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"A Fistful of Dollars" review: Old West shootouts, Italian style

A Fistful of Dollars


"A Fistful of Dollars" (1964)

Eastwood is no longer the Man With No Name, but an Academy Award-winning actor-director
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Also known as: Per un pugno di dollari (original Italian title)

Directed by Sergio Leone

Written by Victor Andres Catena, Jaime Comas Gil (as Jaime Comas), and Sergio Leone

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, John Wels, Wolfgang Lukschy, Joseph Egger

To film buffs in the United States, the best-known Euro-Westerns are the the so-called “spaghetti Westerns.” This genre was popularized on this side of the Atlantic when United Artists released Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” – “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”.

Leone’s "Dollars" films were made with modest budgets (“A Fistful of Dollars” cost $200,000 in 1964 dollars) and shot in inexpensive locales – usually in the Spanish province of Almeria. These places were often chosen because they resemble parts of Texas and northern Mexico.

Interestingly, the financial constraints faced by Leone’s German-Italian backers proved to be a blessing in disguise for Leone and actor Clint Eastwood. The director wanted to cast A-list actor Henry Fonda but couldn’t afford to sign him on. Others actors, including Charles Bronson and James Coburn, turned down Leone’s offers.

Eventually, though, Leone found the right actor to play the role of the mysterious gunslinger with the wide-brimmed hat, black cigar and Spanish-style poncho. The role of the Man With No Name went to Eastwood, then best known for playing Rowdy Yates on the CBS television series “Rawhide.”

As Yates, Eastwood had been the stereotypical “white hat” ramrod (essentially, the foreman or second-in-command of a cattle drive). Even at this point of his now-legendary career, Eastwood was the epitome of the “Western hero” of movies and TV series of the late Fifties and early Sixties.

To an up-and-coming actor, playing a hero all the time can be smothering, so Eastwood was happy to take the role of the anti-heroic Man with No Name, starting with 1964’s “A Fistful of Dollars’ (Per un pugno de dollari), which was based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film “Yojimbo.”

The close resemblance of “A Fistful of Dollars” to his movie did not sit well with Kurosawa. The eminent Japanese filmmaker filed a lawsuit against Leone and the three European companies that produced the movie. Leone paid no heed to Kurosawa’s suit and defended his choices by pointing out that “Yojimbo” was inspired by a film based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Glass Key” and various Westerns by director John Ford. Eventually, however, Leone settled out of court, giving Kurosawa roughly 15% of “A Fistful of Dollars’” world-wide gross plus a payment of $100,000.

The Film: Released in Italy in 1964 and imported to the U.S. three years later by United Artists, “A Fistful of Dollars” focuses on a mysterious gunslinger who arrives in San Miguel, a small town in Northern Mexico close to the Texas border. San Miguel is essentially ruled by two warring factions – the mostly American Baxter clan and its Mexican counterpart, the Rojo family.

The Stranger, also known as The Man with No Name (Eastwood) arrives at the town well, where he catches glimpses of a beautiful woman (Marianne Koch) and the brutal actions of one of the Rojos’ men against a villager and a small boy.

The Stranger watches this tableau dispassionately as he sips some water, then rides into San Miguel, a town where a man can end up either being very rich – or very dead.

Baxter Gunman #1: [to Joe] Well, I suppose you could try getting a job as a scarecrow.

Baxter Gunman 2: No, the crows are liable to scare him maybe.

The Stranger is not warmly received by everyone in town. Several members of the Baxter gang accost him on San Miguel’s main street. They shoot at the ground near his mule’s feet and spook the poor beast.

The Stranger restrains himself – barely – from shooting the Baxters right away. Instead, he goes to get some food and some liquor at an inn owned by Silvanito (Jose Calvo).

While talking with Silvanito, the Stranger realizes that he can use the feud between the Rojos and Baxters to his benefit. Having seen the casual brutality of both clans first hand, “Joe” (as Silvanito has named him) hatches a simple plot; he will insinuate himself into both factions, then pit them against each other.

Joe: The Rojos on one side of town, the Baxters on the other, and me right in the middle..

Silvanito: If you are thinking what I suspect, I tell you, don't try it!

Joe: Crazy bell-ringer was right. There's money to be made in these parts.

[after a pause]

Joe: Which of the two is stronger?

Silvanito: Which of them is stronger? Well... the Rojos. Especially Ramon.

A Fistful of Dollars follows Joe as he carries out his plan; he first offers his services to the Rojos, and after an incident involving the Rojos gang’s hijacking of a Mexican army unit to steal a shipment of gold, he switches his allegiance to the Baxters, all the while watching patiently as the tension builds between the warring factions.

My Take: “A Fistful of Dollars” was not the first Spaghetti Western screened in American theaters, but it was the film that opened audiences’ eyes to the visual style and storytelling abilities of Sergio Leone.

The idea that a movie could be carried by a leading character who exhibits both a dubious sense of morality and cold-blooded duplicity was revolutionary in an era where Westerns focused on clearly-defined concepts of hero vs. villain.

Eastwood’s cigar-chomping, poncho-wearing Stranger is compelling not because he plays an Italian version of Rowdy Yates. Here, “Joe” doesn’t shy away from coolly gunning down four men in a revenge-fueled gunfight or instigating an apocalyptic confrontation between the Baxters and the Rojios. Eastwood’s anti-hero is almost as remorseless as a James Cameron Terminator and as coldly calculating as a Mafia godfather..

And yet, despite his aloofness and ruthless efficiency as a killer, “Joe” apparently has traces of what Shakespeare called “the milk of human kindness.” Silvanito, the old inn keeper, senses this and allows himself to become the Stranger’s sidekick, and the Stranger himself shows that deep down inside he does have some sense of decency.

This revelation comes late in the film after he rescues the lovely Marisol from her unwilling role as Ramon Rojo’s (Gian Maria Volonte) mistress. In answer to the question of why he would do such a good deed, the Stranger says simply, “Why? I knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help. Now get moving.”

“A Fistful of Dollars” has several Texas-sized plot holes. Nevertheless it is an engrossing example of European-style Western action-adventure.

Leone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Spain’s Victor Andres Catena and Jaime Comas Gil, transplants Kurosawa’s equally nameless samurai into the mythical Old West with his penchant for extreme close-ups of characters and wide vistas of the Spanish “desert” standing in for northern Mexico.

Even though it’s not as blood-drenched as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” Leone’s film is extremely violent. There are many scenes which feature the use of guns, and the body count – which doesn’t seem to faze “Joe” one bit – is high. This is clearly not a Western that parents should watch with very young kids, even though the graphic violence is tame by early 21st Century standards.

Blu-ray Specs

  • Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Widescreen, Color, Dolby
  • Language: English (Dolby TrueHD), French (DTS 5.1), Spanish (Mono)
  • Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
  • Region: Region A/1
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: R (Restricted)
  • Studio: MGM/UA (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
  • Blu-ray Release Date: August 2, 2011
  • Run Time: 99 minutes
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