Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

I saw Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars many years ago. Seeing it again I found it it to be more impressive than I’d remembered in some ways, and less impressive in others.

The plot was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Kurosawa in fact sued the producers and in the settlement was given the Asian rights to the movie. As a result he made more money out of Sergio Leone’s movie than he made out of any of his own. The producers of A Fistful of Dollars probably should have fought the case more energetically since the resemblances are mostly superficial. Leone certainly got the idea from Kurosawa’s movie but the end result was a very different movie.

A mysterious stranger rides into a town on the US-Mexican border. The town is totally lawless and is dominated by two rival gangs, the Rojos (who deal in liquor) and the Baxters (who deal in guns). The stranger, the famous Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood), sets about playing both sides off against each other and enriching himself in the process.

Much bloodshed and mayhem ensues. By the end of the movie the coffin-maker, the bartender and the bell-ringer are pretty much the only ones left alive in the town of San Miguel.

Interestingly enough this wasn’t the first Italian western. There had been a couple of dozen Italian westerns made in the early 60s. They had been more or less straight copies of the style of American westerns. There had also been a string of German westerns, successful in Europe at the time but now entirely forgotten. A Fistful of Dollars became an international hit by breaking the mould and going its own way stylistically. In doing so it established the template for the spaghetti western genre. It has most of what would become the standard tropes of the spaghetti western - coffins, machine-guns, large amounts of very graphic violence, moral nihilism and extreme style.

Equally interestingly Clint Eastwood wasn’t the first choice for the lead role. He wasn’t even the fourth choice. Charles Bronson and James Coburn were among the actors who turned the role down or anted too much money. Eastwood got the part because he was cheap. It proved to be a stroke of good fortune for both Leone and Eastwood. Eastwood provided most of his own wardrobe and had a considerable influence on the way the central character was portrayed, most notably by arguing that he should have a lot fewer lines. So that whole image of the mysterious spaghetti western hero who has very little to say was as much Eastwood’s creation as Leone’s. Eastwood felt he needed to be much more enigmatic that he was in the original script.

Eastwood’s performance holds up exceptionally well. He redefined the western hero.

Stylistically the movie is a triumph in spite of the absurdly low budget. Leone and his director of photography, Massimo Dallamano, make great use of the Spanish locations. The visuals are superbly integrated with the sound design and the music of Ennio Morricone. Leone was probably the first director to realise the potential of post-dubbing to enhance action movies - you can make a pistol shot sound like a cannon!

While it’s often been lauded as the first of a new breed of adult westerns it is in fact the first of a new breed of adolescent westerns. It reflects a rebellious teenager’s view of the world. I happen to love spaghetti westerns but I certainly don’t regard them as being adult westerns in the sense that John Ford’s The Searchers is an adult western. The idea of the all-pervasiveness of corruption and the complete absence of any kind of moral compass might have been refreshingly different at the time but they quickly became clichés.

These are perhaps minor quibbles. This movie is all about style and the stye still stands up after nearly half a century. The spaghetti western did to a large extent save the western. That the western survived as a genre in American movies into the 21st century is largely due to Clint Eastwood, and to say that Eastwood was influenced by Leone would be a understatement of epic proportions. Eastwood’s first great western as a director, High Plains Drifter, is pure spaghetti western.

The Australian Blu-Ray release looks terrific and comes loaded with extras including a very informative commentary track by Sir Christopher Frayling. Among the many interesting snippets he gives us is that The Man With No Name did have a name. His name is Joe. The Man With No Name idea was thought up later by the American distributors and apparently the mention of his name was deleted from some prints.

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