Reassessing A Classic – A Fistful of Dollars
Reassessing A Classic – ‘A Fistful of Dollars’
‘I don’t think it’s nice you laughin’!’ says the stranger, before gunning down four of town’s out-of-control hired guns with one quick draw.
Sergio Leonie’s Spaghetti Western classic, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ was re-released at the Showroom cinema, restored and remastered in 4K for a limited time. Originally released in 1964 in its native Italy, the film marked the first of Leonie’s ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy, as well as kick-starting the wave of Italian produced Westerns that ran up until the late 1970s.
In celebration of this classic film, I’m going to look at how this classic stands up today, as well as discussing its importance in the genre and in film history.
Spaghetti Western – a brief history
Following the fall of Mussolini’s regime at the end of WWII, the censorship on media and various other cultural aspects was lifted. In came a tidal wave of British and American films, which began circulating around the country and found great popularity, particularly in the south. At that time, Hollywood’s output, until around 1960, were predominantly Westerns. A staggering 60% of films produced belonged to that genre. The south of Italy was much poorer than its northern counterpart, but every town had either one or two cinemas, which provided outlets for its hard-working residents. The heroic adventures of the American Western captured the imaginations of Italian audiences and aspiring filmmakers.
The north gave birth to the Neo-Realist art-house movements of the 1950s and 60s, with directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Frederico Fellini, and films like ‘La Dolce Vita’ and ‘Red Desert’. The south, on the other hand had excelled in creating exploitation films inspired by the British and American movements of the period. Director Sergio Leonie, after going to see a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’, decided that the story would translate well as a Western. This was not the first time one of Kurosawa’s works was adapted as a cowboy feature. Famously, director John Sturges had successfully adapted ‘Seven Samurai’ into ‘The Magnificent Seven’ with the Mirisch Company.
A New Hero
The classic Western hero known at the time was represented by the whiter-than-white figures of John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott and Glenn Ford. Men who were unquestionably self-righteous, tall in the saddle and the paragons of American virtue.
From the first instant we see Eastwood’s character, we are presented with a completely different type of hero. Other ‘tall in the saddle’ heroes were clean-shaven, dressed in white or light colours and rode beautiful stallions. Eastwood rides towards a well, dressed in a dark poncho, bearded and chomping on a stumpy cigar whilst riding a mule. A permanent frown chiselled into his brow.
Eastwood does not simply aspire to right a wrong in the troubled town of San Miguel, he is motivated by profit, whilst suffering from an affliction of morals, which leads him into trouble with the villainous Rojo brothers. If he did not feel the need to step in for those in peril, he would make a fortune playing off the Baxter and Rojo factions.
‘A Fistful of Dollars’ introduces a very fallible and downright questionable hero. Unlike John Wayne, who always won through the simple virtue of being John Wayne, Eastwood carries this ghostly invincibility with him, demonstrated during the film through his super-human skills with a Colt Single Action Army. Furthermore, the satisfaction in the end is greater, since the super-human quality assures the audience that the villains will meet with merciless justice. Eastwood glides through his shots like a spectre, and delivers justice swiftly and brutally like an avenging angel.
Whilst films like ‘The Searchers’ and ‘Rio Conchos’ demonstrated studios’ ability to play with classic genre characters, Leonie’s film unleashed a truly groundbreaking hero.
Today, the action and violence in the film may seem trivial, back in the 1960s it was unparalleled. The production code of the period prevented Hollywood Westerns from showing many of the things featured in ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. For example, a shot of a gun and a man being shot could not have been shown. It would have had to been cut to show a gun being fired and the result in a different shot. Leonie not only shows this multiple times, but also relishes on scenes where the villains unleash a crescendo of gunfire and blood for prolonged shots and fast-cuts. Troubled for the period as well, is the blatant shooting of an innocent and unarmed woman. Violence of such gratuity wouldn’t be seen until Sam Peckinpah’s films later in the decade.
Leonie’s film spawned two sequels, ‘For a Few Dollars More’ and ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’. All three films were not released in Eastwood’s home country until 1967, where they propelled the former ‘Rawhide’ actor to stardom. As for the Spaghetti Western, Leonie inspired other filmmakers to create similar and more boundary-pushing films, such as Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Django’ and the ‘Sabata’ trilogy. All of which further developed the distinctive look and violent nature of the genre. Once a term used by critics to deride the movement, Spaghetti Western has since become an affectionate term to describe a great number of films that took an American creation and transformed it into a truly innovative and iconic genre.
As a fan of classic Hollywood Westerns, the outstanding qualities of the film are very much apparent when viewed. ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ may seem full of conventions that are synonymous with the Western today, but this film was the forerunner of the classic Western stereotype. Along with making the unique music of Don Savio and Ennio Morricone a tune familiar to everyone’s lips, it gave us all the image of a squinting gunfighter, readying to shoot down the baddies with unequalled swiftness and style.
A real treat to see on the big screen, still as entertaining, tense and engrossing as it was before.