A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Dir. Sergio Leone
Written by: Victor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas, Sergio Leone
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volantè, José Calvo
Often credited with being the first Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, the first film in Sergio Leone’s seminal “Dollars Trilogy,” is undoubtedly one of the most famous examples of that mode of Western, and one of the best of the early period of these Italian-made takes on the Western. Leone’s film isn’t without precedent, but his partnership with Clint Eastwood became the blueprint for European Westerns, and was the first to make a splash in the American market, solidifying the viability of these cultural imports and sparking a torrent of imitators of varying quality. Adapted as it was from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars also points to the cultural universality of these tales, and the malleability of the Western genre to fit into various settings and cultural motifs. Leone’s and Eastwood’s epic final collaboration, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, was my first experience with the Spaghetti Western, and I quickly sought out the first two chapters in the trilogy. A Fistful of Dollars lacks the budget and flair that Leone’s later films would come to embody, but plenty of the director’s trademarks are on display here, and the film obviously points to further great work to come. Maybe A Fistful of Dollars falls short of the masterpiece designation that I have readily given to Leone’s later work, but it’s a great film in its own right, and likely more cinematically important than any other Western of the 1960s.
In A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone filters the influence of the great American Western auteurs John Ford and Howard Hawks, throws in a dash of world cinema influence, bakes it all under the Spanish sun and adds a transgressive, violent flair, resulting in a Western movie that would set the paradigm for a new form of the genre. The film opens with a lone rider, Joe (Eastwood), arriving in the town of San Miguel. Upon his arrival, Joe meets Silvanito (Calvo), the town saloonkeeper who tells him that San Miguel is controlled by two feuding gangs, the Rojos, a family of outlaws, and the Baxters, headed by Sherriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy). Though Silvanito warns the stranger that he should leave town, Joe sees an opportunity to fortuitously position himself by playing both sides of the fence in the feud between the Rojos and the Baxters, and begins to clandestinely sell information to both sides. Though his motives seem to be purely financial, Joe meets a woman, Marisol (Koch), who is being held prisoner by Ramon Rojo (Volantè), and he tries to help her. He frees Marisol and gives her and her family the money that he has gotten from the Baxters and Rojos, and tries to make it appear that it is the Baxters who have freed her. When Ramon realizes that it was Joe who freed Marisol, he captures and tortures him, and in the meantime, the Rojos murder the entire Baxter family, who they believe are protecting Joe. Joe escapes the Rojo compound and is smuggled out of town in a coffin by the undertaker, Piripero (Joseph Egger). With the Rojos searching high and low for Joe, the stranger takes time to convalesce and plan in a cave on the outskirts of San Miguel, but when he finds out that Silvanito has been captured by the Rojos, he must return to town to face off against the gang and save his friend.
I don’t know that I could narrow my list of favorite filmmakers down to something like a personal Mt. Rushmore, where I chose even half a dozen of my favorites to be immortalized, but I do know that Sergio Leone would have a place on that monument, almost regardless of its size limitations. Besides David Lynch, Leone has been one of the most constant presences in my life as a cinephile. Despite his relatively scant feature output, Leone’s work has had a seismic impact on my taste in and appreciation of film. From the first time I was introduced to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly when I was 17 until earlier this year when I finally got around to watching and writing about Leone’s final Western, Duck You Sucker, I have been enamored with his parched, fly-bitten, primal vision of the American West. I discovered Leone, at least partially, through my teenaged obsession with Quentin Tarantino. The former video store clerk famously wore his cinematic influences on his sleeve, liberally “borrowing” from his favorite filmmakers, and championing B-movies, pulp cinema, and foreign films along the way. I discovered a lot of movies and filmmakers this way, but Leone was the one who stuck with me. I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly independently, but after having seen the second half of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and the way that that film aped the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, I started seeking out the rest of Leone’s movies.
A Fistful of Dollars was the next Spaghetti Western that I encountered, and I have to admit that the first time I watched the movie I was a little bit disappointed. When compared to Leone’s epic later work, his debut seems slight. In hindsight, of course, I can recognize the importance of the film, both in terms of propelling the Western genre forward in a different direction, and in launching the career of an immensely important and visionary filmmaker. All of Leone’s soon-to-be familiar directorial tropes are on display in A Fistful of Dollars. This fully formed vision is likely a result of a career working as an assistant director in the Italian film industry that stretched back to the 1940s, providing Leone with the technical chops and industry know-how to deliver unique, artful feature films from the outset. A Fistful of Dollars, with its minimalist dialogue, heavy reliance on extreme close-ups, whiplash editing, and heretofore unseen violence, became the blueprint not just for Leone’s continued work, but for a new vision of the Western, in general. Shortly after the film’s release, European filmmakers across the continent, but particularly in Italy, were attempting to recreate the film’s aesthetic and mood, in hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle, to varying success.
While some of these copy-cat Westerns are interesting in their own right, most are forgettable, at best, and unwatchable, at worst. Most of the studio directors working in the genre in Italy lacked Leone’s singular vision and visual flair, but what they all lacked was the undeniable star power and screen presence of a young Clint Eastwood. Eastwood wasn’t Leone’s first choice to play Joe in A Fistful of Dollars, but it’s impossible to imagine the film and its sequels without Eastwood as the lead. Though he is explicitly named (differently) in each of these films, Eastwood’s character(s) in Leone’s Westerns has frequently come to be referred to as “The Man With No Name,” perhaps because of Eastwood’s tight-lipped, minimalist performances in the films. His iconic performances in these films set the standard for a new type of cowboy, emerging from the shadow of straight-laced, moralistic defenders of virtue embodied by Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and, of course, John Wayne. Eastwood’s Joe is a quiet, cold, and efficient instrument of violence. His line delivery in the film is clipped, and the dialogue is terse, giving the impression that Joe has little regard for other people, or for human life, barely deigning to open his mouth when he communicates, even with those he seems to like. Eastwood’s Joe isn’t a nihilist, however, as he obviously shows care for Marisol, even hinting that he has a past when he remarks that he is helping her because he “knew someone like [her] once and there was no one there to help.” These brief glimpses of emotionality give the character an unexpected depth, as does the natural humor that Eastwood imbues Joe with. Throughout the film, he makes wry, offhanded retorts and observations, but the humor never feels shoehorned, despite its existence in the brutal universe of Leone’s West. This multifaceted performance as a complex anti-hero turned Eastwood into a bona fide star, and helped to raise A Fistful of Dollars head and shoulders above its imitators.
Another major factor in the success of A Fistful of Dollars is its source material, with the film being an adaptation of Yojimbo. Though Leone denied that Yojimbo is the sole inspiration for his film, and quite obviously it is not, there is no denying that that film is at least the primary influence at work here. The two films share a symbiotic kind of bond, with Yojimbo retroactively being thought of as a Western, due to its influence on A Fistful of Dollars, and examination of Kurosawa’s samurai films reveals the obvious influence of the American Western. One of the things that I like so much about A Fistful of Dollars is that it is a great example of the cultural cross pollination that cinema can provide. The movie is a Western directed by an Italian, shot in Spain with a cast of Spanish and German actors, starring a barely-known American television actor, adapted from a traditional Japanese samurai film, which was, in turn, influenced by American pulp novels and Westerns. The 1950s and, particularly, 1960s became a boom period for international cinema as film industries in Europe began to rebuild after the devastation of World War II, and the arthouse movement in America began to open up American eyes to movies from around the world that differed significantly from the stories being produced by the recently-abandoned Hollywood studio system. Though it was dismissed as campy and schlocky, nihilistic and excessively violent, by critics upon its American release, A Fistful of Dollars was a major hit with audiences, and it has come to be seen as an important film, aesthetically and culturally, in the broader conversation of the history of world cinema. The cinematic interconnections made here, and throughout Leone’s body of work, indicate the kind of cultural universality that makes great cinematic texts so valuable and so relatable across cultures. A great movie is a great movie, regardless of its language or its visual and cultural aesthetic, and the kinds of pleasures that people take in the visual telling of a great tale are universal.
As I’ve alluded to, Leone would go on to make bigger, better Westerns and movies that I enjoy more than this one, but without A Fistful of Dollars none of those films would likely exist. A Fistful of Dollars changed the landscape of the Western genre, with the once-quintessential American film being reimagined by an outsider. Leone embraced many of the traditions of the classic American Western, but rejected those parts of the genre that he saw as fallacies, replacing them with a more real, more raw, more savage West, peopled by men of dubious character and duplicitous motivation and painted with buckets of bright red blood. This gritty realism would come to inform the revisionist Westerns of the later 20th century, as well as the hardcore action films of the 1970s. There’s no understating the importance of this movie on the Western genre, helping as it did to revitalize a form that had probably gotten too mired in its own tropes and pretenses by the end of the 1950s. Without this movie we might not get The Wild Bunch, and certainly wouldn’t get Unforgiven, but we also might never get movies like Pulp Fiction or Taxi Driver whose creators were sparked by the unique vision of Sergio Leone. I’ll always prefer The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for its maximalist impact, and because it was my first foray into the world of a filmmaker whose entire body of work I celebrate, but when I don’t have three hours to truly immerse myself in that epic, A Fistful of Dollars is a perfectly fine substitute. While the later film expands upon all of the best tropes of the Spaghetti Western, Leone’s debut establishes them, concentrating them down into their most essential qualities, and providing a blueprint for the rest of the genre to come.