A Fistful of Dollars (1964) / Western-Action
aka Per un pugno di dollari
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and some language
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonte (Johnny Wels), Wolfgang Lukschy, Marianne Koch, Sieghart Rupp, Joseph Egger, Antonio Prieto, Jose Calvo, Margarita Lozano, Daniel Martin
Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Victor Andres Catena, Jaime Comas, Sergio Leone
Although not the creator of the subgenre of film known as the "Spaghetti Western" (Westerns produced primarily in Italy), Sergio Leone made (arguably) the best three of them, collectively known as the "Dollars trilogy", during the mid-1960s. A Fistful of Dollars is the first in the "series" (the films are not sequels), and the one that catapulted its star, director, musical composer, and indeed, Spaghetti Westerns themselves to international prominence. From the very first frame, one can see that this is an entirely different sort of Western than any that had come before, with a title sequence that foreshadows the mysterious lone rider and the deaths that are to occur, all set to the sumptuously modernized Western riffs of composer Ennio Morricone (The Witches, Orca).
Clint Eastwood (Coogan's Bluff, Kelly's Heroes) stars as the infamous "man with no name", a gun for hire who arrives at the Mexican border town of San Miguel looking to make a buck. He seizes an opportunity when he discovers that the town is controlled by two different families, the Baxters and the Rojos, and he's going to use the rivalry and suspicion that exists between the two to play them for cash. Problems occur when he gets in a bit deep by rescuing a damsel in distress, Ramon Rojo's (Volonte, Le Circle Rouge) abducted mistress, Marisol (Koch, The Devil's General), setting off a chain of events that threatens to lead to the destruction of both families.
A Fistful of Dollars is an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, a lifting of the themes and style of that samurai film that eventually ended with a settlement brought by a lawsuit from Kurosawa himself (for what it's worth, Kurosawa bestowed praise on Leone's film). Interesting to note is that the film that was once seen as borrowing from the works of another would be even more influential in the world of film for what new material its director and composer brought into it than what it would take from others. Minimalist characterizations, sparse conversations, highly-stylized shootouts, a surprising injection of comic relief, and a sentimental, almost melancholy presentation that brings a certain feeling of desolation and prolonged misery that is a byproduct of the amorality and anarchy that represented this part of the old West -- it's all part and parcel of Leone's vision that would set the tone for antiheroes to dominate the genre from here on out.
Eastwood, who had some success prior to this film in bit roles and on television in the popular Western series, "Rawhide", catapulted to stardom after the international release of the "Dollars" trilogy, and for good reason. Perhaps not since John Wayne himself had an actor so prominently evoked a feeling of screen presence, a man who says little, does much, and always seems to have the upper hand, even when the chips are down. His intelligence, charisma, and squinty-eyed looks made him a man worth watching, and someone you want to believe in. Though not the first choice for the part, it's hard to imagine any of the other considered actors (Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn -- three actors that Leone would use in later films) to be as commanding in the prolonged quiet and carry the same aura of calculated, measured dominance.
Eastwood perfectly embodies this character that has you believe that one man could take on a community of the baddest of the bad, and still come out ahead because he is willing to cross just as many lines, and his lack of family, history and earthly possessions means he has nothing to lose -- with no discernable vulnerability, no one can touch him. The lack of vulnerability comes into full play in one of the most famous scenes in any Western, as Eastwood get shot multiple times and rises from the ground just as many times to haunt the lying eyes of the film's main villain, Ramon. The mystique turns to legend, but he reveals himself to be just a man -- a man who proves that the edge in a fight is not firepower or brawn, but ingenuity, knowing how to play the right angles at the right times to divide and conquer all opposition.
For all of its prominence as the first significant Spaghetti Western to emerge from the mid-1960s, A Fistful of Dollars would not be the best to come out, as its sequel, For a Few Dollars More, would show that Leone could deliver even more mightily without the need for lifting of themes from others, fully capturing the essence of the character of the Man with No Name as the ultimate in morally ambiguous antiheroes. The final film in the arc, The Good the Bad and the Ugly would become legendary, and practically diminish all others, leaving A Fistful of Dollars feeling like a first draft to ideas, concepts and characterizations that culminated in what would end up being one of the masterpieces of the Western genre. Still, for a film that has everyone feeling around for the right fit, it's one hell of a memorable debut for all involved.
©2007 Vince Leo