A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful Of Dollars, the 1964 film by Sergio Leone, that ignited the Spaghetti Western craze, is a very interesting film, even if it is only a pretty good film, cinematically. Among the interesting things about it is that its English language title, as presented within the film, lacks the article 'A.' It is Fistful Of Dollars, translated from the Italian Per Un Pugno Di Dollari. Another of its interesting facts is that it is perhaps one of the miost successful examples of artistic plagiarism ever, basically being a rework of Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film Yojimbo (Kurosawa sued Leone over the film and reaped substantial financial benefits from an out of court settlement, getting 15% of the film's worldwide gross, and exclusive distribution rights for Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, making more money with this film than with any of his own).

Despite claims of Fistful's being rooted in other sources, including those that aided Yojimbo, there are simply far too many scenes that are not the same, but virtually identical, down to dialogue and camera angles. No doubt, this film is plagiarism, but, as the saying goes, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best. Naturally, it is an inferior film (less depth, details, nuances, and intricacies), but Leone was simply too good a director to let the film totally flail away in imitation. Another fact is that the film is often said to have been the first part of a trilogy of films called The Man With No Name Trilogy. This is not so, for the whole Man With No Name concept was an American marketing campaign, and not something original to Leone. The trilogy is The Dollars Trilogy, but the character played by Clint Eastwood, in all three films: this, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, is a) not unnamed (he has three names or nicknames in each film), and b) are not likely the same character, given that the films are set in different times and places, but merely the same mythic archetype, a sort of Old West Everyman, yet one with the talents and luck of James Bond and an inscrutable mind (unlike the Sanjuro character in Yojimbo, for whom rumination's the thing).

This film follows Eastwood's character (here known as Joe) as he arrives at a Mexican border town called San Miguel, where a barkeep named Silvanito (Jose Calvo), tells him of the two warring clans: the liquor running Rojo brothers, Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and the psychopathic Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte); and the gun running Baxters, led by patriarch John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy). Neither clan is as comic as those in Yojimbo. Joe plays the families off of each other both for his own gain and that of some of San Miguel's townspeople.

The film was shot in Spain, and has some strong points, but overall, it's far too reliant on the Dumbest Possible Action trope (such as neither faction's realization that the soldiers are actually corpses during the cemetery shootout, or Ramon's continuing to ineffectively shoot Joe in the chest during their confrontation) to be true drama. It is, at its root, melodrama, but a good one. Leone invented many stylizations of the Spaghetti Western, such as the use of modern music with films set in a historical period, and the use of Fellini-like close-ups alternating with wide vistas, rather than close-ups used just as reaction shots between master shots. In short, this film is about style, not substance, for there really is little of depth in the film; thus why it innovated things such as the dilation of time in events that are shown in subjective time, rather than objective time (see the gunfights, or rather their buildups). Also, this film was Ennio Morricone's first score, and it was much more successful than the innovative score for Yojimbo because, while the Yojimbo music was good alone, it did not serve its film well. Morricone's score, however, made this film better. It is also probably the only area between root and successor film where the later film was the better.

The screenplay, by Leone and Jaime Comas, is solid, and the cinematography, by Massimo Dallamano, is, at times impressive, and other times pedestrian- see the day for night scenes. One can see that Leone was not the only one feeling his way through this film. The acting, outside of Eastwood, is generally over the top, but one of the really good aspects of this film is how well it is dubbed into English. There simply is no need for distracting subtitles, and the excellent use of post-synch dubbing (aka looping) became another innovation Leone came up with, which also helped allow the use of sound as a design tool along with visuals. Far more jarring than the occasional slight missynchronization of lips is the use of Spanish landscapes for the high Mexican desert--neither the mountains nor the coloration of the landscape looks right, and it took almost half the film for me to forget that I was looking at a clearly European landscape, not a native American one.

The two disk DVD from MGM is a good one. Disk One has the film, restored in all but the graveyard scene, where damage to the original negative results in streaks that, apparently, computer fixes could not aid. The 100 minute long color film is seen in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It has a good audio commentary track from film historian Christopher Frayling. He is scene specific, and quite enthused, although he often overreaches in his praise for the film, and his mitigation of the obvious plagiarism by Leone. He scores some points when he comments on the influence of the James Bond films on the film, from its animated opening sequence through its main character's emphasis on 'cool' over characterization. Disk Two has several good featurettes: A New Kind Of Hero; A Few Weeks In Spain: Clint Eastwood On Fistful Of Dollars; Tre Voci: Three Friends Remember Sergio Leone; Not Ready For Primetime; Network Prologue With Harry Dean Stanton; and Location Comparisons; as well as ten radio spots, and MGM trailers.

Taken on its own, A Fistful Of Dollars is a more influential than great film (all plagiarism aside), and it augured Leone's true mastery of the craft, evidenced in later films, like his two Once Upon A Time films: Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America, but it is its own influence on its successor films that is the most interesting thing about this film. Leone was just beginning a two decade ride to being, simultaneously, one of the most underrated yet influential great film directors of all time. As I said earlier: interesting; very interesting.

©2010 Dan Schneider
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