"A Fistful of Dollars" Started Sergio Leone's Masterpiece
A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari in Italian) - 4 Stars (Excellent) - Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns.
Is it possible for an excellent, groundbreaking film in a specific genre to be overlooked at award ceremonies? Absolutely, and a perfect example is "A Fistful of Dollars" that gave rise to what we commonly identify today as "the spaghetti Western".
A Fistful of Dollars was the first of Director Sergio Leone's masterpiece trilogy that would be followed by "For A Few Dollars More" and "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly". It was Leone who realized that the American-made Westerns of the 1950s had become nothing more or less than housing developments designed with a cookie-cutter pattern of staleness.
Leone's answer was to shoot the film as if he was orchestrating an opera. The result would become the model for many Westerns to come, featuring his trademark taciturn characters, precise framing, extreme close-ups and the haunting music of Ennio Morricone.
All of this would give rise to "The Man With No Name" (Clint Eastwood), who was originally referred to as "Joe" in A Fistful of Dollars, but became The Man With No Name in the sequels.
I am very boffo on this film and for good reason. The combination of Leone's direction is excellent given Morricone's music, the cinematography by Massimo Dallamano and Federico Larraya, film editing by Roberto Cinquini and Alfonso Santacana, and sound by Elio Pacella. A Fistful of Dollars was shot in the Spanish province of Almeria.
Despite its credentials, A Fistful of Dollars would win only one award-the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists' Silver Ribbon for the Best Score by Ennio Morricone. You could see this film for the musical score alone and come away very impressed.
Released in 1964, A Fistful of Dollars would not make its American debut until 1967. The film's arrival here was delayed when "Yojimbo" screenwriters Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima sued for breach of copyright and won, receiving 15% of the film's worldwide gross and exclusive distribution rights for Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Kurosawa said later he made more money off of this project than he did on Yojimbo, which was released 3 years earlier. The screenplay was written by A. Bonzzoni, Victor Andres Catena and Sergio Leone.
The story is about a gunfighter (Clint Eastwood) who comes to a small border town and offers his services to two rival gangs-the Rojos and the Baxters.
The Rojos include the dangerous Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp) and Don Benito (Antonio Prieto), Ramon's girlfriend Marisol (Marianne Koch), Rubio (Benito Stefanelli) and Chico (Mario Brega). The Baxters include John (Wolfgang Lukschy), his wife Consuelo (Margarita Lozano) and a bevy of additional lesser-light banditos on both sides.
The bell-ringer in the film, Juan De Dios (Raf Baldassarre) warns the gunfighter, "you'll get rich here, or you'll be killed." The gunfighter later acknowledges that the "crazy bell-ringer was right, there's money to be made in a place like this."
Neither gang is aware of The Man With No Name's ploy to play one against the other, each thinking they are using him against their rival, but the gunfighter will outwit them both.
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Along the way he will personally kill at least 14 of them, get the Rojos to completely obliterate the rest of the Baxter gang, rescue the kidnapped wife and return her to her family so they can safely escape, rescue the innkeeper Silvanito (Jose Calvo), and eliminate Ramon Rojo in a classic showdown worthy of any Western movie ever made and too good to share here.
Another actor to watch in this film is Piripero the undertaker (Joseph Egger), who provides the avenue for The Man With No Name's escape when he is incapable of doing so on his own.
The genius of Sergio Leone is seen in one of the film's earliest scenes. As the gunfighter rides slowly into town, 3 Baxter gang members fire shots to scare the mule he is riding. After some food and whiskey, the gunfighter confronts his tormentors with this dialog:
"I don't think it's nice, you laughin'. You see, my mule don't like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea you're laughing at him. Now if you apologize, like I know you're going to, I might convince him that you really didn't mean it."
Properly incensed and challenged, 4 key Baxter gang members draw to fire and are cut down in a blink of an eye by The Man With No Name.
While the dialog and action in this scene are excellent, Leone's direction is even more so and here is why: In American films, when a cowboy was shot, one camera was ALWAYS focused on the shooter and a split second later, another camera cut to the victim. Leone captured the scene with the camera over Eastwood's shoulder, so the moviegoer could vicariously witness the shooting as if he was doing the shooting.
Leone's genius was as powerful today-44 years later-as an interactive web site on the Internet, both of which did not exist in 1964. No wonder it is so easy for moviegoers today to experience his genius.
A Fistful of Dollars is too good not to experience. Like so many films that are expected to be nothing and become classics in movie history, the role of The Man With No Name is littered with big names who did not play the role when an unknown like Clint Eastwood did.
This list includes Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Richard Harrison. Harrison would later acknowledge that "maybe my greatest contribution to cinema was not doing A Fistful of Dollars and recommending Clint for the part."
Eastwood had been in the television series "Rawhide" prior to being tapped for the role. He helped build the character of The Man With No Name by buying black jeans form a sport shop on Hollywood Boulevard, buying the hat he wore from a Santa Monica wardrobe firm, and buying his trademark black cigars from a Beverly Hills store. He cut the cigars into thirds to give them a more distinctive look.
Leone was reportedly taken with Eastwood's distinctive style, commenting in Italian that "I like Clint Eastwood because he has only two facial expressions: one with the hat, and one without it."
Like another tremendously successful actor Tom Hanks, Eastwood knew how to instinctively exude enormous charisma that was never evident in his low-key style. Any real man in America would be proud to strap on The Man With No Name's gun belt and pistol. Is A Fistful of Dollars a guy film? Certainly.
Leone did not direct the first spaghetti western ever made, but his was the first one to receive a major international release, not to mention the fact that it launched Clint Eastwood on an incredibly successful career as one of Hollywood's most popular, profitable and bankable actors and directors ever.