A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964)

Director: Sergio Leone

By Roderick Heath

In the early 1960s, the Hollywood Western genre was beginning its long decline. The genre’s most iconic stars, like John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, aged, the directors who had fostered in its greatest years were themselves fading, the “adult” westerns of the ’50s had begun an antimythic trend that corroded the traditional mores of the horse opera, and television, with dozens of Western-themed shows on the schedule, was sapping the remnant vitality of the form. And yet, Westerns were still hugely popular worldwide, including in Europe, where, with the decline in American-produced fare, some producers wanted to get some of that sweet legal tender that oatsers could still generate. The first to try making a Western outside of the traditional American milieu was Hammer Studio’s honcho Michael Carreras, who had the bright idea of shooting the 1961 Anglo-Spanish coproduction Terrain Brutal (Savage Guns) in Almeria, Spain. After a couple more multinational follow-ups, the first Italian-produced Western, Duello nel Texas, debuted; the historical musclemen sagas that formed much of Italy’s genre cinema was running out of steam, and something else had to fill the void of violent trash.

This experiment in international genre resuscitation might have finished up as an ignominious pop-kitsch footnote if not for one Sergio Leone, an experienced screenwriter and assistant director who had recently graduated to official directing credits with the 1961 peplum pic The Colossus of Rhodes and wanted to tackle the genre. Leone, the son of early film director Roberto Roberti (birth name Vincenzo Leone) and actress Edvige Valcarenghi, claimed great affinity with the West as a subject of private enthusiasm, and disliked the more moralistic variety of Western that had arisen in the late ’50s, of which the likes of The Fastest Gun in the West (1956) or The Hanging Tree (1959) might serve as good examples. Leone resolved to toss out the psychological and metaphoric weight and get down and dirty. He began looking for a star, first trying Henry Fonda and then others, like Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and even Duello nel Texas’ star Richard Harrison. He finally found a taker in Clint Eastwood, the slender, stone-faced young actor known for the TV series Rawhide, and soon produced a huge hit that defined the Spaghetti Western in the short term and had no small impact on cinema in general.

Leone battered together a script with the help of Víctor Andrés Catena and Jaime Comas Gil, and had English dialogue written by Mark Lowell, but the film was structured to lessen the reliance on dialogue, with actors in smaller roles mostly dubbed. Leone’s ideal of the Western translated into an Italian visual style became the priority, offering up ebullient widescreen compositions that reproduce lighting and colour effects and arrangement of elements that call to mind the finest effects of Renaissance painting. The difficulty in taking A Fistful of Dollars seriously in and of itself is the immediately obvious fact that Leone and his collaborators egregiously ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), taking a cue from the successful Western adaptation of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954)— The Magnificent Seven (1960). Leone later tried to defend himself by claiming he’d taken as much inspiration from the classic Italian play Servant of Two Masters, something which film writer Christopher Frayling emphasises. But this seems like blather, considering A Fistful of Dollars follows Yojimbo practically scene for scene: the same subplots, characters, narrative gimmicks, and even similar shots. Kurosawa successfully sued for a share of the profits, but it’s arguably only fair that he was hoist by his own petard, considering the debt his film owed Dashiell Hammett and the fact that it was a tribute to the Western traditions of John Ford.

In many ways, however, the closeness of the template and its unofficial, on-the-sly status, makes for a revelatory creation. The contrast of Kurosawa’s vision and Leone’s, differing takes by two cinematic titans on a simple and wittily brutal genre tale, is one of the few opportunities the cinema has ever offered for such clear comparison of disparate creative impulses. Kurosawa’s film is cool, crisply etched, his camera usually standing far back, the framing as sharp and refined as the edge of Toshiro Mifune’s katana blade; Leone’s frames jostle with detail, colossal close-ups, and multi-hued lighting that work in a symphonic fashion. Another difference is temperamental. Kurosawa doesn’t introduce the subplot of a woman who’s been forced to become a concubine by evil men, separating her from her husband and son, until halfway through Yojimbo. Leone makes one of the first images of his more operatic film that of the enslaved woman’s son trying to sneak into the house where she’s kept, from which he’s chased by sleazy thugs, who then beat up his father when he tries to protect the lad. This occurs in the casually observant eyeline of Joe (Eastwood), the wandering, poncho-clad mercenary who arrives in the tiny Mexican town of San Miguel, and right from that moment, it’s certain he knows not to give a damn about what chaos he starts.

Two clans are competing for the lucrative border-smuggling trade in weapons and liquor for which San Miguel is an ideal operating base. The Baxter cadres, led by the nominal sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), face off against the three Rojos brothers—Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto)—and their hired guns. Joe is harassed by the Baxters’ heavies and advised by tavern owner Silvanito (José Calvo) to hurry away after explaining the calamity that’s engulfed the town. Joe, however, seems to see opportunity—exterminating four of the Baxters’ gunmen with his own phenomenally fast draw—and tries to sell his services, in turn, to both the Baxters and the Rojos. But neither are exactly comfortable outfits to work for: Baxter’s Lady Macbeth of a wife, Consuelo (Margarita Lozano), wants to have him killed off quickly, and the Rojos are driven along by Machiavellian bastard Ramón, who contrives a successful ambush of a federale unit to rob them of the gold they’re transporting. So Joe sets up a battle between the two sides by arranging two of the dead soldiers’ bodies in a graveyard and sells information to each band, making the Rojos think the corpses are still-living survivors of the massacre they’ll have to finish off, and then tipping the Baxters to the advantage they might have in capturing the soldiers alive.

This last flourish, the impudence toward propriety and a purely makeshift sense of existence where even the dead are props to be used in the mean business of staying alive, is pure, original Leone, one of the touches that helped define his style. Leone was making films about the Wild West, but his thinking always seemed even more ancient. At the very least, he tapped into something mostly latent in the genre that had always been tidied over by American Western filmmakers seeking a veneer of relevance to contemporary society. Leone saw that it was precisely the wildness, the often barely discernible patina of civilisation reduced and reveling in animalistic behaviours that was the greater part of the genre’s pleasure. Men are hairy, sweaty, dirty, horny, greedy, and often ruthless in his movies. Basic opposites are always functioning in Leone’s films, in spite of the refinement of the style: life, death, earth, sky, rich, poor, man, woman. Personalities are present, ethics hazily visible, certain codes certainly dominant, but defined only by direct and basic force. The reduction is signaled by the animated cut-outs that form the credit sequence, and this also introduces the new note of pop-art to the proceedings.

The simultaneously deepening tactile and moral realism in Leone’s films and the unrealism, the borderline-mythic touches and the distancing from historical context, is one of the great contradictions in cinema. Emblems are important. The Baxter house, a roughly carpentered, but still recognisable approximation of a classic Yankee manor, and the Rojos house, with its lustrous Spanish white and columns, present not merely the abodes of warring gangs, but also warring civilisations and the contrast of Old World elegance versus American solidity. Joe himself, with his regulation cowboy gear and swathing poncho, blends cultural tropes in a suggestive fashion. In between the buildings, the no-man’s-land of San Miguel’s main street, is the first of Leone’s bullrings for warrior confrontation, which Leone’s widescreen lens describes in patient intimacy, often using the terraces of the Rojo house to further force the lens of perspective. Joe finds helpmates in grouchy, but fascinated Silvanito and the local coffin maker, and his only true nemesis is soon identified in Ramón, the man who gleefully machine-gunned the federales, the only one canny and brutal enough to present a real challenge. Facades are important in Leone’s films (just look at how often the image of a man hidden behind a screen spying or aiming a gun at someone appears in his films), and so is the alternation of identities; Ramón kills the federales wearing U.S. uniforms. However, no one’s better at muddying the waters than Joe. In the absence of real things to stir up trouble about, Joe provides illusions, like those two dead Mexicans, to leaven his divide-and-exploit strategy. There’s always some bullshit, Leone constantly suggests, hiding a real motive.

This stage-managed graveyard battle gives Joe the chance to search for the stolen gold, but he ends up taking an accidental hostage, Marisol (Marianne Koch), mother of the boy, now Ramón’s squaw, whom the Baxters eagerly use as a trading piece to get back their own useless son Antonio (Bruno Carotenuto). The discovery of Marisol’s history motivates Joe to win her freedom even though he’ll endanger his own life, because he “knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help,” as he tells her and her family before driving them away. Finally, real feeling has intervened in proceedings as a true motive, but it’s almost fatal for Joe, who’s captured and relentlessly beaten by the Rojos and their thugs. He turns the tables by crushing two of his torturers by rolling a gigantic barrel of gunpowder down on them—a gleefully nasty comeuppance—and then covers his escape by setting that powder alight. He literally and figuratively kindles an eruption, because the outraged Rojos assault the Baxters’ house and massacre all the inhabitants.

Kurosawa treated the story as both amusingly and harshly Darwinian, one of a wolf contending mostly with insects that cannibalise each other in thrilling but essentially pathetic ways. Leone wrings a different, more imperative flavour out of the action, and though still humorous, his possesses a darker lustre. Consuela Baxter’s death—the black-clad matriarch shouting defiance and a primal curse at the Rojos before being shot down in a wreath of smoke bellowing from her house—is exultant in its grotesquery and melodramatic scale; indeed, the whole sequence sports a remarkably, infernal vividness. So, too, is the little opera of gestures and glances on display when Marisol is briefly reunited with her family in the street during the prisoner swap. Leone, in spite of the great ease with which people die and the contempt with which they’re often treated in his work, always makes something almost transcendent out of the moments before dying.

Joe, the first incarnation of the character dubbed “The Man with No Name” (that was essentially a United Artists marketing gimmick), is only guided by a moral compass based in personal empathy, and there’s not much of that. We don’t hold it against him he uses people he loathes to make some money: most of us do that. That he proves to be a proper good guy isn’t in question, but he is definitely one of those Leone protagonists who has “something to do with death”, who, even if they don’t realise it, in essence, bring apocalypse wherever they tread. Joe even poses as a knight-errant or a risen, vengeful angel. Still playing games of truth and illusion, letting off explosives so that he steps out of the smoke like a spook after, having survived torture and eluded the hunting Rojos, he recuperates and returns strapping wearing body armour culled from the iron of a boiler to fend off the rifle blasts he knows Ramón will loose at him. Joe finally confronts the Rojos when they turn their vicious attentions to Silvanito, and doesn’t leave the town until all his foes are decimated. The irony here is that Joe mythologises himself to scare his enemies into irrational decisions, just as Leone mythologises the proceedings with a self-conscious smoke-and-mirrors style.

A Fistful of Dollars is usually described as a warm-up for the grander calisthenics of Leone’s career, but in viewing it after a very long interlude, and for all Leone’s debts and still-developing talents, I recognized it as great filmmaking indeed. Perhaps its very lack of pretension makes it a better, tauter film than the awkward intermediary sequel For A Few Dollars More (1966). It’s a wonder that with all the production problems of working with actors and technicians from four countries, Leone still managed to craft such a strong drama; this is the film that proved Leone was born to be directing motion pictures.

Eastwood’s properly terse performance, of course, made him the international film star he still is, and much of his appeal as presented here is as much about the quiet, sly good-humour he lets through Joe’s otherwise taciturn and unremitting exterior. He looks on the world much like a science experiment he’s running, sometimes a bit wryly disconcerted at how the experiment is proceeding, at least until it turns real, and then…you better run, boy. A Fistful of Dollars also sports the first of Leone’s immortally styled gun duels, defined by the rapid, rhythmic cutting between expectant faces, humour, and macho swagger slowly fading at the realisation that someone’s about to die, and then the concussive simplicity of the moment when the gunfire actually comes, with four or five men at a time dropping dead on the spot in a single, encompassing shot. Life is never more amazingly intense for Leone as in the few moments before it ends. l

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    28th/07/2010 to 4:04 pm

    “A Fistful of Dollars is usually described as a warm-up for the grander calisthenics of Leone’s career, but in viewing it after a very long interlude, and for all Leone’s debts and still-developing talents, I recognized it as great filmmaking indeed.”

    I’d say yes and no Rod, although you are expressing an opinion, and there is really no way to pose any facts here. There’s no doubt that technically (the editing especially) it’s a magnificent achievement. Of course what you say here is irrefutable:

    “The simultaneously deepening tactile and moral realism in Leone’s films and the unrealism, the borderline-mythic touches and the distancing from historical context, is one of the great contradictions in cinema.”

    But conversely, there is a narrower scope than what he attempted and in large measure succeeded with his two big ONCE UPON A TIME epics, which I feel dwarfed these still-accomplished warm ups.

    Again, an extraordinary piece of writing, and a riveting read.

  • Kevin Gertsen spoke:
    28th/07/2010 to 5:10 pm

    I grew up in the 60s and early 70s and the term “Spaghetti Western” was derogatory. The public did not take these films seriously and they became popular drive-in move fare.

    It’s nice that decades later these films have received their due.

  • Rod spoke:
    28th/07/2010 to 8:55 pm

    Hey, Sam, I’m not arguing that A Fistful of Dollars is better than The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West (and his masterpiece, IMHO, Once Upon A Time In America. But it’s not that much lesser. I was surprised to rediscover how fluent and confident it is in its own right, and the punchiness of its drama is quite admirable. I realised it deserves more respect than it’s often given: I sat watching it feeling like my eyeballs and critical faculties were being given the equivalent of a massage and a steam bath followed by an afternoon on a tropical beach.

    Kevin: It’s certainly true that Spaghetti Westerns took a long time to gain general favor. I recall how dubious the notion was in some circles only 15 years ago. Indeed, many of the general run of Spaghetti Westerns are pretty bad; when we talk about good ones, we’re generally talking Leone or Sergio Corbucci. Of course there are mutable factors that can determine how we respond to films. For instance, the first time I ever saw this was on television, where, inevitably at the time, it was a pan-and-scan cropped version, an act of pure bastardisation when it comes to Leone’s use of the widescreen frame, and inevitably it lessens the film’s impact.

  • Kevin Gertsen spoke:
    28th/07/2010 to 9:54 pm

    Rod,

    I agree that how we saw the films formed our perceptions.

    As I said I saw the Eastwood movies at a drive in. At the time many of my peers looked at Leone’s work as not much better/different than the Trinity movies starring Terrence Hill.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    29th/07/2010 to 7:35 am

    Aye Rod, well said and established.

    And ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is his masterpiece IMHO as well.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    1st/08/2010 to 12:15 am

    I always thought as his films became more popular in Europe, Leone didn’t always trim the fat as well as in A Fistful of Dollars, it’s a leaner, faster moving film than all his others. His settings on his westerns, and almost every other Spaghetti Western, were practically interchangeable as well, giving the genre as much of a Studio look as if they were all filmed in some alien Old Tucson sets, the only drawback in my viewing them over the years. I do appreciate his maturing as a visualist, tho, using the dusty desert and other unusually specific aspects of the American West. My favorite shot in all his films is Tuco’s arrival in the cave of bandits in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” – turquoise and mysterious. I must say, tho, the rolling stock never fooled this desert rat in European films set in their imaginary West, sorry – it jarred every time.

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