IN HIS OWN WAY HE IS PERHAPS THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN WHO EVER LIVED!
Few things are genuinely original in this world. Fistful of Dollars became Sergio Leone’s breakthrough and made audiences all over the world aware of the concept “spaghetti Western”. But it wasn’t the first of its kind and the story was also based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) – which in turn borrowed plenty from American Westerns. The circle was indeed complete.
The Western genre benefited immensely from the kind of rejuvenation that non-American filmmakers like Kurosawa and Leone brought to it. In the case of Fistful of Dollars, Leone provided an energy that had gone missing from American Westerns.
In the middle of a bitter feud
The story begins with a stranger whom we later learn is called Joe (Clint Eastwood) arriving in the Mexican border town of San Miguel. It doesn’t take long for him to end up in the middle of a bitter feud between two families, the Baxters and the Rojos, that’s been going on for some time. The Rojo brothers in particular, led by Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté), are not afraid to use violence in this conflict, but Joe sees an opportunity to play both sides. The game begins when he witnesses the Rojos kill a detachment of Mexican soldiers and steal a shipment of gold. After luring both the Baxters and the Rojos back to the scene of the crime, Joe tries to find the gold at the Rojo hacienda. But not everything goes according to plan for Joe…
Fast cuts and extreme close-ups
Eastwood’s character has become known as “The Man With No Name”, even though he obviously does have a name. In the actor’s squinting, sparse-worded guise, Joe has become a much imitated genre icon, a type of character that Eastwood would return to decade after decade. The role made him a movie star after his years on Rawhide; the rest of the cast is good enough, but Clint makes his fair but not necessarily all decent hero specially memorable. The production values are not high, but Leone makes us ignore it; the Spanish locations are convincing enough and the shootouts explosive, with fast cuts and extreme close-ups of faces that make the action all the more personal. As we stare these people in the eye we realize that it’s all about trying to master the art of playing chicken.
Leone was criticized by some people for the bloody violence, but along with Sam Peckinpah he made sure that audiences grew addicted to a more shocking (and indeed more realistic) look at the Old West. Still, Leone is no stranger to the clichés of his predecessors; the story is as simple as they come and has its lulls. Fistful of Dollars is a remarkable footnote in cinema history for several reasons… but its simplicity leaves it in the shadow of greater Westerns, including the director’s own The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Another ingredient that gives this film a touch of originality is Ennio Morricone’s score, a piece of work that gave the composer a breakthrough equal to that of Leone and Eastwood. The whistling theme became a trademark of spaghetti Westerns… but as I stated earlier, few things are genuinely original. Morricone was inspired by Dimitri Tiomkin’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) score, which also featured whistling. Still, that doesn’t take away any power from Morricone’s instantly memorable themes and arrangement.
Fistful of Dollars 1964-Italy. 100 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Arrigo Colombo, Giorgio Papi. Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil. Cinematography: Massimo Dallamano. Music: Ennio Morricone. Cast: Clint Eastwood (Joe), Gian Maria Volonté (Ramón Rojo), Marianne Koch (Marisol), Wolfgang Lukschy, Mario Brega, Carol Brown.
Trivia: Original title: Per un pugno di dollari. Henry Fonda, James Coburn and Charles Bronson were considered for the lead. Followed by two sequels, starting with For a Few Dollars More (1965).
Last word: “In ‘Rawhide’ I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat. The hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody. I decided it was time to be an anti-hero.” (Eastwood on deciding to do this movie, “Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood”)