Director : Sergio Leone
Year Of Release : 1964
Principal Cast : Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonte, Marianna Koch, Jose Calvo, Joseph Egger, Antonio Prietto, Seighardt Rupp, Wolfgang Lukschy, Margarita Lozano, Bruno Carotenuto.
Approx Running Time : 100 Minutes
Synopsis: A wandering gunfighter plays two rival families against each other in a town torn apart by greed, pride, and revenge.
Not too many films can claim to have revolutionised an entire genre of filmmaking. A Fistful Of Dollars can do just that: not only did it herald the rising star of Clint Eastwood into a household name, but it jump-started the nascent “spaghetti western” and revolutionised a film-making style. Sergio Leone’s classic film features his early use of widescreen framing and lengthy pauses between action blasts, with Eastwood’s “man with no name” character embodying all that was cool, haunted and mythic about Western gunslingers – it’s little wonder the film spawned two sequels in quick succession, and launched Eastwood’s career as an icon of the genre. If anything, it’s fair to suggest that A Fistful Of Dollars is to the Western as Star Wars is to science fiction.
The town of San Miguel, on the Mexican border. Two families, the Baxters – patriarch and town sheriff John (Wolfgang Lukschy), his wife Consuelo (Margarita Lozano), and son Antonio (Brune Carotenuto) – and the Rojo Brothers – Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), Don Miguel (Antonio Prietto) and Esteban (Seighardt Rupp) – are at war, a war tearing the small town apart. In comes a wandering gunslinger (Eastwood), who decides to stay and use his skills to make money by playing each family against the other, although he soon recognises in Ramon a force of evil that needs to be dealt with. As the body count rises, and the law is powerless to stop it, the Man With No Name uses his guile and sharpshooting prowess to bring an end to the fighting.
Although a little more ragged around the edges than For A Few Dollars More and The Good The Bad And The Ugly, A Fistful Of Dollars established Leone’s trademark Western style with a punchy, immediately memorable series of visual cues that have come to define the modern movie. The guitar twang, the suitably iconic Ennio Morricone score, the use of extreme close-ups to tell the emotional arc of the film, the magnificent way Leone uses the 2.35 ratio to fill the screen with information and just outright “cool” imagery – A Fistful Of Dollars is both instantly captivating and methodically dynamic.
The film is loosely based on an 18th century play called “Servant Of Two Masters” in which the protagonist plays two warring families against each other, although here the location is different, and the violence is far more aggressive. Eastwood’s Man With No Name – referred to as Joe late in the film – gives the actor a surly, morally ambivalent man who has no compunction in killing folks, but does so with a streak of ethical fortitude which give his empathy from the audience. Although it’s obvious the Man is no saint, Eastwood’s natural charm and sly wit, coupled with a more obvious antagonist role from Gian Maria Volonte (who would play the villain again in For A Few Dollars More, albeit a different character), make taking a side in this film relatively easy.
Volonte is a sweaty, nervously nasty piece of work as Ramon, a killer without compunction; men, women, children – all fall before his shotgun. Marianna Koch plays Marisol, about as close as we get to a love interest for Eastwood here, who he rescues from Ramon’s compound and whom Eastwood “saves” by sending her away from the town with money he’s earned. Koch is beautiful, but the role offers naught but that to develop her as a character. Margarita Lozano, as Baxter’s wife, provides a hearty dose of strong-willed woman in the film, the “power behind the throne”, as it were, and I think the film works well because of her presence.
But A Fistful of Dollars is, as is typical with Westerns to that point, a man’s film, a testosterone-laden gun-porn show about bullets, revenge and all things masculine. This was a time when men were depicted as rough, tough, and never taking a backwards step. Those who lived long enough to see old age developed a cynicism and resigned feeling about the conflict within the town – the town’s local barkeep, Silvanito (a terrific Jose Calvo) exhorts the Man to just pack up and leave before he’s killed in the conflict too, while the local mortician, Piripero (Joseph Egger) just keeps churning out plain wooden coffins as often as he can keep up with the rising death count, and has more than a few downbeat thoughts on what transpires.
The villains of the piece aren’t exactly well rounded, deeply thoughtful characters, it must be said. Like many a good Western villain, the thugs and assholes populating this film are a typically mean-lookin’ bunch of moustachioed goons, easy to spot as just being that, with little-to-no development or interest. Ramon, even, lacks the depth of character to make him stand out strongly against Eastwood’s anti-hero role, and is limited to sneering and screaming orders at his men by way of building him as a respectable villain to hate.
There’s no denying the legacy of A Fistful of Dollars. There’s also no denying how cool it is; violent, hyperkinetic and majestic, Leone’s all-time classic Western is a beautifully shot, purely cinematic adventure into death and revenge. Eastwood is solid, the supporting cast (dubbed as they are) are excellent, and the camerawork and framing here is brilliant. Essential cinema for any fan of the medium.