Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Fistful Of Dollars

Clint Eastwood as legendary anti-hero,  The Man With No Name.

 I love westerns. I don't have a preferred genre of film I like to watch being eclectic in my tastes, but westerns are definitely a genre that make me sit up straight, and my senses tingle! Of course they have been out of favour in Hollywood for many decades now with Clint Eastwood's 1992 masterpiece, Unforgiven, probably the last genuinely great western made. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale did do a worthy job with their re-make of the classic 3:10 to Yuma, but it just didn't capture the feel or essence of what a western used to do. It is a shame, because did I mention I love westerns?

 A Fistful of Dollars needs no introduction to western fans, let alone Clint Eastwood aficionados. I'm an unashamed aficionado, and rate Eastwood as one my most favorite actors and directors. He is man with an incredible, and enviable film career behind him, yet the amazing thing is is that he isn't the most gifted of actors. He alone admits his own limitations as an actor, and yet he is an acknowledged great of the industry having played a real assortment of characters from cowboys, cops, circus stars, photographers, washed up singers, etc.

 But for A Fistful of Dollars we may never have heard of Eastwood, as he was far from Sergio Leone's first choice for the role of 'The man with no name'. That distinction went to Henry Fonda, but he was dis-counted for his price tag which the production costs couldn't cover. Then Charles Bronson was asked but he declined saying the script was a bad one. Even James Coburn sniffed at it! Through numerous names Leone was finally put onto Eastwood through Richard Harrison, who felt he himself wasn't right for the role. Eastwood accepted the role because he was tired of his clean cut, nice guy role in Rawhide, and he felt it was time to play an anti-hero. The rest is as they say, cliqued history!

 Fistful was filmed in 1964 by Sergio Leone, and was based on a Japanese film titled, Yojimo, which in itself drew inspiration from American westerns. At this time in America the western was starting its decline, and yet Leone still felt it, as a genre, had plenty to offer. He thought the then current crop of westerns were too preachy and stagnant. What Leone did with A Fistful of Dollars was reignite the western. But in the process he started out on an unseen road that led straight to, not only two of the genres acknowledged masterpieces, but two of the greatest films ever made.

 Of course those two films need no introduction being first masterpiece, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and his master-masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, ( that included the incredible masterstroke of Henry Fonda in the role of villain ). But those two films undoubtedly owe their success to Fistful. It was a staggering thing in hindsight to behold as Leone made a masterpiece in itself with A Fistful of Dollars, and yet unlike any director before or since, went on to continuously top it with his next three films. The 'Dollars' trilogy, as it came to be known, can only be described as a multiple orgasm of cinema. The first is the start, with each one getting better and better, until the final, and best climax with, Once Upon a Time in the West.

Eastwood and the character's unforgettable style.
 I seriously cannot think of another director who achieved this, and even more remarkably within one genre. Sergio Leone must take the credit but Eastwood must take the credit for making the character his own. He is acknowledged for creating the character's visual style as he himself brought the clothes, from the black jeans in a Hollywood Blvd sports store, the cigars from a Beverly Hills store, and the famous poncho in Spain. Other props he brought from the set of Rawhide. Leone took to Eastwood's style immediately and famously quipped, "I like Clint Eastwood because he has only two facial expressions: one with the hat on, and one without it". That about sums it up, and in the process Leone and Eastwood created one of the most enduring anti-heroes to have graced the big screen.

 It is funny because Sam Peckinpah's, The Wild Bunch, was a much lauded, and criticised film on its release for its then graphic depiction of western violence. And yet when you watch Fistful, Leone pre-dated that violence, albeit on a smaller scale. The body count isn't as high as Wild Bunch's is, and yet for 1964 it was an incredibly violent film. Just watch the scene where Eastwood is kicked and beaten in the store room. The blood has dated but not the violence. Also the scene where Ramon mows down the Mexican soldiers pre-dated Peckinpah's similar, Wild Bunch machine gun scene, but with a now very obvious lack of bullet holes or blood. In fact the scene hasn't dated well as we get the machine gun noises, and ricochets, but no bullet riddled sand etc.

 But slight datedness aside the film as whole is still a brutal watch, and has stood up well over nearly 60 years. When you regard the fact that Leone, and the crew, couldn't speak English, it is remarkable Eastwood was able to make the film at all. In fact filming was in complete silence, and had the entire soundtrack dubbed in later! And unusually the famous whistling title tune was scored before shooting had actually started. Again the funny thing is the 'Dollars' trilogy is called a 'Spagetti Western', and yet they were filmed in Spain!! Leone saw the decline of the genre in America, and yet knew they had a strong following in Italy, hence the name 'Spagetti Westerns'.

 The film was shot in 1964, and released in Italy in the same year. Amazingly it wasn't shown in America until 1967, which shows they were not initially thought of for the American market. But it was the American market in which it's popularity exploded, even though many critics at the time called them 'cliqued'.

The camera looking down the barrel of Ramon's machine gun.
 The film contains what came to be Leone trade marks, and were very distinctive. The close up of the actors eyes is very much a Leone trade mark, and one can almost say the perfect shot for a western shoot out. He even has a close up of a pair of boots! But he went further with my absolute favorite technique, and that is of looking down Eastwood's arm and barrel of his pistol. Notice it in the scene where Eastwood guns down four of Baxter's men in the film's first shoot out scene. He also uses it when Ramon is shooting the Mexican soldiers by showing the action down the barrel of the machine gun. Very revolutionary stuff in its day, and clearly shows Leone's eye for the perfect western shot.

 But of course it wasn't all Leone. As 'The man with no name', Eastwood is simply superb. It is easy to say now but could anyone else have really played this role?? It would have been interesting to see, because even with all Leone's brilliance, it is Eastwood who makes this film. And again we come back to Eastwood making a career out of anti-heroes. Here he pre-dates his other, and possibly more highly regarded anti-hero, Dirty Harry. But where Harry Callaghan had no sense of humour, 'The man with no name', did. He was also a very intelligent man whereas Harry wasn't portrayed in the same light.

 The juxtaposition in the character is superb. He arrives in town, shoots four Baxter's whilst humouring them about apologising to his mule for scaring it. He is the mean son of a bitch, and yet has a sense of humour when he hits, and knocks out, Ramon's unwilling mistress, Marisol. Notice the wonderful deep sigh, and roll of the eyes!! I always laugh at that scene, but it is perfectly realised as we see the good of this man who can kill so effortlessly. The perfect anti-hero as he kills only those of his ilk, and then turns around and helps the innocent. In this case we see him help Marisol escape with her husband and son, telling them, 'I knew someone like you once, and there was no one there to help', after they ask him why he is helping them.

 For me if Sergio Leone had never made another film then, A Fistful of Dollars, would go down as a masterpiece. The problem is is that he went on and topped it with, A fistful of Dollars More, and topped that again with Ugly, which surely he couldn't top being the masterpiece it was. And yet incredibly he did, making the greatest western of them all, ( which paradoxically was the genres nadir, and afterwards went into terminal decline ). But for all that those masterpieces owe it all to, A Fistful of Dollars, a masterpiece in its own right, and yet because of the shadows cast by its better known peers, is a somewhat neglected film. It deserves better because most skip it and get to Ugly and Once, but they really should watch the four films in the order they were made, just to see how Leone made a superb film that he learnt from, and just built on.

 A Fistful of Dollars is undoubtedly Leone's forgotten masterpiece, probably to most film aficionados. To western aficionados we know better, and regard this film highly. I love it and rate it as one of the greatest western ever made. But the problem is that its greatness is overshadowed by its own success as Leone went on, and continuously bettered it! No matter what you think of the next three films to come they all owe it to, A Fistful of Dollars, a masterpiece in its own right, and a film that is somewhat overlooked due to the fact it could only be topped by master-masterpieces!!

 Did I mention I love westerns? I hope I did because this is a definite favorite! Watch it for the great film/western it is, and for a film maker at the top of his game in the simply brilliant genius of Sergio Leone.

Click here for a synopsis and more:

And here for more:

Now I know you boys are going to apologise to my mule!!

The scene before the famous, 'My mistake, four cofins', line to the town's undertaker.

Not quite a classic Leone close up of the eyes...but close enough!
Clint Eastwood and Jose Calvo as inn keeper Silvanito.

Classic Leone close up...even though of a pair of boots!

Doesn't get any more iconic than this does it??!! A typical Leone shot.



  1. A quality movie I still love to this day, even if he did copy Kurosawa.

  2. A firm favorite of mine as most Eastwood films are. It is somewhat forgotten in lieu of its bigger siblings but still a truely great western.

  3. The music was and still is iconic, I have a soundtrack or two of his around here somewhere.

  4. Yeah me too!! On vinyl for god's sake! It was my father's who brought it new in the 1960's!! It has the music from all three 'Dollars' films if I remember corectly.

  5. You know, I don't know as much about old-school westerns as I should. I've seen very few. It's not usually my genre of choice (which is odd because one of my favourite books is Lonesome Dove and I love Cormac McCarthy novels).

    What would be your top three that you'd recommend?

  6. The 'Dollars' trilogy is on my list of classic films to watch.

    I've slowly been making my way through classics from various genres that I've somehow never seen.

    Westerns were never much of an attraction for me, comes from growing up on classic scifi and horror.

    As I've gotten older though, I've gotten a more opent to the genre. You're love of it really comes through in the review Brent!

  7. I really want to see this movie someday in the future and great review about the movie.

  8. Laura!! Ooooo tough question!! Top three?? Hmmm first two are easy! Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Both absolutely brilliant westerns and films in their own right. Unmissable!
    Third? Well A Fistful of Dollars is worthy, but there are so many good ones such as the original 3:10 to Yuma, The Searchers as a John Wayne/John Ford collaboration, but there are so many that it is tough. I'm just very partial to Mr. Eastwood, and recommend the three I've mentioned as mandatory westerns to watch.

    Daniel. Thanks! I love sci-fi too! Maybe not so much the more modern products but I remember Star Trek and Stars Wars very well ( still love them both ), and I'm a huge Doctor Who aficianado. But I do love a good western! The 'Dollars' trilogy is unmissable, and to be quite honest there are many really good westerns out there but these three and Once Upon a Time are just too hard to go past. They are not only great westerns but great stand alone films outside of genre.

    James..yep this is a must see..and thanks!!

  9. Thanks. I'll check those out sometime soon ...minus The Searchers, which I've seen.

  10. They are on my list of classics to watch Brent!

  11. Daniel...I should have Unforgiven at number three!! There is my definitive top three westerns ever!