Sunday 4 October 2009

Movie Review: A Fistful Of Dollars (1964)

The seminal Spaghetti Western, A Fistful Of Dollars created a sub-genre, launched the career of Clint Eastwood and established Sergio Leone as a visionary director.

The Man With No Name (Eastwood), sometimes called "Joe", is an an expert gunslinger and 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 illegal trade: the Baxters smuggle weapons while the Rojos deal in alcohol. The two families are busy trying to kill each other, and the coffin-maker understandably operates the only thriving business in town.

"There's money to be made in a place like this", proclaims "Joe", 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 massacres and an epic final showdown between two men left standing

Despite not being able to communicate with his one English-speaking TV actor, Leone somehow harnessed the Spanish desert, a shoestring budget, and a supporting cast of Italians and Germans into a sly remake of the then-forgotten Japanese film Yojimbo. Ennio Morricone provides a sparse yet haunting soundtrack like no other, and Leone unleashes his artistry with several stylistic signatures, from tight focus shots on the eyes to dramatically staged operatic duels filmed from unique and dynamic angles.

A Fistful Of Dollars perfected the persona and image of the willing-to-kill anti-hero, a man so jaded he barely bothers to speak or introduce his name. His only virtue is that he is - perhaps - a bit less evil than all else that surrounds him. And maybe the Man With No Name is not a man at all, just a manifestation of death roaming the land as a symbol of the frontier's mortal dangers. 
With his poncho, ever-present cigarillo, and cynical soft-spoken style, Eastwood 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 a suitably vague victim in this savage borderland.

Leone stages the wild set-pieces as baroque tableaux of bloody carnage fuelled 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; one family slaughtering the other; and the final showdown are all over-the-top odes to death.

Hailing the merits of complex simplicity, A Fistful Of Dollars is low-budget rising to excellence.

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