Sergio Leone didn’t invent the so-called “Spaghetti Western,” but it’s this trilogy and Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) that people think of when they hear the term. Fair enough. Leone took a B-movie genre that emerged in 1961 and, engaging Clint Eastwood and composer Ennio Morricone, developed a new style, new feel, and new myth for the Old West.

The early Spaghetti Westerns were low-budget films made in Italian that were badly dubbed and shot in Spain with bare-bones camerawork. They emerged at a time when Italian filmmakers were also cranking out Hercules movies and other tales of classical mythology. It’s the myth that interested them, and also Leone–who retained some of the cinematographic conventions and, working with a much higher budget, proceeded to put on his own distinctive stamp.

In the Hollywood Westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, it was always good guys versus bad. There was no gray area, and the Western hero was often an outsider–a stranger who came to a town in trouble and used his skills to save the meek and the weak from the domination of cattle barons, town bosses, crooked sheriffs, gunslingers, marauding bandits, or Indians on the warpath. The mystery wasn’t whether he was good or not. You could see it in his eyes and the way he related to people that he had a respect for common folks and a highly developed sense of right and wrong–even if his idea of the “law” was more in keeping with the lawless West than those who would try to civilize it.

In “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), Eastwood’s character still retains elements of the Western hero as deus ex machine. From the minute he rides into town and sees a young boy run from one house to another, then pushed down by a man who proceeds to shoot at the boy’s feet, you can tell that this Man with No Name is sympathetic. His past is still mysterious, but it’s also a mystery when and if he’ll do something to help. He’s by no means indifferent, but in Leone’s West, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, and sometimes that means doing nothing. When a saloonkeeper (José Calvo) tells him that in this town people end up very rich or very dead, you don’t have to squint to see that the Man with No Name plans on being one of the rich ones . . . and if in the process he’s able to help some of the people besides himself, so be it.

That opening sequence with two houses and a boy caught in the middle is a visual metaphor for the situation in which No Name finds himself-or rather, plans to plant himself: squarely in the middle of the two powerbrokers in town, one group a bunch of gun traders led by the crooked town sheriff, John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), and the other a bunch of liquor traders led by the Rojo brothers (Antonio Prieto, Sieghardt Rupp, Gian Maria Volante). The first question No Name asks the saloonkeeper says it all: who’s the strongest? That would be Ramon Rojo (Volante), who, it turns out, is also responsible for breaking up the family we saw in the opening sequence, taking the boys mother (Marianne Koch as Marisol) for himself after claiming her husband cheated him in cards. In playing the two groups off of each other, No Name devises a strategy that targets Ramon. Why would he help them, Marisol wants to know. “Because I knew someone like you once. And there was no one there to help.”

Leone’s Westerns are moody and heavily atmospheric, and a year later, with “For a Few Dollars More,” he would demonstrate how thoroughly he understood the relationship between music, action, and long takes. The right combination creates a tension every bit as effective as we saw with psychological Westerns like “High Noon” (1952) and the original “3:10 to Yuma” (1957). It’s Leone’s mastery of tension and his tightly cropped verticals on a horizontal, Techniscope field (which adds to the tension by reinforcing a sense of discomfort or constriction) that make “For a Few Dollars More” one of the most effective Spaghetti Westerns. It’s certainly my favorite of this trio.

“For a Few Dollars More” (1965) pairs Eastwood with Lee Van Cleef in a tale of two bounty killers (not “hunters,” mind you) who first compete and then team up to tackle a 14-member gang led by the ruthless El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte), who himself has a $10,000 price tag on his head. Indio is also a madman who needs marijuana to calm him down. But the fun in this film comes from watching two professionals go about their business, gain each other’s respect, and play cat-and-mouse with each other as they try to figure out how to best capture this gang. It involves much research, but when their plan goes awry and the Indio gang hits the biggest bank in the territory, their best chance lies with one of them trying to infiltrate the gang so when the shooting starts they have one of them on the inside and one on the outside.

That’s the premise, and there’s a nice, sustained tension throughout the film, with Eastwood and Van Cleef a delight to watch. Same with Volonte, who plays his second villain with even more relish this time around. The only thing that snapped me out of the illusion of being right there in the middle of things was a night scene in which the two bounty hunters square off, and I could swear I saw the glint of a helicopter in the top part of the screen. Oops.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) gets the nod from most critics as the cream of this crop, but as I said, I thought the second film was the strongest. It had the most engaging plot, a solid through-line that kept moving forward, pacing that produced tension and never felt plodding, and the best showcase for Eastwood and Van Cleef. By contrast, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” does feel long, and part of it has to do with how fragmentized the plot is. At the core is another competition–this time between three bounty hunters looking for buried Confederate gold–but because the stage shifts from ghost towns to Civil War battles to prison camps to desert isolation, and because there are more double crosses than in the other movies, it can start to feel a little convoluted. Joining Eastwood and Van Cleef is perennial Western star Eli Wallach (“The Magnificent Seven”) as Tuco.

Eastwood has a name in this one (“Blondie”), so the Man with No Name Trilogy is a little misleading. In “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Blondie and Tuco work a con game where Blondie turns in Tuco to collect a reward, then shoots the rope just as the hangman pulls the lever in order to save him so they can ride off and pull the con off on another town. But partnerships like this don’t last, and one good double-cross deserves another. Somehow (and here’s where it can get confusing) Tuco learns from a dying Bill Carson that Confederate gold is buried in a cemetery, and learns which cemetery . . . but not which grave. But Blondie finds out, and that leaves the two former partners with two pieces of the puzzle. A third person named Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) is also after the gold.

More than the first two films, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” has an epic feel, and it’s precisely because of the fractured narrative and different locations and situations that the characters find themselves in. It’s a little Western, a little war movie, a little bit survival film, and a little bit of a treasure-hunt film, spanning a greater length of time than the first two films and inserting on-screen commentary (“The Ugly,” “The Bad,” “The Good”) as teasing and tantalizing bits of information for the audience to digest–in much the same way as “The Sting” gave audiences a running visual commentary.

In this film especially, Leone relies on extreme close-ups and severe cropping, as if reveling in the brutal and grotesque, and he works the reaction shots like a prima ballerina working the audience for more applause. The director really knows how to milk each scene for every ounce of tension and emotion, and that continues in his third installment of the Eastwood trilogy. Each film becomes just a little more epic than the one before it, so that by the time he gets to “Once Upon a Time in the West” without Eastwood and Van Cleef, he tries to tell the story of the whole American West.

Fans of Westerns will love this “Man with No Name Trilogy.” I certainly did, though I think the second film the strongest. I’d have to give all three films an 8 out of 10, with the middle installment scoring a little higher. And “in Blu-ray, they look better than ever. The three single-sided discs are housed on plastic pages in a slightly larger jewel case and tucked inside a cardboard slipcase.

All three films are presented in 2.35:1 Techniscope widescreen in Technicolor, and the films have a nice amount of detail, especially in two-shots and close-ups. However, they’re far from perfect. Long shots and panoramic views of the landscape in particular are subject to atmospheric noise, and there are some flaws in the film stock that weren’t cleaned up in the remastering process–flickers of dirt and such. Some of those exterior scenes can look a little soft. Of the three, the middle film looks the best, with consistently good color saturation and edge delineation.

All three films were transferred 50-gig discs using AVC/MPEG-4 technology–“A Fistful of Dollars” at 36.5 MBPS, “For a Few Dollars More” at 29.6 MBPS, and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” at 18 MBPS. Each film features an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio. “A Fistful of Dollars” is also available in French Dolgy Digital 5.1 and English and Spanish Mono, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French. “For a Few Dollars More” features English and Spanish Mono, with English SDH and Spanish subtitles. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” offers German 5.1 DTS, Spanish, French, and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital, English Mono, and the original Italian Mono, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai.

My only quarrel with the sound is in the channeling. In the attempt to make the soundtrack more immersive and dynamic, the 5.1 mix sometimes goes a little overboard in dealing with conversations. When you have two people talking in a two-shot the sound is at one level, but when the camera cuts to a close-up of one of those people during the conversation, the other person’s voice is muffled and shunted to a side speaker. It can be a little annoying at first, until you get the feel for the way the soundtrack has been channeled.

Here are the bonus features from the three discs, which are housed in a single-width jewel case:

“A Fistful Of Dollars” bonus features:
–The Christopher Frayling Archives: “A Fistful of Dollars”
–Commentary by Film Historian Christopher Frayling
–A New Kind of Hero
–A Few Weeks in Spain: Clint Eastwood on the Experience of Making the Film
–Tre Voci: “A Fistful of Dollars”
–Not Ready for Primetime: Renowned Filmmaker Monte Hellman discusses the Television Broadcast of “A Fistful of Dollars”
–The Network Prologue with Actor Harry Dean Stanton
–Location Comparisons: Then to Now
–10 Radio Spots
–2 Theatrical Trailers

“For A Few Dollars More” bonus features:
–The Christopher Frayling Archives: “For A Few Dollars More”
–Commentary by Film Historian Christopher Frayling
–A New Standard: Frayling on “For A Few Dollars More”
–Back for More: Clint Eastwood Remembers “For A Few Dollars More”
–Tre Voci: “For A Few Dollars More”
–“For A Few Dollars More”: The Original American Release Version
–Location Comparisons
–12 Radio Spots
–2 Theatrical Trailers

“The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” bonus features:
–Commentary by Film Historian Richard Schickel
–Commentary by Film Historian Christopher Frayling
–Leone’s West
–The Leone Style
–The Man Who Lost the Civil War
–Reconstructing “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”
–IL Maestro: Ennio Morricone and “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” – Parts 1 and 2
–Deleted Scenes
–Extended Tuco Torture Scene
–The Socorro Sequence: A Reconstruction
–4 Easter Eggs (Uno, Due, Tre; Italian Lunch; New York Actor; Gun in Holster)
–Theatrical Trailer
–French Trailer

All of the features are in standard definition except for the Frayling Archives extras, which find the historian talking about each film while showing us objects from his collection. Some of the highlights: In “A New Kind of Hero,” Frayling talks about how “A Fistful of Dollars” is similar to Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” but with elements that make it a totally different film. History buffs will like “The Man Who Lost the Civil War,” about a Confederate general who thought the key was the American West. And the commentary tracks are a collective highlight, each one of them better than average.

Bottom Line:
Westerns were never the same after Sergio Leone. Suddenly anti-heroes were “in,” and the gritty realism that Leone sought was quickly adopted by other filmmakers. “The Man with No Name Trilogy” is an excellent Blu-ray, and every gritty detail comes to life in 1080p.