A Fistful Of Dollars (Special Edition) Review

Mike Sutton reviews the first of three upcoming MGM Special Editions of the work of Sergio Leone. “A Fistful of Dollars” may seem like apprentice work in comparison to his later films but it’s still highly entertaining. The DVD is generally very good and would have been excellent but for one crucial omission.

Although it wasn’t the first Italian Western, A Fistful Of Dollars was the film which first began to define the conventions of Italian Westerns. The films which preceded it had been straight transpositions of the American style ; Sergio Leone’s film made a break and the result is something which still has the exciting sense of a filmmaker discovering a whole new way of doing things. Over the course of his ‘Dollars Trilogy’ – comprising A Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Leone and his collaborators created a sub-genre which went on to spawn countless imitations – both in Italy and elsewhere – and which had such an impact on the Western genre itself that the American films which followed it were never quite the same. Although it’s a crude and simplistic judgement, I think it’s fair to say that without Leone’s films, you wouldn’t get The Wild Bunch, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Heaven’s Gate or Unforgiven. That’s a pretty damned impressive impact for a movement which began with an Italian film made in Spanish locations for the equivalent of $200,000 during the spring of 1964.

I don’t want to spend this review telling you things you already know but it’s hard not to when you’re discussing a film which is so well known. For example, surely everyone knows that A Fistful of Dollars is a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which played cinemas in Italy during 1963. Although he had little interest in the social history which invests Kurosawa’s film with such significance, Leone was fascinated by the cynical, shabby hero who seemed so removed from the American heroes portrayed by John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and, in his beloved Shane, Alan Ladd. He loved the ritual formality of the duels, the sudden bursts of graphic violence and the notion of human society being basically corrupt. Leone’s story concerns a mysterious Man With No Name (Eastwood) – occasionally referred to as ‘Joe’, although whether this is his name or merely a nickname for strangers in the town is never adequately cleared up – who rides into the seedy desert township of San Miguel, just over the Rio Bravo which creates a natural boundary between North America and Mexico. Within minutes of his arrival, he observes, without flinching, the brutality of a man towards a woman and child and it’s not long before he’s dispatched the four thugs who have greeted his arrival with bursts of aggressive gunfire. The Man With No Name becomes friends with Silvanito, the bar owner (Calvo), who tells him that the town is run by two warring gangs – the Baxters and the Rojos – and that the result has been a “town full of widows” which spends it’s time “between funerals and burials”. The Man With No Name – usefully described by Leone’s original title, “The Magnificent Stranger” – offers his services first to one side, then the other and finally instigates events which will lead to them virtually wiping each other out. Finally, after a brutal beating, the hero returns to face the most psychopathically vicious of the gang members – Ramon Rojo (Volonte) – in a classic street gunfight – although even then, he has a surprise in store.

There are so many important facets to Leone’s first Western that it would be outside the scope of this kind of review to analyse all of them. But I want to point out some of the most important things about the film, beginning with the central figure in the film. I hesitate to use the word ‘hero’ because it somehow doesn’t seem appropriate. What we’re seeing in this film is the traditionally heroic central character being turned into something quite different. Clint Eastwood, who was contracted to his role of Rowdy Yates in “Rawhide” for television and was only allowed to appear in films outside the USA, could have easily played an upstanding, righteous man beset on all sides by venality. But Leone wanted to do something different. In place of the usual Western hero – perhaps best represented by Alan Ladd in Shane or John Wayne in Rio Bravo – we have a morally ambivalent figure whose motives are considerably less pure than his counterpart in many American Westerns. The Man With No Name watches cruelty without acting to stop it, shoots first without asking questions and brings down instant judgement upon anyone who tries to best him. If we find him heroic, it’s mostly because he’s more pleasant than the incredibly unpleasant bad guys. There’s a family in the middle of all this – Marisol (Koch), her husband Julian and their son Jesus – but they are so anodyne that it’s hard to care what happens to them. Leone’s complete lack of interest in women in his early films doesn’t ensures that Marisol rarely comes across as anything other than a cipher. I think that the audience is expected to direct whatever sympathy is going in this bleak world towards Eastwood. After all, he’s tough, a great shot, dependable and dryly funny, dispensing occasional quips such as the famous “Four coffins” gag towards the start. In this sense, as Christopher Frayling has pointed out, he’s the model for the modern action hero; he can kill as many people as he wants because, ultimately, he’s the only thing standing between us and complete moral anarchy. Later directors of ‘Spaghettis’, as the subgenre became known, would push the audience over into the abyss in films like the spectacularly bleak, surreal cartoon of Django Kill. However, I don’t think Leone’s use of the hero is quite as much of a break from American convention as has been claimed. If you look at the way the American Western was going during the 1950s, there’s a definite feeling that the hero figure is being gradually deconstructed. In his Westerns with James Stewart, Anthony Mann begins to push the cliche into new psychological territory, making his heroes increasingly dark, selfish and haunted by demons in their pasts. John Ford did something similar with John Wayne in The Searchers and, although the Oedipal psychoanalysing which Arthur Penn does in The Left Handed Gun was alien to Leone’s style, Paul Newman’s playing of Billy The Kid as a juvenile delinquent sadist points forward to the creation of a hero who is only removed from the villain by a few bullet holes. Moral ambiguity is everywhere in Leone’s universe but it’s also omnipresent in the work of Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller. Indeed, you could hardly call John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a simple old-fashioned Western.

The next significant innovation is linked to the first and that’s the use of violence. In American films, there was a rule imposed by the Production Code that you couldn’t see a gun fired and a man fall down dead in the same frame. Leone throws this away in A Fistful of Dollars, establishing the classic moments of the gun looming in the foreground and the men blown away in the background. Although Fistful isn’t particularly explicit by his later standards, there’s a brutality to the film which is very unlike anything in mainstream American film and the gleeful sadism of the bad guys – laughing as they kick the shit out of Eastwood – must have been profoundly shocking to those audiences whose idea of evil was Jack Palance in a black shirt. One can, of course, make an ethical case for Leone’s style as being more responsible than the American model in that the painful and bloody results of violence are made completely plain and, thus, violence is not being sanitised. American directors such as Ford and Hawks were unimpressed but younger filmmakers such as Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn were obviously taking notes because in 1967, the year Fistful opened in America and cleaned up at the box office, Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde emerged and finally decimated the Production Code. It was followed in 1969 by The Wild Bunch, a film which has much of the moral ambiguity of Leone’s work along with the violence which reaches its earliest peak in Leone’s work in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

But what the American Western could never catch, however hard it tried, was the look and sound of Leone’s work. Ennio Morricone’s score, combining a vocal chorus with Fender Stratocaster guitar and orchestra, can still blow the viewer away, completely subverting the stately epic conventions of Western scores by Elmer Bernstein and Alfred Newman. Although this first Leone Western is set in Mexico, it still looks more like Spain – it was shot in Almeria – and later Spaghettis would inhabit similar locations creating what can best be described as an Italian approximation of how the American West might look if it was in Spanish. The locations give the film a very odd tone, not least the eerily deserted main streets of San Miguel, and the almost operatic nature of the violence definitely seems a lot more European than American. Much credit should go to Carlo Simi, the production designer for creating a look which influenced scores of Italian Westerns. Massimo Dallamano’s stark, iconic cinematography also plays a vital part. Leone’s key visual innovation, along with the European look of the film which seems to have been somewhat accidental, is his use of extreme close-ups, something which the cheap widescreen process Techniscope allowed for. Throughout this film, and even more in his later work, Leone gets his actors into extreme close-ups, sometimes accentuating nothing but the eyes. He also delights in creating letterbox frames within the main 2.35:1 frame, using blankets, slats of fences or anything which comes to hand. Although he’s great at sweeping long shots and the use of crane shots, Leone’s precision with emphasising particular parts of a scene with close-up is probably the thing for which he is best remembered.

A Fistful Of Dollars remains, forty years on, cracking good entertainment. It’s Leone’s shortest film and has none of the grandiloquence and straining for the elegaic which sometimes make his movies drag in places. Yet it never seems rushed and Leone’s world view – that cruelty and pain are pre-eminent and moral goodness is either exploited or crushed – already comes across very clearly. His later films are more complex and ambiguous – there’s nothing here to match the moral shadings of Colonel Mortimer or Cheyenne – but if it’s a great piece of action filmmaking you want, then A Fistful Of Dollars certainly provides the goods.

The Disc

MGM first released Leone’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’ back in the early days of DVD and their slightly unsatisfactory transfers have been the only option for fans who want to see the films in the original Techniscope ratios – panning and scanning is particularly ruinous for these movies. MGM began to correct matters last year with their excellent The Good, The Bad and The Ugly set and now they’ve got round to giving A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More – along with the later, very quirky A Fistful of Dynamite – the treatment they deserve.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. In a word, it looks stunning. That’s not only in comparison to the earlier MGM release but in comparison with releases of many more recent films. The film has been extensively restored and there is little print damage present. It looks crisp and sharp with plenty of detail. The colours look natural and are full and rich. Little artifacting is present – mostly its noticeable in the darker scenes – and there’s enough grain to give a filmic appearance without being excessive.

There are two soundtracks provided, both in English. Sadly, neither of these is the original Mono track. The director of MGM’s technical operations has explained how damaged the English composite track had become and he enthuses on the disc about how good the film now sounds.. Up to a point, he’s sort of right. The music has never sounded as crisp as it does here and fans of surround sound will be pleased to find some moments in the film which have been ‘enhanced’ to utilise the surround channels and the rears. The gunshots have been fiddled with to make them boom a bit more impressively in the .1 LFE. There isn’t a great deal of difference between the Dolby Digital 5.1 and the DTS 5.1 Surround tracks, although the latter seems to be a bit louder overall. This is also the case on the other new Leone releases I’ll be reviewing. But, and it’s a big but, this isn’t the soundtrack for the film that Leone designed and, considering how assiduous he was about the sound for his films, we really should be given the original restored Mono track as well as this remix. As the original track isn’t included, I haven’t given a mark for the audio. If you like surround remixes then this will suit you very nicely. If you don’t, there doesn’t seem to be an option I’m afraid since the intended R1 releases for these films seem to have vanished from the radar.

The extras are generally impeccable. On the first disc we get a commentary track from Sir Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art and an expert on Spaghetti Westerns and Leone. As someone who devoured his books on the subject, I found this track immensely enjoyable. Frayling knows his subject inside-out and has the advantage of having spoken to many of the participants over the years. There are few dead spots and plenty of information. Frayling’s comments are often scene-specific but he takes time out to consider the careers of some of the supporting cast and the aspects of Leone’s work which crop up in later films. Any fan of Leone’s work will appreciate this track and newcomers will find it a valuable guide to the movie.

The second disc contains most of the extra features. Christopher Frayling contributes a twenty minute guide to the film called A New Kind of Hero which covers some of the same ground as his commentary but is still very engaging. Clint Eastwood crops up in a ten minute look at the film called “A Few Weeks in Spain”, during which he is eloquent and affectionate towards Leone. The ten minute “Tre Voci/Three Voices” contains interviews with three of Leone’s friends; producer Alberto Grimaldi, writer Sergio Donato and the devisor of the English language versions of two Leone films, Mickey Knox. This is interesting for the background material and doesn’t concentrate exclusively on Fistful. “Restoration: Italian Style” concentrates on the restoration of the film for DVD release. Finally, “Location Comparisons” looks at the locations in Almeria and how they’ve changed in forty years.

There’s a section containing original publicity material. This features the American trailer, two radio spots and a wonderful Double Bill trailer for the first two ‘Dollars’ films. “Collector’s Gallery” features black and white stills from the film.

Finally, and particularly fascinating, are two featurettes about the Television Cut of the film. “The Lost Prologue” is an interview with Monte Hellman about the prologue which he shot for the network TV premiere of the film, with the object of making Eastwood’s character more palatable for TV audiences. The main interest of this, apart from Hellman’s comments, is that it stars the great Harry Dean Stanton. It’s fascinating to see this, not least for the way in which it has to find ways of concealing the fact that Eastwood doesn’t appear. It appears that this only played on TV once, in 1977, and has, thankfully, been seen only rarely since. Accompanying Hellman’s interview is the full version of the prologue presented in its original 1.33:1 format and introduced by Howard Fridkin, a Leone fanatic who owns a Betamax copy. Unsurprisingly, the visual quality of this feature is poor but it’s pretty amazing that it still exists at all so I certainly won’t carp about that.

Laudably, MGM have included subtitles for both the film and for all the extra features. The film is divided into 32 chapters.

A Fistful of Dollars comes up looking lovely in this new release. The film is a must-see for fans of genre cinema and it’s full of points of interest that point forward to Leone’s later, more complex films. The DVD contains excellent extra features and a fine transfer but I’m disappointed that we haven’t been given the original audio track as an option.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Apr 10, 2005

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