MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Western/ Stars: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Josef Egger, Wolfgang Lukschy, John Wells, Daniel Martín, Carol Brown, Benny Reeves/Runtime: 99 minutes
I feel it is safe to start this review off by saying that from the moment that The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers first rode upon their mighty steeds, life was actually when you stop and think about it fairly simple for that breed of human being known as a gunslinger in that wild and unique point in American History known as the Old West. At least according to Hollywood anyway. Indeed not only did the hero wear the typical huge white cowboy hat and treat all ladies with decency and respect, but you could also count on a slimy villain dressed all in black who also could easily win first prize in the Best Sneer Contest held at the County Fair time and time again. This of course was just the tip of the iceberg; indeed this was because in addition to those things we also got to see that the Law and Order in the Wild West was a true balancing act between respecting people’s freedom and providing them with justice when they needed it most. Indeed if you can sum it up into a single sentence this one would be probably work better than most: Good was good, bad was bad, and the moral ambiguity of how the world really truly is just plain hadn’t been invented yet ladies and gentlemen. However, when one really takes a look at how the Wild West really was, you will quickly see that it wasn’t quite as ethically grounded as the entertainment industry for a while made it out to be. Indeed it has long been the opinion of this reviewer that the purpose of the creation behind the myth of how the Old West was is because the entertainment industry was trying to atone for the sins committed at that time including the horrific handling of the Native Americans.
Yet it wasn’t long before the constant churning out of this particular formula over and over again by the film industry that this important genre in film finally began to lose a significant degree of what made it a viable genre. However there was a solution just on the surface of the horizon. This is because while American filmmakers scrambled to find a solution, filmmakers from Europe, most of which never really knew the whole history behind the Wild West let alone who Roy Rogers was, were hard at work on putting distinct yet unique spins on this film genre while also paying close attention to what was known as the “eastern” for inspiration. Yes, you read that right; the genre of films involving those brave warriors known as the samurai were what these filmmakers were utilizing as the inspiration for a take on the American West. You can honestly see how that, at that particular time, might have seemed just a tad bit on the ridiculous side. Yet that is exactly what an Italian film director by the name of Sergio Leone would use as his template for a new, yet very different kind of Wild West tale. In this kind of western, cynicism existed in healthy amounts, good was relative and bad was more than just an attitude, but rather a complete way of life. Indeed it should go without saying, but for the usual Hollywood western at the time, the time was a’coming when people were about to witness a showdown at high noon that was unlike any other that Hollywood had seen up to that particular time.
This of course brings us to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Indeed while this was not the first in what quickly became known as the “spaghetti western” by any stretch of the imagination, I do feel that this was the definitive film which proudly made the announcement that here at long last was a new take on one of the more well-regarded genres of film to come out of America. Yet I must confess that I did find one thing funny. This of course would be the fact that despite that Sergio Leone seeing in an eastern movie known as Yojimbo a vital and intriguing chance to bring back to life the flagging western genre, the director of Yojimbo was significantly taken by a few of the earlier westerns from a little director named John Ford. Thus being properly inspired, he then also chose to “borrow” the plot of Yojimbo from a writer by the name of Dashiell Hammett thus managing to bring this seemingly transcendent across various cultures story full circle, and incredibly, it actually works. Indeed, and to be fair, whilst Leone’s style was still in the process if becoming his signature, I still do feel that this film is the true game-changer that everyone sees it as. Indeed, thanks to a star-making turn by Clint Eastwood, a unique yet engaging style from an emerging legend-in-the-making, and a wonderful new way of looking at a defining genre of American cinema, A Fistful of Dollars is filmmaking magic, but also a truly strong display of what was to come for both director and star.
The plot is as follows: In the Old West, a drifting gunslinger rolls into a town that is dominated by 2 warring gangs of criminals known as the Baxters and the Rojos. Upon learning of this from the town bartender, our “hero” sees an incredible opportunity of the financial variety. An opportunity which takes the form of hiring himself and his shooting skills out to both families, and then proceeding to play them both off each other while doing tasks for both and for increasing amounts of payment thus leading to their complete annihilation and a potential financial windfall for him as well as business for the town mortician. Of course it should go without saying, but whenever a plan seems to be this simple it’s usually anything but. Trust me when I say that this is definitely one of those times…..
Now I feel first and foremost that a significant part of this film’s success has to be attributed to Mr. Ennio Morricone. Indeed this is a man who is easily tied with John Williams for being the best movie composer of all time to the extent that even if you don’t know the man, you certainly know his music. Indeed from The Hateful Eight, The Untouchables, The Professional, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly this man is a genius when it comes to pairing music to a motion picture and trust me when I say that gift is on full display with this film. That is because even though it is a score which will assuredly feel familiar to a significant amount of modern audiences, I still feel that Morricone managed to utilize his singular creativity with particular regard towards his use of both raw sound as well as singular instruments in order to create a soundtrack that would ultimately redefine the Western genre as we know it. Not only that, but Morricone manages to bring not just a sense of tension, mystery and swagger to the finished film, but he also manages to wisely see when a period of silence could be infinitely more effective than any score he could even begin to compose. Indeed it is no secret to say, but I feel that in so many ways, Morricone’s music in this really does a wonderful job of gluing this movie together and making it work as well as it does.
Another significant key to this movie’s success would most certainly have to be the casting of Clint Eastwood in the role of “Joe” or as he has become known “The Man with No Name”. Indeed although there were several bigger names at the time that had been courted for the role, I feel that Clint’s severe lack of film credits at this particular time actually serves as an advantage because he’s able to take this role and play him in a way that someone like Charles Bronson for example might not have been able to due to Bronson being known for playing a particular kind of character. I also feel that Clint made a genius decision in the form of requesting that Leone cut even more of the already limited dialogue he had written for the main character thus not only raising the character’s mystique, but by making him an individual who speaks way more in regards towards his actions than what he says in any vocal sense whatsoever. Indeed it really is a remarkable beginning to a film career that, aside from a few misses here and there, has been absolutely nothing short of iconic.
Finally I think it would be an absolute sin to even consider doing a review of A Fistful of Dollars and yet never once take time in the review in order to bring up and praise the absolute filmmaking brilliance that this movie gets courtesy of director Sergio Leone. Indeed he may have just been starting out when he made this film, but even then, one is still blessed to be able to notice a lot of early examples of certain directorial flourishes that would very quickly and lovingly become Leone trademarks. Indeed everything from Leone’s fondness for extreme close-ups that are then subsequently followed by absolutely expansive widescreen shots, extended yet poignant and actually kind of suspenseful showdowns between our hero and key members of the gangs, as well as the careful and proper utilization of music and making it seem as if it’s almost just another character in the film altogether can all be seen here for the very first time. Yet perhaps the most significant thing that can be attributed to Leone is how he somehow has managed to make the Old West look, for lack of a better word, real. Indeed as visioned by Leone the Old West wasn’t always this clean place where law and order always prevailed and the hero was this upstanding and clean individual who was motivated by a sense of honor and integrity. Instead Leone wisely chose to showcase that the Old West was actually a rough and tumble place where law and order didn’t always get the job done and sometimes the hero was a dirty, greedy individual who did “the right thing”, but only because he was going to make a decent amount of money off it. Thus by injecting a much high degree of realism both in how this period in American History really was and also in the nature of the characters involved, Leone manages to craft an engaging yet also relatable Western that either watched alone or with the 2 other films in what is called “The Dollars Trilogy” will prove both watchable and entertaining for years to come.
All in all “A Fistful of Dollars” is a superbly directed, and extremely well-acted yet quite potent film that despite being a Western in terms of genre and setting also functions as an engrossing look into some of the more negative emotions known to man including selfishness, greed and hatred, all while chock to the brim with a wonderful sense of pitch black humor as well kicked up a notch with a riveting soundtrack from Ennio Morricone. Indeed it might be overshadowed by its two successors For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but I definitely feel that A Fistful of Dollars is nevertheless one brilliant and timeless film that everyone should see at least once. On a scale of 1-5 I give A Fistful of Dollars a 4 out of 5.