A Fistful of Dollars
aka Per un pugno di dollari
On the scale of Sergio Leone’s subsequent westerns, A Fistful of Dollars makes for an almost meek and mild first outing for Clint’s The Man with No Name (aka Joe). Sticking to its Yojimbo template (released three years earlier), our protagonist plays two gangs against each other and emerges victorious, if a little beaten up. He only engages in one round of quick draw during the first hour, and in spite of the assumed amorality his character ushered in, helping in no small part to cement a new and fashionable breed of anti-hero, Joe shows himself to be surprisingly scrupulous.
I mean sure, he gets people killed, either directly or through shrewd tactics. But he also cares about the little people. And his mule. It’s returning Marisol (Marianne Koch) to her chinless husband Julio (Daniel Martin) and mewling son Jesus (Nino del Arco – whoever dubbed the kid’s cries for mom is by some distance the movie’s most irksome over actor) that gets him beaten on. And he does it “Because I knew someone like you once, and there was no one there to help”. And the final showdown occurs when he goes to the aid of kindly bar owner Silvanito (Pepe Calvo), whose main function is giving Clint someone to talk to, taciturn as he inevitably is. Although, for my money, the star supporting turn comes from Joe Edger as coffin-maker Piripero.
One might suggest this is THMWNN’s natural character arc, as the guy who picks up the trademark outfit seen here during The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Or it might be that, standards of right and wrong blurring as they have over the subsequent decades, Joe now appears as something of an exemplar, a just and kind defender. He’s practical too, of course, electing to abstain from involvement in an inevitable dispute between the US and Mexico over who owns the chest of gold the Rojos swiped.
It’s interesting that Philip French called out the picture’s “calculated sadism”, which I’m presuming is particularly referencing Joe getting the stuffing knocked out of him, with only the best red paint ’60-70s movies could buy. It’s fair comment, as it is sadistic, but it’s also smart moviemaking. Joe is punished (for his greed? His slyness? For being a sap who helps poor women?) and gets to rise again, triumphant. It’s key to the cathartic showdown. French also attested – hilariously and absurdly, respectively – that it “looks awful” and has “a flat dead soundtrack”.
Joe’s showdown gambit – a jolly good thing Ramón can only shoot people in the chest, rather than the face or goolies – is something of a Chekov’s Suit of Armour, with the idea of a bulletproof vest presenting itself quite early on, via the material the Rojos use for target practice. It’s subsequently been riffed on by Marty McFly of course, as Clint Eastwood, the lowest down yellow belly in all the West.
There’s a dry line in humour throughout, from Joe’s requests to prepare coffins, to his shooting down the awning that knocks out Chico (Mario Brega), to accidentally punching out Marisol (that’s right, the Man hits women). Morricone’s score is already working in tandem with Leone’s shots to extend the tension of standoffs, but it hasn’t yet also assumed the role of accompanying laugh track (which it won’t do all the time, obviously, but frequently enough). Gian Maria Volonté is a chief Rojo nutter, but he’s entirely sane when stood next to Volonté’s nutter in the next Dollars movie. Eastwood’s in early iconic mode, naturally, making hay from what might have been Henry Fonda (too expensive) or Charles Bronson (mercifully, he thought the script stank). James Coburn also passed.
I’d previously sunk into something of a groove of seeing A Fistful of Dollars as a significantly lesser beast – or mule – to the subsequent two classics, and while it is that, really something of an appetiser, it also has charms all its own. The sheer confidence of a – nearly – fully formed style remains impressive, particularly when you consider the gulf between this and Leone’s previous effort three years earlier, his ponderous feature debut Colossus of Rhodes. On the dates front, it’s interesting to consider there was no whiff of this (or its prequel/sequels) in the US and UK for another three years, following which Clint successfully left Rowdy Yates in the dust.
For my part, sacrilegious as it may be, I was never a great fan of the Ford and Hawks classic-era westerns – obviously, there are exceptions – and the Leone spaghettis are much more my cigarillo. Indeed, I’m not particular fussed by most spaghettis I’ve seen from others, your Corbuccis and what have you. It’s all about the stylistic mastery on display with Leone’s oeuvre, one thing Eastwood didn’t learn when he graduated to directing. Which meant he needed a watertight screenplay if he hoped to compete (he’d get it with Unforgiven).