Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, May 18, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1964)

2. A Fistful of Dollars
Per un pugno di dollari

Spaghetti westerns existed before “A Fistful of Dollars.” However, Sergio Leone’s film re-popularized the western in Italy and around the world, putting a distinctly European stamp on that most American of genres. The film was a massive success in its home country, creating a tidal wave of interest that would make the spaghetti western the primary cinematic export of Italy for the next decade. The film would turn Clint Eastwood into an icon, a new sort of cowboy hero for a new sort of cowboy movie. Though critics dismissed it at the time, eventually the film would be recognized as the achievement it is, launching its director, star, and composer to the heights of respectability.

A stranger rides into town. The Mexican border town of San Miguel is torn apart by two rival gangs. On one side are the Rojos, a family of Mexican banditos who massacres soldiers for their gold. On the other side are the Baxters, led by the town sheriff, who is as dirty as the crooks. Seeing the town decimated by this rivalry, the stranger decides to play both gangs against each other. With his fast gun hand and keen intelligence, he sets about doing just that. However, as he becomes more invested in the innocent townfolks, the Rojos discovers the Man with No Name’s treachery.

By 1964, the traditional western had played itself out. With its white-hat/black-hat values, the genre was seen as out of date and out of touch. Leone wanted to reinvent the western as something edgier and hipper. In hopes of making something cool, the director looked towards who was the king of cool in the early sixties. The credits, with their bold colors, silhouetted shapes, and swinging music, recalls the James Bond series. The attempt is successful as, from the opening credits, it’s evident that “Fistful of Dollars” is a different breed of western. The images of galloping horses, kicked up dust, and shot bad guys diving towards the camera are bold statement to open the film.

And then there’s that Morricone score. Ennio Morricone’s music is so definitively tied with the spaghetti western that it’s hard to separate the two. The mournful, bugle-like trumpets links the music to the past, recognizing the western’s historical roots. The casual, catchy whistle suggests a protagonists that doesn’t worry about the bad guys around and is on-top of things. The insertion of jangly guitars contributes a rougher edge. The final ingredient are the vocals, barely understandable male voices barking sounds. The gruff male choir adds a final layer of macho strength. (When listening to it, I personally hear “We can fight!” but I suspect someone else might hear something else.) The whole thing builds to a crescendo of sweeping adventure that pulls the audience in. It’s incredible.

As the spaghetti western would grow, it would become more common for the films to feature a certain surreal element. It’s something that distinguishes the European westerns from their American counterparts and Eastwood would carry it with him when he started making his own. “A Fistful of Dollars” is set in a practical ghost town. As Clint rides into town, the streets are empty. The buildings are rickety facades standing among miles of desolate desert. The Spanish desert is a different sort of setting then the California back lots previous westerns were filmed on. The funeral bell tones ominously. As the stranger rides down the main street, a dead body on a horse rides pass him. From the earlier scenes, “A Fistful of Dollars” has established a slightly dreamy, off-kilter tone. San Miguel continues to be such a strange place, a hostile town from hell that welcomes no one and functions on violence. It’s an obviously artificial environment, one that further establishes the movie as a comment on the rules of the western.

Another creative decision Leone made in direct response to classic western archetypes is how the movie’s hero acted. Clint Eastwood’s Joe, who became the Man with No Name when the film was belatedly brought to America, is the definitive spaghetti western hero. He’s not the typical white hat western goodie. He tricks people, spending the whole movie playing two sides against each other. He’s motivated mostly by getting paid, making frequent references to the money he’s owed. He goes into a room full of people and shoots everyone unprovoked. When a wounded man tries to get up and run, he shoots him again. He’s a morally ambiguous anti-hero, rougher then the western heroes of years past. This is the mold most every other spaghetti western would follow. The Man with No Name would beget Django, Sabata, Sartana, and countless others. (The character’s actions were so unacceptable in America at the time that, when the movie premiered on TV, a hastily shot prologue was inserted, justifying the stranger’s actions as sanctioned by the law.)

Clint Eastwood was not the filmmaker’s first choice for the lead role. He wasn’t even the tenth. At the time, Eastwood was mostly a television actor, best known for his sidekick role on “Rawhide.” With this role, he saw an oppretunity to break away from his image as a clean-cut leading man. Eastwood helped create the Man with No Name’s look. The grimy stubble, pulled down hat, blunt cigars, and gun-concealing poncho were all Clint’s idea. More then the iconic look, Eastwood’s performance established the character’s style. In the opening minutes, his horse is shot at. In retaliation, he finds the men responsible and blows them away with ease. Before that, he makes subtly threatening, pretty funny banter at the guys. He tells the coffin maker to prepare three caskets and then corrects him to four on the way back. This grants Clint a rare, hard-to-obtain quality: Coolness. And Clint is the king of cool in this movie. He’s smooth, cool, intelligent, and lets his action speak for him.

Despite breaking many of the rules about what a western hero is supposed to do, Eastwood’s Joe is still a good person. As his campaign against both gangs continues, he realizes there are innocents caught in the middle. The only friend Eastwood makes in the film is Silvanito, the inn keeper. Joe is introduced to the film’s female lead when he punches her in the face. Marisol is an innocent mother, her child spending most of the movie crying for her or his father. Both are victims of the crooked gangs. After getting the shit beaten out of him, Joe gets out of town. He could have stayed gone too. But his need to protect the innocents takes him back into town, revealing his secret, compassionate heart. He tells the woman, who he has seemingly no romantic connection to, to high-tail it out of there but has to actively rescue Silvanito. Feel free to read into that all you want.

As an action movie, “A Fistful of Dollars” is far more exciting and dynamic then previous examples of the genre. Like many gunfighters before him, the Man with No Name is the fastest gun in the west. The film revels in his speed, the goons seemingly falling dead to the ground before he even whips his gun out. When barging into a house of bad guys, he viciously guns down the entire lot, spending a stray cat running to safety. Leone imbues his action scenes with a sense of real danger, making them purely exciting for the audience.

“A Fistful of Dollars” is also far more violent then the many westerns that came before. The bad guys gun down a whole fleet of soldiers with a gatling gun. Clint runs a guy through with a machete. After his treachery is made clear, the Rojos beat Joe to a bloody pulp. It’s an extended scene of torture, a story motif Leone would return to repeatedly as well. Joe gets out of this jam by crushing two goons with a comically oversized barrel, the camera lingering on their dead bodies. As the story grows increasingly grim, the camera focuses on the burning buildings and dead bodies. When the stranger rains vengeance down on the villains, they cough up blood and expire in agony. Though relatively tame by modern standards, “A Fistful of Dollars” was like an explosion back in 1964, showing a level of blood and violence unseen in westerns before.

As his career continued, Sergio Leone’s directorial style would continue to evolve. It’s still in its infancy here. Yet Leone’s style gives “A Fistful of Dollars” an energetic feel. His lens is frequently wide. A simple shot of Eastwood exiting the inn is shot with a fluid turn of the camera and takes full advantage of the wide-screen frame. As Joe marches up to meet the bad guy, the focus is on his feet as he steps ahead, looking like a giant advancing over a tiny town. Here, we get the first example of the director’s trademark close-ups on the hard, grizzled faces of his rough and tumble leading men. The Rojos stare in confusion and shock at Joe’s skills. Clint glares from under his hat, his intentions clear from his eyes. Leone’s vibrant style is most noticeable during the action scenes. He attaches the camera to the muzzle of a gatling gun as it fires. In intersecting long shots and close-ups, we see the shots fired and their bloody impact. This is action movie poetry, a dynamism that powers the entire film.

“A Fistful of Dollars” is captivating throughout. In its final minutes though, it builds towards something immensely satisfying and powerful. As in many westerns before and after, the hero marches into town, facing off with the bad guy. However, proving once again that his cleverness is his strongest weapon, Joe outsmarts the hoods. (This moment is so iconic and excellent that you overlook that Ramon easily could have shot him in the head.) The metal plate under the poncho has been referenced and parodied many times. More importantly, it builds on small plot details laid down earlier. During its climax is when “A Fistful of Dollars” graduates from merely good to really friggin’ good.

Though Eastwood is the star of the show, there’s a strong supporting cast backing him up. He has an immediate rapport with Jose Calvo as Silvanito, the inn keeper. Silvanito’s slightly sarcastic but somewhat nervous attitude contrasts nicely with the stranger’s cocksure confidence. Joseph Egger is also memorable as the coffin maker, who plays an increasingly important role as the story goes on. Mostly, it’s the colorful Rojo gang that the audience remembers. Gian Maria Volonte, who would returned throughout the Dollars trilogy, drips with villainous glee as the sadistic Ramon. Antonio Prieto is more serious and calculating as Don Miguel, the leader of the gang. Wolfgang Lukschy as Sheriff Baxter makes it clear very quickly that the sheriff is no better then the thugs he’s fighting. The only cast member truly underserved by the film is Marianne Koch as Marisol. Though Koch is beautiful, the character is an indistinct Madonna archetype, representing the purity of the townsfolk that the hero must protect.

“A Fistful of Dollars” is so good that you even forgive it for being an unofficial adaptation of “Yojimbo.” Akira Kurosawa even liked the movie. So, hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Though slightly eclipsed by its even more famous sequels, its own iconic status, and hundreds of further rip-offs, “A Fistful of Dollars” more then stands on its own as an excellent yarn, an exciting genre experiment that remains as effective today as it was back in the sixties. [Grade: A-]

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