A Fistful of Dollars Review
A mysterious gunfighter (Clint Eastwood) rides into the town of San Miguel and seizes an opportunity to benefit from a power struggle between the Rojo brothers (Antonio Prieto, Benny Reeves, Sieghardt Rupp) and the Baxters, whose numbers include the impotent sheriff (Wolfgang Lukschy). The quick-draw stranger finds a friend in cautious Silvanito (Jose Calvo) and his match in sinister Ramon Rojo (John Wells).
As Clint Eastwood rode into the dusty border town of San Miguel in the opening scene of Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars, few could have foreseen the influence the film would have, heralding a perfect storm cinematically, and it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of Sergio Leone’s perfect trilogy. For A Few Dollars More and The Good The Bad and The Ugly would build on this extraordinary opening film with such confidence and ambition it would culminate in sequences more akin to poetry than the average Hollywood studio production. If you'll indulge me for a moment; Leone’s follow-up to his Dollars trilogy, Once Upon A Time in the West, for me stands to this day as the epitome of what is possible in narrative cinema.
A bold claim? Consider that in the 1940s Italy had responded to Hollywood’s romantic fantasies with Neo-Realism (Bicycle Thieves, Mamma Roma, 8½), from which developed an unsurpassed sophistication in theatrical storytelling, a heritage Leone would have been weaned on. He brought it full circle, reapplying it to the Western, the purest of the movie genres, defining his camera as the narrator and wasn’t afraid to betray it as such to the viewer. Whether you love him or loathe him, Quentin Tarantino embraces this method too.
This isn't to say Leone's work surpasses all Westerns. This would be a dull world without John Ford, Anthony Mann or Howard Hawks, not to mention modern lyrical work such as the Coen Brothers' take on True Grit. A Western can be a masterpiece of silence and pride, but that just goes to show how different the 'Spaghetti' version was; these early exploitation flicks jabbed at Hollywood complacency with persistent violence in stark contrast to Hawk's discipline that there should be "no action without drama". From the opening credits, it is clear the Italian interpretation is a ballet of death.
All of Leone’s talent is up there on the screen in his first mongrel of a Western. He always had an audacious ability to marry wide, epic vistas with cuts to extreme close-ups and a thirst for exploitation violence, a thirst shared by his audience, but with just $200,000 and a screenplay blatantly ripped off from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (itself inspired by Hollywood), was anything really expected of the film? Maybe it was fate, a stroke of luck or hitherto unrecognised production skills, but Sergio Leone was far from alone in shaping the future of cinema.
His cinematographer Massimo Dallamano was key to achieving the shots we take for granted but ask anyone what they remember of Spaghetti Westerns, Ennio Morricone’s score would be right near the top of the list, somewhere near the oddly detached dubbing (albeit viewed with affection). Morricone's work comprising of electric guitars, wailing voices and sweeping melodies, could not be more different to the Hollywood orchestral pieces. More importantly, it was tied to the camera to accentuate perfectly every beat of the story.
The score is playful, humorous and unbearably tense in equal measure, pushing and pulling the viewer along. Morricone has said it was his worst score, an opinion to which he is entitled, but I beg to differ. It lacks some of the hooks he became known for and The Good The Bad and The Ugly is on another level altogether, but Fistful's music is still a marvel and renders the film a kind-of Musical Western, so ingrained is the theme. That’s not such a strange thought when once again you consider A Fistful of Dollars in the context of Italian cinema; that cohesion of story-telling between the elements. And in the 1970s Dario Argento would effectively invent set-piece cinema for the thriller genre, modelling a literal violent change of pace for his murders on the narrative pause that show musicals clumsily employed.
Set-piece filmmaking would become instrumental in the action genre too, which Chinese kung-fu movies in particular exploit to precise effect, hence the success of Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. And Clint Eastwood, bored of playing the cheerful white-hat hero in Rawhide, would define the anti-hero as he faced-off against three gunfighters in San Miguel. My mistake: four gunfighters, much to the coffin maker's glee. "The Man with No Name" was a bit of a myth (he's called Joe occasionally in this one and Blondie in The Good The Bad and The Ugly), but nevertheless it was an intriging hook to establish the dangerous unpredictability of the stranger.
Without a past, without a back-story, the deadly stranger could choose any side, so we need a proper villain and John Wells' sadistic Ramon is terrifying. He would return, albeit as a different character, for A Few Dollars More. Wells' intense performance is a narrative anchor around which Eastwood is allowed to pivot. The rest of the cast are solid as they often are in Italian cinema, regardless of budget, but the prolific José Calvo stands out as dependable Silvanito.
Clint Eastwood was key to the film's success overseas. Genius he may have been, but it's doubtful Sergio Leone could have had the impact he did without the quiet American as his literal poster-boy.
Eastwood has said that he learned his own style of direction from his two mentors, Leone and Don Siegel. After he finished up in Spain, he worked with Siegel on the bitter Dirty Harry, a film designed to wind up the audience with no plot of any note. The sequel didn't even have that slight reason to exist nor would the palate of the politically-weary American public wish for a repeat, but Dirty Harry Callaghan was a great character and couldn't be wasted, so they just had Eastwood stringing together stunt scenes. The action movie as we know it was born; no Magnum Force, no John Wick. And for a bit of fun, just compare the finale of Magnum Force with that of RoboCop; Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi shocker thematically followed Dirty Harry, but why would he honour the daft sequel no-one remembers?
I don't think Italian cinema gets the credit it deserves, but quite frankly, it has contributed much more than the much vaunted French New Wave by embracing Hollywood convention with enthusiasm, while injecting it with urgency. If you could view cinema history as a house of cards, A Fistful of Dollars would be smack-bang in the middle. Try and remove it and great swathes would tumble down. Ironically, not just as a Western, a sadly neglected genre given its proud history.
A Fistful of Dollars wasn’t the first Italian Western produced on the cheap; the curious sub-genre enjoyed popularity throughout the 1960s, but it all started here. Duccio Tessari's A Pistol for Ringo is a good choice if you're looking for something different. He worked on the Fistful screenplay and Ringo is very similar and great fun. But for those that have never seen Clint Eastwood's eyes twenty-five feet apart, Leone’s extraordinary compositions will be a rare treat.