For a genre like the spaghetti western, seemingly built on the principles of imitation, it seems like repetition would be a predictable and profitable model to follow. And you would think any film firmly entrenched in that school of thought would garner a bit more appreciation from the genres fans. But the problem with Three Silver Dollars (1968) aka Dai nemici mi guardo io! (I Protect Myself Against My Enemies) is that while it follows spaghetti western tropes, it approaches them in a different manner. It’s not an out and out parody of the Italian western, as in Mario Bava’s Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970) or My Name is Trinity (1970), but it pokes fun at the genre and borrows so much from the proceeding films that it’s like a sly reinterpretation of some of its predecessors.
And of course, one should always assume, right off the bat, that the film borrows heavily and symbolically from Sergio Leone’s films, which of course the whole genre riffed off on to some extent. If one is looking for a standard late 1960s anti-hero set on a vicious course of revenge, look elsewhere, but, if one is inclined to allow the riffing on a genre to destroy some of the mythos, then this film is surprisingly entertaining. A bit of prior knowledge of the Italian western genre is also needed to let the influences wash over the viewer.
This 1968 film stars the American Charles Southwood, who got his start in Italian westerns the same year that Three Silver Dollars was released in the Demofilo Fidani western Straniero… fatti il segno della croce! Charles Southwood was the actors given name and not an invented take on the legend of the genre Clint Eastwood. Southwood, a capable actor, with the looks, mannerism and physicality for these films, sadly, only appeared in ten films, with five being in Italian westerns, including Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, and starring alongside George Hilton in I am Sartana… Trade your Guns for a Coffin (1970) and Guns for Dollars (1971).
Director Mario Amendola specialized in comedy films prior to Three Silver Dollars and is probably best remembered for contributing to the screenplays of some of Sergio Corbucci’s westerns, such as The Great Silence (1968) and Sonny and Jed (1972). Amendola accumulated 167 writing credits, including a fair share of Italian westerns, and worked in and out of varying genres, with comedy making up the majority of his work. Even some of Amendola’s spaghetti writing credits were interlaced with some comedy and lightheartedness, including the Peter Lee Lawrence vehicle Killer Goodbye (1968), which mixes romance and a fair share of action, and the vastly underrated Shoot, Gringo Shoot! (1968), which featured the actor Brian Kelly (best known as Porter Ricks in the 1960s television series Flipper). So, with a director specializing in comedies, a story that bordered on plagiarism, and an ending unlike anything else in the genre, the only way to view this film is as a gentle mockery of its source genre.
The story revolves around three silver dollars with numbers engraved in them that tells where a fortune in two million dollars was buried by the confederate army. The lazy, drifting cowboy Alan Burton (Charles Southwood), the hero of our story, is stranded in the desert when his horse dies, but gets a lift from a passing stagecoach. As the coach makes its trek through the arid locale, it is set upon by a group of bandits, and one by one the personnel and passengers are shot down, until a confederate Major is seemingly the only one left alive. The resourceful Alan hides on the side of the coach during the slaughter and as the bandits attempt to whisk away the Major, Alan shoots the men down one by one. In the ensuing chaos, the remaining bandit shoots the Major. Alan comes to the aid of the dying soldier and is told part of the story of the three silver dollars, an obvious take on a similar scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1968). In that film a wounded man recounts a story of buried treasure to Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Blondie (Clint Eastwood), who learn its loose location. Similarly, Three Silver Dollars has three competitors for the fortune.
What you have in Three Silver Dollars is the “good,” in the form of laconic drifter Alan Burton, the “bad” in a character named Hondo (Julian Mateos), who follows along behind Alan and saves his hide multiple times until a shaky partnership is formed, and the “ugly” in a villain called El Condor (Mirko Ellis). He’s a nasty sort who lives a life of crime, though he fervently prays to the lord and tries to cleanse himself of his sins, but never really corrects his evil ways. El Condor has come into possession of one of the three coins after he raids a small ranch owned by one of the coin’s original owners.
There is also a love interest, Julia (Alida Chelli), who engages Alan with a tale of her father’s ranch back in Tennessee, which awaits her if only a man would agree to accompany her there. This story is delivered in response to Alan’s predictable question, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” In an odd twist, Julia has a stalker named Garcia (Ivano Staccioli), who is put there to cast doubt on a few important scenes. When he forces himself on Julia, proclaiming, “I will make you love me,” his reward is a knife in the belly and a town happy to be rid of him.
In his pursuit of the silver dollars, Alan infiltrates El Condor’s gang, by assuming the identity of a dead bandit. But his real motivation is ultimately revealed to El Condor, who tortures him to learn the location of all three coins; at least until he is rescued by Hondo. While not totally relying on Leone for its finale, it borrows something from the Giuliano Gemma film Blood for a Silver Dollar (1965), in that a silver dollar stops a bullet from killing Alan.
The direction on this film is excellent and the cinematography is engrossing to say the least. The cinematographer was the great Aldo Giordani, whose work on both Trinity is My Name and Trinity is Still My Name (1971), has the same breathtaking clarity that gives the films a larger scope and emphasizes how the narratives straddles the line between absurdity and realism. The soundtrack contributed by Carlo Rustichelli is undeniably brilliant and ranks right up there with his work on Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964).
Thus, if you look at this film as a lighthearted adventure film, and an early genre parody, Three Silver Dollars becomes much more enjoyable and even trespasses into the higher echelon of the genre’s offerings. Even the gunplay is presented at two different extremes, ranging from a scene where Alan’s skills are painstakingly challenged in order to be accepted into El Condor’s gang, to the violent if whimsical conclusion that turns genres convention on its head. [Spoilers:] Alan is shot down by Hondo, who breaks their alliance, but springs from the ground after the bullet is deflected. Incredibly, he is sick of his pursuit of this treasure — which would be sacrilegious in films like Five Thousand Dollars on One Ace (1965), 10,000 Dollars for a Massacre (1967), and One Hundred Thousand Dollars for Lassiter (1966) — and heads to a new home in Tennessee where he plans to start a farm with Julia.