Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Director: Sergio Leone                                     Writers: Victor Andrés Catina & Sergio Leone
Film Score: Ennio Morricone                            Cinematography: Massimo Dallamano
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volonté and Wolfgang Lukschy

Though chronologically set after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, this film is actually the first of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood and it set the standard for a new type of western hero. But that innovation was not original with Leone. The film is actually an unacknowledged remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo from three years earlier and the Japanese film company, Toho, won a court case against Leone despite the director’s contention that the story was based just as much on Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest and Carlo Goldoni’s play Servant of Two Masters. In A Fistful of Dollars instead of private detective or a mysterious Samurai warrior drifting into town, this time it’s a cowboy with no name wearing a poncho. A unique symbol of the series, the poncho was something Leone and costume designer Carlo Simi put together to make the character distinct, and in the final film of the series, the prequel, Eastwood can be seen putting it on at the end of the film.

When Clint Eastwood stops for water at what looks like a deserted Mexican town, he is accosted by a group of gunmen who shoot to scare his horse. But he hops off and has a drink at José Calvo’s bar and is filled in on the town. Two families run the place, the Rojo’s buy and sell liquor to bootleggers who sell in in Texas, while the Baxter family does the same with guns. Mostly what happens in the town is the men wind up killing each other for being affiliated with one of the two families. As Calvo tells Eastwood, it’s one boss too many. When the Rojo’s kill an entire company of Mexican soldiers for the gold they’re transporting, Eastwood decides to play both of the families against each other, and gets paid by both sides for doing it. First he sends the Rojo’s on a phony hunt for soldiers who survived and tells the Baxters who meet them for a shootout. Later, Eastwood steals back Marianne Koch who had been kidnapped but the Rojos believe it was the Baxters and retaliate, with devastating results. The finale features Eastwood’s now iconic bullet-proof vest.

Eastwood was not the first choice of Sergio Leone. In fact, he was on the second list he had put together after everyone on the short list declined. It was Richard Harrison who suggested him and Eastwood leapt at the chance to shed his good-guy cowboy image from Rawhide and play an anti-hero. Leone’s style of filmmaking is certainly unique. He takes his time and allows events to unfold sometimes with excruciating slowness. Some of this, ironically, is because he had composer Ennio Morricone record parts of the score before the film was completed and in editing Leone liked the music so much that he allowed the scenes to run longer than they might have otherwise. But the most distinctive thing about the film is the violence, particularly in the way that there is no justification for it. Eastwood is there for the money, and killing is the way he earns it. His lack of remorse or morality is what keeps him alive and, unlike many Hollywood westerns, he doesn’t allow himself the luxury of guilt. A Fistful of Dollars is not the best of the trilogy, but it did set the stage for better films to come and really began to shape the path that Clint Eastwood would follow for the rest of his career.

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