Friday, 16 October 2015

A Dollar to Die For (1968) by Brian Fox- a review

When I first heard of this novel, I was hyped. It told the story of the continuing adventures of the Man with No Name. And not only that, but Tuco, that lovable buffoonish bandit of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, makes his only other official appearance.
The blurb had me worried, though. It told of "a murderous friendship based on greed and hate- which only one of the four could survive". I was depressed for a while. From the blurb, it looked to me like Tuco Ramirez, the character I related so much to in terms of being so energetic and accident prone, was really not going to make it this time. Images swam through my imagination as to how the story would progress. Does he die or not? What were the chases like? Does Pablo return? Despite myself, I finally went ahead and bought the book.
I was pleased to find out he lives! His subplot, however, was adequate.
The story introduces us first to the Man with No Name, bringing in an outlaw for the money and then freeing him, as he did with Tuco. He's out to capture a presumably "half-Apache" criminal named Pinky Roebuck, who has the distinction of being a charismatic Albino.
The MacGuffin of the story is the gold that the Count de Cabronet failed to send puppet Emperor Maximilian to save his life. I like the presentation of authority brutality in the story. There's a short scene where the greedy and corrupt governor kills the guard who had slipped Maximilian the note telling him he would be saved while torturing him for information. It's a nice demonstration how in such a huge political crisis, no side is innocent.

On that note, despite supporting a capitalist dictatorship, the Count de Cabronet is far too benevolent to be considered a threat. De Cabronet reminds me of the Baxters from 'A Fistful of Dollars'. Apart from attempting to free the pawn of a tyrant, who is portrayed in a sympathetic light here, he doesn't really do anything all that bad towards the other couple of guys. In fact, greed and dodgy political views aside, he's about Blondie's moral level. No wonder the bounty hunter trusts him.
The Mexican Army is out to recover the money, and Sgt. Tuco Ramirez is among them. That part surprised me. Those who have seen him in GBU will know that Tuco is not a political man, and finds war and rebellion just an obstacle in the way of money. I didn't think he'd actually find his way into that sort of thing.

I liked Tuco when he was just a tinhorn bandit. He was the constant victim of pratfalls and outright horrible luck. He constantly got tied up, nearly hanged and then left behind in the desert only to start mouthing off like he had suffered a breakup. And his obsessive determined revenge against Blondie, like that of a rejected lover, was a distinguishing and relatable feature, and so petty it was hilarious.  The fact that he's so down and out was a constant source of humor, and I think that if Brian Fox had taken a different creative direction he'd have made the book as funny as the movie that inspired it.
Reading this, I feel like he's changed so much that I barely recognize him anymore.
He's still energetic and very entertaining to read about, but I think he could have suffered a little more consistently. We could have laughed at him a bit more. His humour is what makes him one of the greatest movie characters of all time.
Also, Fox is mean to him. He calls him ugly constantly. I know that's his designation, but the point is he's ugly on the inside. And Eli Wallach was one handsome fellow, up until the age of about 60.

After killing De Cabronet's men, Sgt. Ramirez and his fellow bandits murder members of their own company, and Tuco promotes himself to General. As highly as he thinks of himself, he wouldn't go shouting that out in a forest. He'd know that he'd get caught and somebody would be listening. Even joining the army in the first place is out of character for him, or at least lasting in the army without getting fired for speaking out of turn or something.
Another thing, he keeps calling himself Tuco the Terrible. Yeah, that caught on really well.
While that went on, Blondie captures Pinky Roebuck, who is a fairly interesting character, if not merely delightfully evil. He's like this charismatic Giuliano Gemma type, only, you know, a terrifying albino. They find De Cabronet with his throat cut, but alive, so Blondie saves his life and the Count informs them about the gold that Tuco and his buddies made off with.
Meanwhile "General Tuco", having hidden De Cabronet's gold in various places and replaced the money in his men's bags with rocks, is out partying, and passes out by the well. Apaches attack the town, kill Tuco's men and take him hostage, mistaking him for someone more important than he really is. Pinky arrives, interrogates him, and for a moment we're on his side, despite the fact that Tuco is frightened out of his wits. We know what Tuco did and we want him to be punished, although he could have had more to happen to him that he didn't deserve, until we find out that Roebuck's going to double-cross Blondie as well to get the gold for himself.

And here's where it gets weird. The book has this bit where Apaches would stake their prisoner on an anthill and have ants eat them alive. I don't know if that's a real Apache form of torture or not. It sounds really made up. Maybe Fox was racist against Native Americans, I dunno. It seemed really pointless to kill a bunch of guys who aren't interested in gold.
I think at this point I'd have instead had Blondie and Tuco, tied together against a tree, attempt to get out, instead of having Apaches slash their shoulders with spears as they remained trussed up there. That would have been true to the spirit of their relationship. Then they'd have had a chance to turn on Pinky together. That I'd have liked to see.
But no, instead Blondie had to have that ant thing happen to him, almost, so that this Cabronet he trusts can save him. Sure, Cabronet abandons him as well, but I'll get to that later.

Meanwhile Pinky is leading the captive Tuco through the desert and the poor bandit is starved half to death. That big beautiful body of his (which Fox doesn't speak of so favourably) has pretty much shrunk as he bravely refuses to tell Pinky where he hid the money. He's depressed and drained of energy, and at this point, we really feel bad for him.
It's sort of the same thing that Tuco himself had put Blondie through in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, only the physical effects on him are described to be much worse. 
It also recalls the horrible beating that he took in the Union camp on orders from Angel Eyes, and yet again here he gets his revenge.
We start to root for him as he turns the tables on the albino Apache, tying him to a tree and making off with the gold. If I were Tuco, I'd have killed Roebuck for what he did to me.

What I like about the book is that there's moments of peace. There's moments where our bandido can just kick back and relax and once more, you feel it with him. You feel his health returning and you can't help but smile with him.
There are few funny moments in the novel, but one is where he's dreaming that a beautiful woman is touching his shoulder when really it's Captain Alvarez. You can just picture his expression, a goofy, sleepy smile morphing into a mask of dread.

The last act of the book was rather weak.
Tuco is found by Captain Alvarez and promoted to Lieutenant, then found by Blondie. They kill the Mexican soldiers to get to the gold and it's all a confusing mess. De Cabronet joins the fight, but his leg gets wounded, and Pinky and Tuco get turned in for their crimes against humanity. I don't understand why Pinky had to survive, other than the fact that Blondie is all too generous. We know the guy is worse than the Apaches, and yet the Apaches die for their trouble.
Good news is, Blondie yanks open the jail cell window because he feels that "a world without Tuco would be far less interesting." I knew it! He does feel something for him!

This book was just okay. Not good, not bad. But it has serious problems with characterizion, the most glaring example being Tuco. Fox gets a fair grasp of his personality but chooses to portray him as more of a stereotypical bandido than the complex, morally ambiguous figure he is. Also, he doesn't call Blondie "Blondie". I wonder why Fox made that choice.

Good news is, Blondie yanks open the jail cell window so he and Tuco can start their cat-and-mouse chase all over again. If there's one thing I'm satisfied with about the ending, it's the positive possiblity that Tuco escapes. As I said before, there's none of that wonderful vengeful, aggressive, attentive, behaviour between these two, behaviour which challenged heterosexual norms. In fact, their relationship can be compared more to Do-won and Tae-goo from The Good, the Bad, the Weird than to themselves. 

This book was decent. There were a lot of things to enjoy about it. Things like Tuco's emotions were very well described. As usual, at times you really felt what he was going through, as soon as he wanders into Tyopa and collapses by the well. The violence makes the action in the movies look tame. There's not just guns, there's knives in it as well. And for some reason, ants.
I just wonder how such an ambitious premise would turn out in the hands of a different writer. Not that Fox's writing was bad, I just wonder if it would have turned out better in the hands of a different writer. How would Sergio Leone have handled the characters? Would he have made Blondie and Tuco still as emotionally close as they were in GBU? Would the characters have received expansion and development? Who can tell? Probably. Almost certainly.
Although the novella is studio approved, it's nothing more than just glorified fanfiction. Since this belongs to a series which demystifies the Man with No Name's backstory, it's safe to say that the events of this book never really happened in the story's canon.
On the whole, it's not as good as it could have been, but if you're really curious, maybe check it out.






2 comments:

  1. Nice break down of things, man! I haven't ever seen this talked about much before, but similar to you, I'd tracked the book down after a hideous amount of rewatches of the film left me curious.

    It's incredibly flawed, haha. I'd read the tie in of GBU before hand, (written by Joe Millard, I believe) and while this is at least as character assassination-y as that first offering, I can at least credit it as being the better written of the two. There were sections that seemed to have a reasonable grip of Tuco's personality, but a lot of it seemed at odds with what we know about him. I could discuss Tuco's personality for days, (I agree - Tuco in the army? Pah!) but for the sake of brevity I'll say he's a lot flatter here, sadly rendered into a more typical "dirty bandit" stereotype.

    Now, as for it being official? Naaaah. As far as canon goes, Tuco's story begins and ends with the film. While it might have had studio approval, neither Luciano Vincenzoni or Sergio Leone had any input whatsoever. It's one of many cheap pulp novels that came around that era, and it can be safely written off as the product of an author being hired to watch the film and pump out a series of quick sequels.

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    1. I agree, it is just a fanfiction of sorts. Tuco is a bit flatter and why would he want to join the army, even though the novel gives a logical explanation? I also don't get the "Aiiies".
      Like I said, his really emotional moments are where the author gets a good grasp. His fear under capture from the Apaches, his depression in the desert, and his joy after saving himself. Those are the strongest writing points.
      I would want to adapt this film and change it around so it flows a bit more.

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