Sergio Leone’s, A Fistful of Dollars, is the first of his famous western “dollars” trilogy. It was followed by For A Few Dollars More and concluded with The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. With this flick, Leone introduced the world to his innovative quick cuts and extreme close-ups. He pioneered these techniques decades before music video directors banged their multi-million dollar chests and claimed originality.
This movie is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
Unlike most remakes nowadays, it adds a fresh, creative spin on the original. With no disrespect towards the Kurosawa classic, it does not leave the audience groaning for the original. Besides, when you’re an unmitigated genius and trailblazer like Kurosawa, people are going to “homage” you forever, and even when it is bad, it’s still a compliment.
This flick introduces the audience to The Man With No Name (sometimes credited as Joe), the iconic lone gunslinger, played by Clint Eastwood, who was an American television star at the time:
The wandering drifter archetype was not invented by Leone. But the portrayal by Eastwood and the director’s guidance certainly perfected the persona. Believe it or not, Charles Bronson was the first choice for this role. Talk about kismet.
The film begins with Joe watching a seemingly innocent family brutalized by Mexican bandits. He does nothing. He seems cold and certainly not heroic; certainly not by the John Wayne standard. But as the film unfolds, he is revealed to be a much more complex man.
Joe then enters a town run by two warring factions. He appraises the situation and proceeds to play both sides against each other, making himself more and more valuable to everyone. Initially, this seems to be all for the love of money but Eastwood’s loner shows that he is more than just a capitalist.
The pacing, dictated by Leone, mirrors the wild west itself. It is deliberate and dangerous, like the rattlesnake creeping towards its prey. And like the rattlesnake, it punctuates time with sudden bursts of energy. Just when Leone lulls the audience into decent comfort, he bites them.
The cinematography is gorgeous. The Italian countryside doubles for a lush American frontier. The actors are shot so that even their pores are visible through the intense heat of the sun. The gunfights are over in a flash, not the long, drawn-out action ballets common in most modern films. They are as quick as the quickdraws. This is not to say that the bullet and blood opera scenes in John Woo’s joints are not a solid way to go. It’s just another end of the spectrum.
The supporting cast is the only false note. Unfortunately, this was a Hollywood where minority actors were not welcome with open arms so you have Mexicans being played by Italians and Americans. But after listening to their lean dialogue and tight performances, a modern audience should be able to get over the giggles of watching a gringo play a Bandido.
Eastwood’s performance is the lynchpin of this movie. He is strong, silent, tough as purgatory, and smart as hell. Unlike The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, he does not have an actor like Eli Wallach stealing scene after scene from him.
(Who wields a piece while in a bubble bath? No one. Not before. Not since.)
Eastwood’s calm detachment is enough to drive his adversaries and enemies insane. And enough to please any viewer. Gian Maria Volonte is satisfactory as his nemesis, Ramon Rojo, but he just does not have the charisma on the same level as the ice cool Eastwood.
This is a classic flick. It took the Spaghetti Western from B movie joke to blockbuster hit. And it introduced the world to Sergio Leone. Saddle up your favorite streaming horse get on this trail. Pronto.
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