fistful of Dynamite: Steiger would put in an explosive performance and Leone would say: That's amazing, Rod, absolutely amazing, could you do that for me just one more time? And he would have Steiger do the scene again and again until he was worn out and the performance was what Leone was looking for.
Interesting because so radically different from Kurosawa's use of Mifune (star of Yojimbo, the film which inspired Fistful of Dollars). When Kurosawa first saw Mifune's audition for the studio's talent search Mifune was hurling himself around the stage in a frenzy, like a wild animal; Kurosawa knew he would offend the studio aparatchiks and made a personal appeal to the jury to give this extraordinary talent a chance. When he used Mifune in Drunken Angel, with Shimura Takashi, he commented that Mifune's performance threw off the balance of the film - Shimura, as the alcoholic doctor, was excellent, but Mifune was completely overpowering.
And yet a film director can rejoice over a marvelous asset only to have it turn into a terrible burden. If I let Mifune in his role of the gangster become too attractive, the balance with his adversary, the doctor played by Shimura Takashi, would be destroyed. If this should occur, the result would be a distortion of the film's overall structure. Yet to suppress Mifune's attractiveness at the blossoming point of his career because of the need for balance in the structure of my film would be a waste. And in fact Mifune's attraction was something his innate and powerful qualities pushed unwittingly to the fore; there was no way to prevent him from emerging as too attractive on the screen other than keeping him off the screen. I was caught in a real dilemma. Mifune's attractiveness gave me joy and pain at the same time.
Drunken Angel came to life in the midst of these contradictions. My dilemma did indeed warp the structure of the drama, and the theme of the film became somewhat indistinct. But as a result of my battle with the wonderful qualities called Mifune the whole job became for me a liberation from something resembling a spiritual prison. Suddenly I found myself on the outside.
The drunken-doctor performance Shimura gave was a superb 90 percent, but because his adversary, Mifune, turned in 120 percent I had to feel a little sorry for him.
(Something Like an Autobiography, p 162)