Sunday, 4 October 2009

Film Review: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)


It is remarkable how much of an impact this film had on the history of movie-making. A Fistful of Dollars:
  • launched the career of Clint Eastwood, who went on to become one of Hollywood's all-time great stars and directors;
  • was the first cornerstone of the celebrated Dollars trilogy, followed by For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly;
  • launched the career of Sergio Leone, which in addition to the Dollars trilogy, included two stunning classics: Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America.
  • launched the Spaghetti Western sub-genre that thrived for about a decade, and which in turn allowed American westerns to re-emerge with dark classics like The Wild Bunch, Silverado and The Unforgiven;
  • launched the career of Ennio Morricone, as one of the most recognizable and most influential composer of movie music;
  • established several stylistic film-making signatures, from tight focus shots on the eyes to dramatically staged operatic duels filmed from unique and dynamic angles;
  • and introduced to the Western genre the persona and image of the stylized anti-hero with few words, a person whose only virtue is that he is - perhaps - a bit less evil than all else that surrounds him.
All this from a movie filmed in the Spanish desert on a shoestring budget by an Italian director who could not communicate with his one English-speaking grade B TV actor, with a supporting cast of Italians and Germans, and based on a forgotten Japanese film called Yojimbo.

The Man with No Name, an expert gunslinger, arrives on a mule to the small town of San Miguel along the Mexico / US border. The town is dominated by two families vying for control of the cross-border smuggling trade: the Baxters control the weapons smuggling business; the Rojos control the alcohol smuggling business; and the two families are busy trying to kill each other. The coffin-maker understandably operates the only thriving business in town.

"There is money to be made in a place like this", proclaims the Man with No Name, and he proceeds to alternately offer his services to the two families, getting rich as he plays them off against each other. Eventually the war between the families escalates to the point where the Rojos brutally wipe out the Baxters, and the Man with No Name faces off against Ramon, the leader of the Rojos, in a duel to the death.

A Fistful of Dollars is a compelling study in how the parts of a film can add up to several times its face-value. The Man with No Name, with his poncho, ever-present cigarillo, and cynical soft-spoken style, dominates the film to the point where the plot does not really matter -- only this character's next step is relevant. The colourful Rojos, with Gian Maria Volonte terrific as Ramon, are evil in the most brutally cartoonish manner. The feminine interest, in the form of Ramon's mistress Marisol (played by Marianne Koch, who says about five words in the entire film), is suitably a vague victim in this savage borderland.

And above it all, Leone allows frequent set-pieces to become the memorable masterpieces of the movie, all driven by Morricone's mesmerizing music: the initial gun-fight with the Baxter cowboys; the overblown massacre by the river; the cemetery shoot-out; the prisoner exchange scene; the Rojos destroying the Baxters; and the final show-down. In these scenes Leone is driving the narrative forward while discovering, demonstrating, and playing with all of the classic elements that would re-emerge, with better polish and sharper edges, in his future movies.

A Fistful of Dollars is a classic movie, and an example that ground-shaking, history-altering films sometimes arrive in the the most unexpected packages.






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