Should I Watch..? 'A Fistful of Dollars'
What's the big deal?
A Fistful of Dollars (also known as For A Fistful Of Dollars) is a western film released in 1964 and is the first film to feature Clint Eastwood in a starring role. Directed by Italian Sergio Leone and filmed in Spain, the film is a loose remake of the Japanese film Yojimbo and follows a stranger arriving in town and playing off both sides engaged in a blood feud. The film is the start of what would become known as the Dollars Trilogy/Man With No Name Trilogy and was followed by sequels For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. This film was responsible for the rise in popularity of spaghetti westerns, films produced in Italy that offered audiences a more action driven, morally ambiguous experience than westerns in Hollywood usually provided. The film prove hugely popular in America with takings of $14.5 million despite a number of cinemas refusing to show the film for fear of legal action by the director of Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa.
What's it about?
Through the dust and shimmering heat, a stranger wanders into the small town of San Miguel. Heading straight to the town's tavern, the Stranger is told by the barkeep Silvanito that the town is divided between two families. The Rojo brothers - Benito, Esteban and Ramon - are warring with the sheriff John Baxter and his family. Sensing an opportunity to make a little money on the side, the Stranger decides to play each side off against the other - either by selling information or hiring himself out as a gunslinger.
After the Rojos steal a chest of gold from a detachment of Mexican soldiers, the Stranger sets his plan in motion by stealing two bodies and placing them in the town's cemetary. He then tells both the Rojos and Baxters that two survivors of the theft are camped there and while both are making their way there, the Stranger searches the Rojo compound for the missing gold. Unfortunately, his plan hits a snag when he accidentally crosses paths with Marisol - a young woman he knocks out. As he seeks medical attention for the woman, both sides realise that perhaps this mysterious Stranger isn't as he seems...
The Man With No Name
Gian Maria Volonté*
Sheriff John Baxter
Don Miguel Benito Rojo
Victor Andres Catena, Jaime Conas Gil & Sergio Leone*
Release Date (UK)
11th June, 1967
Action, Drama, Western
What's to like?
From the opening shots to the closing scene, there is a real thrill in watching the genesis of such an iconic cinematic character as the Man With No Name. While he isn't the mythical legend he would become in later movies, Eastwood's aimless drifter exudes an air of menace that few characters before or since have ever quite matched. As he apparently guns goons down for fun and outwits his opponents more often than not, Eastwood's minimalist performance is perfectly suited to one of the greatest anti-heroes cinema has ever seen. Teaming him up with the unmistakable sound of Ennio Morricone (whose score isn't quite as memorable as it would become in the trilogy), the film simply sweeps you up within its own mythology and you happily go along with it.
It might be easy to mock these days but A Fistful of Dollars was revolutionary in its day. While not the first spaghetti western, the film helped establish the genre into popular culture in the US by eschewing cliches of Hollywood westerns. It was more dramatic and violent with Leone's directorial style introducing elements like extreme close-ups that filled the screen, betraying the emotional side of the individual and giving the film a grandiose atmosphere. Even the film's obvious technical shortcomings (the overdubbed dialogue is especially noticeable here) fail to sour your enjoyment of the film - in some ways, it's more akin to the action movies of the Eighties where you can already guess the outcome but enjoy the ride nonetheless.
- Eastwood was largely responsible for the creation of the Man With No Name. Tired of playing a hero on TV's Rawhide, Eastwood purchased the costume from various places around Los Angeles - only the poncho came from Spain. Eastwood also bought cigars despite not being a smoker himself as he felt the taste put him into the mindset of the character. Leone later recalled that Eastwood only had two expressions on set: "with hat and no hat."
- Like all Italian productions of the time, the movie was filmed silently and all effects and dialogue were dubbed in later on. Because the film didn't receive an international release until 1967, Eastwood didn't dub his lines until three years after filming had finished.
- The film landed Leone in a heap of legal trouble after Kurosawa sued him for illegally plagiarising Yojimbo. This delayed the film's release as theatres didn't want to get into trouble showing the film while the lawsuit was in effect. In the end, Leone settled out of court for 15% of the film's global takings and $100'000. Kurosawa later claimed he made more money from the lawsuit than he did from Yojimbo.
- This film marked the first time Leone and Morricone worked together on a film. Leone was so bewitched with Morricone's music that he let some scenes go on longer than he intended just to be able to include the music.
What's not to like?
Having just said that the technical problems don't affect your enjoyment of the film, I realise that statement is actually incorrect. Other than Eastwood who obviously speaks English far better than the rest of the cast, the film's many characters all have what I call Sonny Chiba Syndrome with dialogue clearly not aligned to mouth movements. It makes the film feel like a cheap import instead of the genre-busting upstart that it is. And unless you're deeply into European cinema at the time, you are unlikely to recognise the majority of actors in the film which can make following the story a tad tricky.
However, the film's biggest issue is the company the film keeps. The other parts of the Dollars trilogy are fantastic pictures in their own right but are much bigger in scope and more entertaining somehow, possibly due to the instantly recognisable and iconic themes by Morricone. Of course, that doesn't make this film any worse but if you have seen the other films first then this one will feel smaller and more modest in comparison. You might also argue the same if you have seen Yojimbo but I confess I haven't yet. While the film is no masterpiece, it certainly offers audiences jaded with the genre something new and different to experience alongside the more traditional Hollywood western. And its impact is still felt today with westerns being more realistic than before.
Should I watch it?
A Fistful of Dollars may look the weakest of the Dollars trilogy but you cannot underestimate its importance for the western genre as a whole. Coming out of nowhere, Eastwood's committed performance and Leone's invigorating direction prove an irresistible mix and make the film one that any fan of westerns will enjoy. The fact that Eastwood's Man With No Name remains the most iconic character within the genre speaks volumes about the film's appeal.
Great For: western lovers, Eastwood's place in cinema history, poncho enthusiasts
Not So Great For: traditional westerns, Hollywood in general, anyone expecting Eastwood to be a "white hat" hero
What else should I watch?
Eastwood and Leone would become indelibly linked to westerns forever more after this film's release so it made sense for them to follow it up. For A Few Dollars More saw Eastwood's character - now known as Manco but clearly the same character we see here - team with Lee Van Cleef to take down a ruthless bank robber while The Good, The Bad And The Ugly throws another western legend Eli Wallach into the mix as all three of them wade through the American Civil War on the trail of hidden gold. After the conclusion of the Dollars trilogy, Leone kept going with another epic westerns Once Upon A Time In The West and Duck, You Sucker! (also known as the somewhat less lurid A Fistful Of Dyanmite) after which he retired from the western genre. Nevertheless, he is considered one of the greatest western directors of all time.
Eastwood's association would stretch throughout his extensive career before coming to an emotional end in 1992 with his directorial effort Unforgiven in which he also stars as an aged gunslinger turner farmer who must confront the violent ghosts of his past one final time. Today, Eastwood is revered not just for his acting but directing talents as well and continues to make films that achieve a generally high standard. Recent efforts include Sully about the plane captain who landed his jetliner on the Hudson River to prevent a disaster and the critically acclaimed American Sniper which scooped a total of six Oscar nominations, winning one of them.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox