Note: This essay appears at Wonders in the Dark as part of the Top 50 Westerns Countdown, placing at #45.
It wasn’t the first spaghetti western, but A Fistful of Dollars was certainly the one that really put the whole sub-genre on the map. This is the film that synthesized several key ingredients that would make the spaghetti western into influential cinema, namely the iconic “Man with No Name”….aka Clint Eastwood who dishes out hefty doses of justice and deadpan humor. There is also the presence of Ennio Morricone, who wrote so many fabulous scores for several spaghetti westerns and is nearly synonymous with the sub-genre, who provides a clanging and lilting score that in its own way, is as memorable and jaunty as anything he ever wrote. And of course the assured direction from Sergio Leone, whose confidence in what he was doing seems to ooze from just about every scene in the film. These three together helped take the spaghetti western from its low budget roots and turned it into a western revival, with a legacy and influence that has seemed to transcend the western altogether.
Although Leone would go on to create more lavishly spectacled and densely thematic works (particularly his magnificent Once Upon a Time in the West), there is a certain appeal in the taut economy of storyline here in A Fistful of Dollars. As “The Man with No Name” (Clint Eastwood) rides into a border town near Mexico, he is told of the local feud between two families, the Rojo clan, led by the evil Ramon (a deliciously vile Gian Maria Volonte), and the Baxters, led by Sheriff Baxter. The Man with No Name determines he can profit off of this feud by facilitating the escalating violence and looking for ways of exploiting the situation. He winds up in the middle of some controversy when he sees some gold being stolen by Ramon and his gang, whereupon he sells information to both families to get them to engage in a fight over the “survivors” of the massacre. While this is going on, TMWNN learns of a woman named Marisol who is being held captive by Ramon, keeping her from her husband and small boy. TMWNN finds a way to free her from her captors, but Ramon and crew find out about this and soon beat him to a pulp (I’m not sure which film Eastwood looks worse in….this one after the beating or in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly after the walk through the desert with Eli Wallach). Through pluck and ingenuity, he escapes, and as Ramon believes the Baxters are hiding him, he and his gang set fire to the Baxter house and murder the entire family. TMWNN heals up and returns to town to exact revenge upon Ramon and rid the town of the Rojo clan in a fantastic showdown.
It’s well known that this film borrows significantly from the plot of Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful 1961 work that already was borrowing on iconography of westerns to begin with. A Fistful of Dollars is basically a remake of Yojimbo, and in fact Toho films sued Leone and the producers for the Asian rights to the film after they saw it and determined how much it borrowed from their film. During the early 60’s, in fact, the melding of the samurai concept and the western had already occurred a few years earlier in the blockbuster western, The Magnificent Seven (based on The Seven Samurai). But, Leone adds so many of his own elements to the film. First and foremost, was getting Clint Eastwood to play the lead, who at the time was mostly known for his work in the Rawhide TV series. Eastwood came to Italy, without being able to speak any Italian, and in fact was making very little money on this low budget film. One of the key elements for why I think Eastwood is so effective in this film and the entire Dollars trilogy, is that he doesn’t do anything quickly. He moves slowly. Eastwood even talks as if he’s just awakened from a nap. It's not quite a whisper, but not really projecting either. Everything with Eastwood is smooth and subtle, highlighting a hyper-cool machismo…..he’s cool and he knows it. But the effect of all this languorous moving and talking, is that the action moments come across as that much more impactful. He moves deliberately and smooth and slow with everything he does, except when he shoots….and Leone often makes a point of showing us his hands as he shoots the gun as this is the only time he moves with any quickness whatsoever. Eastwood’s deadpan humor also goes a long way here, allowing him to subvert his own approach and keep the pastiche from getting too thick. Eastwood’s emblematic portrayal of The Man with No Name, adds to what I consider to be a critical element of the spaghetti western, which is the meditation on the masculine identity. In Eastwood’s Man with No Name, we have the ideal personification of a man who asks for nothing, needs nothing and relies upon only himself for sustenance, using ingenuity, skill, and his sly humor to get him through. It is Eastwood's alone-ness and self sufficiency that recalls classics of the western genre, but in this case, there is a self-awareness subverting the traditional intent. This is a quality that would come up not just in other Leone films, but in many of the great spaghetti westerns, particularly those from Corbucci, like Django, and The Mercenary. Just about the only glimpse into The Man’s past is after he helps the family, the woman asks…“Why do you do this for us?”. He replies,“Why? Cause I knew someone like you once and there was no one there to help." Leone also plays upon reference points of western culture and iconography, elevating the images, the characters, and the sounds into a kind of reflexive mythology, incorporating elements from other westerns, most often recalling George Stevens' Shane. Speaking of sounds, Morricone's soundtrack here is loaded with what sounds like noises....whistles and clanging things that give a sort of caricatured personality to the proceedings. Leone and Morricone were always on some kind of miraculous level. Yes the music isn't as iconic as in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but the understated and comedic matter-of-factness of the score here fits very well with Leone's more simple approach in this film. In addition to the music, the visuals are rife with close-ups and attention-grabbing widescreen framing, reflecting the self awareness inherent to the spaghetti subgenre, as it reflects a post-western consciousness. A Fistful of Dollars isn't just a western..... it's a western that knows it's a western.
In a significant supporting role, Gian Maria Volonte is Ramon, the personification of evil. His evil is best seen in the sequence where he massacres the Mexican army with the Gatling gun and there’s this certain way that he grimaces with pleasure every time he shoots the gun. There’s also that dark, violent and nasty set piece where Ramon’s crew burns down the Baxter house and massacres the family, including Baxter’s wife in cold blood. Eastwood is watching the whole massacre from his concealed location in the coffin after he got beat up. This sets up a brilliant denouement where Eastwood not only wants revenge for Ramon’s treatment of him, but also their full-on display of evil incarnate, setting up a herculean confrontation where Eastwood must take on Ramon and his whole clan (Not without some help from a protective bullet proof breastplate). In the final showdown, Leone pulls together all the elements that would become iconic about the spaghetti western…. the drawn out suspense, the machismo and taunting, the sweaty close-ups, the clanging score, the art of surprise. A Fistful of Dollars must be recognized historically and cinematically for what it represents and what it popularized. True there are better spaghetti westerns, but few are as unassuming and compact as this one can be, as Eastwood’s understated humor and the short running time seem to reflect a “less is more” approach that I find immensely likable.