Fiddling While It Burns

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) | 21/03/2011

Image property United Artists

A Fistful of Dollars is the original Spaghetti Western, and the film that began the break from the John Ford/John Wayne era to the overlapping Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood era when it was released to American audiences in 1967.

Fistful‘s (Per Un Pugno Di Dollari in its original Italian release) plot is elegant in its simplicity. A nameless gunfighter (called Joe, Americano or gringo in the film, or The Man With No Name otherwise) rides into a town on the Mexican border, which is being terrorised by the feuding of two rival gangs – the Baxters and the Rojos. Setting up camp at the hotel between the two gang lairs, which face off against each other down the wide and dusty main street, the gunfighter acts as a mercenary for both sides, after proving his usefulness by gunning down four of the Baxter’s fighters in a fair fight.

His downfall, however, comes when he intervenes to rescue the captive mistress of Ramón, the most deadly and cunning of the three Rojos brothers. He goes to the small house where she is being kept apart from her husband and child, shoots the five guards, and gives them the small family the money he was given by the two gangs to escape with.

As a result, he is captured, beaten and tortured, and the Rojos kill every one of the Baxters in a surprise attack. The Man With No Name escapes with the help of a few of the townsfolk to recover and return for a final showdown with the Rojos.

The final showdown is a work of art in itself. The sequence revolves around Ramón Rojos’ well established favourite weapon, a lever-action rifle which gives him an insurmountable range advantage over Joe’s single-action Colt .45. The Man With No Name faces off against the Rojos brothers and two henchmen down the wide main street, to an immortal theme of at once soaring and mournful brass, above menacing strings.

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Joe advances on Ramón and taunts him, telling him to “aim for the heart”. Ramón fires all seven of his shots into Joe’s chest one at a time, yet Joe continues to advance. Finally, Joe flips his poncho out of the way, to reveal the iron plate which has been protecting him. Discarding it, Joe shoots the rifle out of Ramón’s hands, and guns down the four men behind him as well, leaving Ramón at his mercy.

This is the film where Clint Eastwood created the persona which arguably carried him through his entire career – the laconic, wind-etched, hollow-cheeked pistolero, The Man With No Name. Attired identically in all three of the original Dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, 1965’s A Few Dollars More and 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), he is the archetypal Western protagonist. His past is unstated, as are his motives (as he makes fortunes throughout all three movies yet spends nothing). Before A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood was already an established cowboy on the TV series Rawhide, but he played a standard, smiling white-hat, whereas forever after he was associated with the stoic, brown-hatted Joe, which made his career.

Indeed, much of Fistful is instantly iconic, from the opening credits, to the incredible score by Ennio Morricone, and of course the tense final showdown. The super-closeups on characters’ faces used throughout the film have become so identified with Sergio Leone’s style, the shot type is often referred to as The Leone. Among many tributes to Fistful in film, Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future III largely recreates the final showdown, while Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill borrowed heavily from its soundtrack.

A Fistful of Dollars is not a perfect movie. It is dubbed in the Italian style, which is slightly jarring to modern audiences, and in the absence of squibs and blood packs, characters simply hurl themselves over unconvincingly when shot. With all its far-reaching influence, one would expect Fistful to be a paragon of originality. However, it was in fact an unauthorised remake of the 1961 Kurosawa film Yojimbo. Its plot structure is not only lifted from the samurai film, but much of it is a shot-for-shot reconstruction of Kurosawa’s original. However, it is impossible to argue against Fistful‘s brilliance, or to argue that it created nothing original. It changed the entire genre, and its blood runs through every successful Western made today.

The term ‘Spaghetti Western’ referred originally to a film movement that emerged in the 1960s, where Italian directors and producers created some of the great Westerns of all time. The films were shot on shoestring budgets, in either central or southern Italy, Sardinia or southern Spain, in areas that looked similar to the American South West. 

Since then, the term has come to refer more to an ouevre, seen in recent films like The Good, the Bad and the Weird, Sukiyaki Western Django, and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy. The Spaghetti Western has less emphasis on horseback time and rarely involve clashes with Indian tribes as was common in earlier Westerns, and much more emphasis on stylised and unlikely gunfights. The films of Sergio Leone led the way with their slow, menacing pace and instantly identifiable scoring.

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