R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: A Fistful of Dollars

Once again, I seem to be completely obsessed with Westerns. I think a lot of it has to do with the release schedule for September, which has two of the films I’m most looking forward to this fall; 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Each looks fascinating to me for different reasons. Yuma looks to be in keeping with the classic shoot ’em up Western, with clearly defined heroes and villains, much like The Magnificent Seven or Rio Bravo. Jesse James looks closer to the type of Western that filled 1960’s and 70’s like The Wild Bunch or The Outlaw Josey Wales, a film more somber and looking to demystify the West, perhaps showing it closer to what it really was. Each to me, is just as important as the other, as the mythic Western is every bit as essential to the genre as the deconstruction of those myths.

I’ve spoken before about how the Western came to be important to me, as I initially rebelled against them because my father loves them so, but then turned to them later and now feel as if the love for Westerns is a strong link between us. There’s just something so pure about the Western that I absolutely love. They can be simple, but are not often simplistic. Even in Westerns where the heroes and villains are clearly defined, such as High Noon, many moralistic questions are brought about the nature of a hero and his duty to a town, even when its citizens abandon him.

It was out of my love for Westerns that my admiration for Clint Eastwood started. It’s been awesome in the last few years to see Eastwood finally get the recognition he deserves for being a great film maker, but I’ve always loved him. Films such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and High Plains Drifter both showed the steady hand that would eventually guide modern masterpieces like Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima. As a star though, Eastwood has been even more consistent and durable throughout his career.

To be honest, this was a column that started out to be about Unforgiven. Eastwood’s final tome to the genre is a film that has only grown in stature since its release and is now a hallmark of the genre, and some say its last great example. Thing is, I didn’t want to talk about the end of Eastwood’s love affair with the genre until I went in and talked about its beginning. Now while I’m not going to talk about Clint’s Rawhide days, I’m perfectly prepared to talk about my love for A Fistful of Dollars.

A Fistful of Dollars Starring Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volontè, and Marianne Koch.

Just like in music, where you’re either a Beatles or Elvis person, in Westerns the division seems to be with either Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. Wayne, perhaps the biggest screen icon ever, is the personification of the old school Western. Is their a “hero shot” that is more indicative of the genre than Wayne’s introduction in Stagecoach? Is there a film more synonymous with the Western than The Searchers? The man just simply WAS the Western during his career, and it was with Wayne that many began to love the genre.

At the end of Wayne’s era though, the Western became the home of Clint Eastwood. Throughout his Spaghetti Westerns, his first few American Westerns that were Leone-knockoffs and then finally making the genre his own, Eastwood carved a path that made his name the one people would associate with the Horse Opera. Often, his characters were less defined than Wayne’s. For instance Clint’s Man with No Name was a good guy, but really only compared to the others around him. This goes especially in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, where he (nicknamed “Blondie” in that picture) turns on a partner for virtually no reason, kills unarmed enemies in cold blood and nearly kills what ends up being our favorite character, again virtually for no reason. Yet, at no point do we really consider not allying ourselves with Eastwood’s character. This is evident in Clint’s first go round with the Man with No Name as well.

Now, before I go further I would like to acknowledge that I realize that the “Man with No Name” was essentially a marketing ploy by United Artist to make a trilogy out of these films in order to make more money, and that its highly possible that Clint is playing three different characters in these movies, albeit ones that dress and act Exactly the same. Now while he does have three different names in each of the movies (“Joe”, “Monco”, and “Blondie”), there does seem to be a need to call him something in the movies, even if they’re just nicknames.

“Joe”, his name in A Fistful of Dollars, is only ever said by the drunk coffin maker. According to IMDB, “Monco”, his name in For a Few Dollars More, is Italian for “one handed” or “one armed”, which is pretty appropriate considering his habit of fighting, drinking, etc with his left hand only. His right hand always remains on his gun underneath his trademark poncho. Finally, Eastwood is as “blonde” in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as he is “good”, but again, I suppose compared to everyone else in the movie he could appear blonde. Bottom line is, Leone’s movies are so fluid that really you could side with either camp and be right. I prefer to think of Eastwood’s character as one unstoppable character.

Finally going back to A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s character is not quite like the righteous heroes that had tamed John Ford and Howard Hawks west. While the plot of Fistful is a direct rehash of Akira Kurosawa’s immortal classic Yojimbo, Clint’s character isn’t really quite the same. When Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro hit the village in which he decided to wipe out the two Yakuza gangs terrorizing it, I believe he had some sort of plan that was just about wiping out the gangs. With Clint’s character, I’m not sure at the beginning of the movie that he isn’t just out to drive his price up and make more money for himself by playing both sides of the feud that’s raging within the small town of San Miguel.

Thing is, when he does seem to make that turn and do something noble, by releasing main baddie Ramon Rojo’s hostage/lover Marisol (Marianne Koch), he is immediately captured and beaten to within an inch of his life. Yet, when the movie comes down to it, and another victim could be possibly saved if he’s able to stand up and be a hero, he seems to do so without hesitation. This is a theme that would also carry over a bit in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but really just in small moments, such his last comforting of a dying soldier, standing beside Eli Wallach’s Tuco over the much more evil partner in Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes, or blowing up a bridge in order to save the lives of soldiers. The point is, is that it seems to mean much more when he does decide to be a hero, because when he does the consequences seem much greater. This is part of the reason we’ve come to love Sergio Leone’s movies.

There’s a line in A Fistful of Dollars where the barkeep that has befriended Eastwood says something about “playing Cowboys and Indians”. Watching the film recently, as well as other Leone epics, I realized how important this line really is, because that’s what Leone was doing. Leone was just taking the quintessential parts of the Westerns he loved and putting them together as if he were a child. We get gun fights and horses, over-the-top villains, and amazing entrances throughout the movie. The Western was all but dead in American when Fistful came about, and here was this Italian made film that reminded us about why we loved them so much. Here was a man presenting myth of what the great Westerns were about, and we ate it up from beginning to end.

A Fistful of Dollars was not the first Spaghetti Western ever made, but it might as well have been. This was the genesis of both what we came to love about Spaghetti Westerns, as well as the first real one to be popular. After A Fistful of Dollars, the Italian film industry finally began to recover from the death of the “Sword and Sandal” epic and jumped on the wave, six-guns and horses at the ready. As for Leone himself, this is where we get a feel for where he was finally going to go. The anticipation of violence, the power of the wide shot/close-up juxtaposition, and the terrific use of score are all there. While nothing is presented on the grand scale that it would be with Leone’s two masterpieces, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America, we’re still given plenty of flair and showmanship. I love the entrance of Toshiro Mifune for the final duel of Yojimbo, but Eastwood’s correlating one in A Fistful of Dollars is beyond awesome. As the smoke fades away and only Eastwood remains, a new type of Western legend was born.

Bottom line is A Fistful of Dollars is not the pinnacle of the Spaghetti Western, but it’s as good an introduction as is possible. The movie has style to spare and a hero so confident you would think this was his 18th time playing this role instead of his very first. In many ways Eastwood never stopped playing this man, and frankly we’re all the luckier for it.

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