A Fistful of Dollars - 1964
A Fistful of Dollars, or Per un pugno di dollari, is the first in the “The Man with No Name Trilogy” from legendary spaghetti western director Sergio Leone. This movie also marks the first starring role of a little-known actor from that time, Clint Eastwood. Originally released in Italy in 1964, thanks to the box office success of the trilogy overseas, American audiences were treated to the entire trilogy in 1967. The story centers around a lone gunslinger (Eastwood) who walked into a ghost town stuck in a turf battle between two rival gangs, the Baxters and the Rojos.
A Fistful of Dollars jump started the public’s interest in the western genre, creating multiple imitators trying to latch on to its success. All of them wanted to have an antihero with almost supernatural skills with a weapon going up against almost unsurpassable odds. This has been replaced in today’s pop culture by the Superhero genre, with the perfect melding of both genres being this year’s Logan.
Sergio Leone’s directing style is visually distinct and exciting. The wide shots of large landscapes of deserts swallowing up the character as they are forever trapped in this lifestyle are a treat for the eyes. Leone was famous for using extreme close-ups of his actors’ eyes as they reacted to the events that unfolded in front of them. This is used effectively during the massacre of the Baxter Gang. Every death is follow up by a close-up of one of the Rojos’ face smiling at the destruction of their rivals. This creates an aura of pure evil around them and makes you root for our antihero even more towards the end of the movie.
Leone’s visuals are complimented by Ennio Morricone’s music score, which is a mix of electric guitars and a chorus of grunts and human cries. The score perfectly melds with all the gunshots and horse racing put to film. The opening credits are also animated with a red background and black silhouettes of cowboys and bandits in a firefight, set to the score we will enjoy for the rest of the film.
With this being Clint Eastwood’s first starring role, it marks the origin of his “I have sun in my eyes” trademark stare. Eastwood gave his character an air of pure confidence, thanks to his abilities with a gun and always being one step ahead of his adversaries. His line delivery was drenched in sarcasm, taking quick verbal jabs at all the men around him. One of my favorite lines of his was during the opening sequence as he walks past the local coffin maker and tells him “Get three coffins ready.” He goes on and takes down four men and walks past him again and says “Mistake. Four coffins…” While doing some quick research on the films production, I learned that Eastwood was the 10th actor to be offered the role, and it’s crazy to think the world was almost deprived of one of the most iconic antiheroes of all time.
A Fistful of Dollars has close to perfect story structure. During the first act, we are introduced to our protagonist. He is shown to be both capable with his gun, by killing four men with ease, and capable with his smarts as he pits the gangs against each other. Our hero walks through them with such ease that he is built up to be an indestructible force that can do no wrong. This makes for a great fall from grace during the second act of the movie. He is caught by our main bad guy and tortured almost to death. Now we are invested in our character and fear for his wellbeing. Now the rise of our hero and the fall of our villains are perfectly set up for the final showdown of the third act.
There is a controversy behind this movie, as it is recognized as the “unofficial remake” of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. It’s unofficial since they got sued and settled out of court, but Leone always defended himself saying he drew inspirations from the same novels and plays Kurosawa drew from.
While this is far from a perfect - the audio is over-dubbed which may turn off some of the audiences, and the stunt doubles on some scenes are extremely obvious - it doesn’t matter in the end. The story, the acting and the action holds up beautifully to this day making for an enjoyable viewing. I look forward to watching the rest of the trilogy and watching Eastwood grow and expand within his famed role. Eastwood’s “I have sun in my eyes” stare is why I love movies.
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