Director: Sergio Leone
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonte, Jose Calvo, Marianne Coch, Sieghardt Rupp
Plot: A stranger (Eastwood) rolls into a ghost town, learning that the inhabitants are terrorised by two ruthless gangs.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly might have walked away with the trophy of being the most critically acclaimed Western to date, but it was actually the finale to a grand Spaghetti-Western trilogy, all created by one director, the legendary Sergio Leone. A Fistful of Dollars might even earn the title of his most risky and impressive work. For one, Leone, at the time, was just as unknown as his hero. The Westerns were dying out, the usual faces (John Wayne for one), getting too old to carry on the tradition of making American-driven Western movies. The genre was on the brink of collapse, teetering under a lack of new talent in the area. Enter Leone. At the time, no one knew who he was. He made B Movies and was an Italian, who spoke little English. And wandering right into the middle of this desolate landmark, he created one of the most revered Westerns known to man, beating the classics at their own game.
The plot to his first of three Western classics is very similar to that entrance. Clint Eastwood plays the unnamed hero, wandering into a deserted town in search for water and somewhere to sleep for the night. From the very first frames, something is not quite right. The residents are terrified and the only man who seems willing to give him the time of the day is an elderly bartender, who is friendly yet eager for Eastwood to leave as soon as he has rested. In the space of a few scenes, we learn the town’s plight. It is ruled by two neighbouring gangs, both with equal power and claim over the town and subjecting the residents to their bloody war, cancelling out most of the town’s trade and keeping everyone, living in fear. The Baxters are the more official of the two gangs, selling weapons to passer-bys and rallying mercenaries to their cause. However, the Rojo family are the deadlier of the two and by far the more villainous. Rather than jump onto his horse and gallop as far away as he could, Eastwood decides to play the two sides off against each other, in order to make him a small fortune. If I had to lump a single criticism at A Fistful of Dollars, it would be that the Baxters don’t stand by as the villain archetypes. They don’t get enough screen-time and their power status never quite equates to villainy. The only bad thing they arguably do is snap at each other and have the misfortune to hire four goons who decide to mug Eastwood (in a brutally amazing opening fight scene that shows just how skilled our hero is). We could even argue that they are the poor victims and scapegoats to Eastwood’s schemes. However, the Rojo family make up for the Baxter’s inactivity by embracing the role of head bad guys. While the older Don Miguel leads the family, it is the younger brother, Ramon, who takes the mantle of head villain. Expert with his Winchester rifle, ruthless at the drop of the hat and blindly ambitious, he is a great villain to anchor this Western movie. His build up is well done, with Leone dropping hints that he is the big villain around the corner, before he even walks onto screen and he doesn’t disappoint, actor Volonte, dominating screen time throughout the entire picture.
Clint Eastwood’s hero is harder to get a read on. There is the grim realisation that this Man With No Name could be just as nasty as the men he is fighting. When Eastwood launches war on the two families, his plan is to merely profit. The first two acts of the film consist of Eastwood doing both family’s dirty work, but twisting his methods to directly pin the gangs against each other. None of them are aware that they are eroding their numbers, while this silent American watches in the background. There is no nobility to the hero’s cause. As the Western enters its endgame, it is suggested that Eastwood becomes more motivated with the plight of a couple, torn apart by Ramon’s greed. The character of Marisol is introduced, a female living with Ramon. At first, Leone hints he is going to do the stereotypical Western thing. The John Wayne hero saunters in, kills the bad guy and walks away with the girl. However, in a genre-defying move, Leone has a better narrative up his sleeve. Marisol has a husband and son living in fear in the village. Ramon took her for himself as he ascended to power (the concept that the poor character is being raped in between scenes for the majority of the film’s running time is not lost on Leone’s grim tale), and Eastwood decides to free her for the sake of her grieving husband. Again, this is where the motives are muddied. In a normal Hollywood movie, we would assume this is the anti-hero’s turning point, where he realises he needs to bring down these villains for the sake of the town. Yet Leone obscures that reading a few plot points later and the final fights are little more than the hero seeking revenge. He is not the lone wanderer coming to save the town. He is a brutal killer, who is just slightly kinder and better at his job than those he is up against. Eastwood can’t really be accused of shining in his performance, because Leone’s script gives him little dialogue. But he does enough, the trademark frown plastered on his face and his eyes always burning with intensity, even when his body language suggests otherwise. A Fistful of Dollars put Eastwood on the map and it is quite charming to watch the actor stripped back to the basics, yet still captivate.
Leone’s brilliance doesn’t really come into play, until the final thirty minutes. As an audience looking back on A Fistful of Dollars, we could even argue the director has put the story on cruise with Eastwood casually taking pot-shots at the rival gangs. Then the action explodes. Ramon faces Eastwood head on and we are left amazed, as the hero pulls himself through the trials the director has in store for him. Westerns, by nature, are predictable, even this one, yet the intensity of the direction keeps us entertained. The final shoot-out is cleverly played. Western showdowns are so buried in cliché, it is hard to keep them fresh, but Leone manages with ease. It ends shortly afterwards, so we are still left reeling at the shocking finish. The best thing: there are two more of these epics left to go.
Final Verdict: Leone storms into Hollywood and reinvents the Western. The very definition of a timeless piece of cinema.