by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.