A Fistful of Dollars [retro review]

“I don’t think it’s nice, you laughin’. See, my mule don’t like people laughin’. He gets the crazy idea you’re laughin’ at him. Now if you apologize, like I know you’re going to, I might convince him that you really didn’t mean it.”

The Scoop: 1964 R, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch and Gian Maria Volonté

Tagline: In his own way he is perhaps, the most dangerous man who ever lived!

Summary Capsule: Clint Eastwood proves once and for all that cowboys and samurai are pretty much the same thing.

Drew’s Rating: Do you think he rides on a horse with no name?

Drew’s Review: It’s all a myth.

The western, that is. Most of the ideas we cling to about the “wild west” are either complete fabrications, or at best massive revisions of the truth. More cowboys died from being kicked by their horses than in gunfights with desperadoes; and if you did get into one, your trusty pistol was more likely to jam or backfire in your hand than to actually hit your target. Billy the Kid didn’t kill 21 people, and lovable rogue or not, Doc Holliday shot unarmed men and ran from the law more often than he enforced it. Also, records are spotty at best on whether anyone actually got a locomotive up to 88 miles per hour near Clayton Ravine.

The point of all of which is not to shatter anyone’s cherished beliefs (sorry), but to clarify that the western as we know it belongs in the same category as tales about King Arthur or Sherlock Holmes — based very, very loosely on real events and people, but embellished and fictionalized to a near-infinite degree. Which, frankly, is not a bad thing… truth may be stranger than fiction, but the fiction generally makes for a better, more cohesive story. And with that fiction of the western comes a familiar archetype — the Gunslinger, the mysterious loner who arrives in a town besieged by violence, saying little but letting his irons do the talking, then just as mysteriously rides into the sunset when his job is done. He may initially appear to be a uniquely American archetype, intrinsically tied to frontier justice, Manifest Destiny and all that good stuff… and yet, those in the know recognize the huge debt owed to his spiritual predecessor, the Japanese ronin, or masterless samurai. With the exception of small, mostly cosmetic differences — like, herding cattle vs. defending your honorable master from neighboring warlords — the characteristics of the two archetypes (can you tell I just really like that word?) are nearly identical.

So it should come as no surprise that when young Italian director Sergio Leone set out to create a film in the new “realistic” style of spaghetti westerns, he chose to remake established Japanese classic Yojimbo, recasting the ronin as an amoral, stoic cowboy. And thus begins the saga of possibly the greatest gunslinger of them all, the Man with No Name — often imitated, never duplicated. His debut in A Fistful of Dollars features a simple story, relying not on intricate plotting but rather the sheer intensity and momentum of events to draw in the viewer. In brief, the Mw/NN (Eastwood) happens upon a small town living in terror of two rival crime families vying for control. Sensing the opportunity to make a profit and, if there’s time, maybe even do some good, he swiftly sells his services to both families and begins playing them off each other, manipulating events for his own inscrutable ends. You never know exactly what his next step will be, but you can be sure it’ll A) be done stylishly, and B) work out to his benefit when all is said and done. Because that is how he rolls.

Now let’s be honest — you’re seeing this movie for Clint. The cinematography, the historical value, the musical score… they’re all great, but they wouldn’t mean a thing without a leading man strong enough to carry the movie on his shoulders. It’s one thing to write a terrific line, but having a weathered-looking guy to squint with unconcerned, quiet menace at your villains, then rasp it out in such a way as to make it the coolest thing the audience has ever heard? Well, that’s cinematic gold, ladies and gentlemen. No one does restrained badassery like Eastwood, and it’s hard to believe that going into Dollars he was an unknown quantity… his performance in this breakthrough role is that of a cool, confident individual who knows his business and does it. Granted, it’s theoretically not hard to play a character whose defining trait is an overwhelming lack of emotion — but the trick lies in doing it with panache. With a bare minimum of words, Eastwood convinces us not only that he doesn’t give a crap what anyone else thinks, but also that he doesn’t need to because he’s smarter than all of them. The fact that the character would go on to influence an entire generation of homages and pretenders over the next few decades is just icing on the cake.

The straight shot on Dollars is that it’s a great movie with a few minor flaws. Leone was still finding his voice with this, his first spaghetti western, and it shows in certain places — the characters are pretty two-dimensional and the film drags a bit in the middle, with the politics of the rival families getting in the way of Clint kicking ass and taking names. But while it’s probably my least favorite of Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, that’s like saying vanilla is your least favorite flavor of ice cream — you’ll still gladly take it any day of the week. If nothing else, see it for historical merit as the film that ushered in a whole new intense, gritty type of western and made Clint Eastwood the only man to ever challenge John Wayne’s dominion of the genre. Just whatever you do, DON’T laugh at his mule.

Shalen’s Rating: Seven out of the six bullets that a .45 revolver can actually contain. IF you don’t leave the chamber empty. Which is a bad idea with revolvers (unless you are Clint Eastwood).

Shalen’s Review: This is fairly different from the other types of movies I’ve reviewed so far. Of course, that’s not saying much, since my complete bibliography to date is, lessee, three films and an article. And I haven’t been a huge fan of westerns. I grew up on Audie Murphy and John Wayne. As soon as I got past about 12, they stopped being cool for me, despite the awesomeness of 5’6” Murphy never standing on a box to pretend he was taller than the love interest. I know of some other actors who should take a lesson (*coughCruisecough*). But I digress.

In point of fact, those who read my Soldier review will not be surprised at my love of this film. Clint Eastwood really is the very best incarnation of the Mechanical Man archetype here. (Ha ha, I stole a word from Drew’s review.) He’s emotionally unreadable, he’s virtually invincible, and he can’t be owned even though others think he can. And I love the mechanical man. (Next article: “Emotionally Unavailable Men and the Reviewers Who Love Them.”) And I’ve come to love grittier westerns such as this film and Tombstone. And I also love a number of Japanese films, and this is basically a ripoff of a Japanese film.

That doesn’t guarantee it’s good, of course. I’m sure many of you out there have seen the remake of Dark Water by now. I’m sure any day now we’ll see an American remake of the Tomie series, culminating in Tomie vs. Jason. (Personally, I suspect this will herald the coming of the Apocalypse.) There are plenty of lame westerns out there as well, from the old Rooster Cogburn and the Lady to the more recent but far worse Earp.

But this film really is good. It has interesting camera work, including the ever-popular “I’ve been shot” cam. It has some great soundtrack moments, starting with the menacing flute trill that seems to be the Man with No Name’s personal theme. It has the nonpareil Eastwood, with a face full of downward-facing curves and weathered surfaces, and his subdued but very intense performance. It has a good script with some very quotable lines. And it has an atypical ending wherein our hero does something much nobler than getting the girl. And by this I do not mean dying painfully to save someone he barely knows, which is what is usually meant by a statement like the above.

There is some silliness, of course. Eastwood’s character is materially assisted in his plotting by the large number of people in this town who discuss their plans loudly next to open doors and windows. His foes are so brilliant that they lock him in their wine cellar with a huge barrel at the top of a ramp which ends right at the only door. And, in all the time they spend torturing him, they are not bright enough to break any bones in his gun hand. Many of the “Mexicans” in this movie are roughly as convincing as I would be in a similar role (see my pictures in the bio to realize exactly how sarcastic this is). Apparently if you could wear orange makeup and speak haltingly, you were in.

But it’s still a great movie. If you’ve never seen an Eastwood pic or a Sergio Leone pic, this is a wonderful introduction to both. Films like this are the reason Hollywood once captivated the world, and the reason the magic of the silver screen is quickly losing to the convenience of the dvd player. It’s just not that easy to find a film that is both this entertaining and this excellent in a world where “good film” now often means either “painstaking animation” or “depressing as a state funeral” (See Grave of the Fireflies for an example of both).

"Be honest - can I pull off a cape?"

Intermission!

  • As mentioned, Dollars is a remake of famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo. Kurosawa successfully sued for copyright infringement.
  • Eastwood got as much of his character’s dialogue cut as possible, to heighten his sense of mystery and menace in the eyes of filmgoers. He also contributed much of the Man with No Name’s costume, including the black jeans, hat, and infamous cigars. By his account, the cigars were so awful that he used them to get in a foul mood for intense scenes.
  • The Mw/NN is wearing the poncho he acquires in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, firmly establishing that movie (filmed last in the trilogy) as a prequel to Dollars.
  • Despite having “no name,” the Man is actually called something different in each part of the trilogy. In this one, it’s Joe.
  • Dollars is often referred to as the first “spaghetti western,” a grittier, more realistic kind of western shot in Spain with primarily Italian actors. In actuality, more than 20 such movies had already been made, but Dollars was the first to receive international acclaim.
  • A combination of the blazing sun and high-wattage arc lamps were used to give the actors a sweaty, grimy look, and inadvertently led Eastwood to develop his trademark squint.
  • For the film’s American TV debut, network execs thought the Man with No Name needed a motivation for his killings; thus, a short scene was filmed (without Eastwood or Leone’s involvement) in which he’s pardoned from prison in exchange for agreeing to clean up San Miguel. It’s hilariously bad, only ever showing the Man from behind or above (obviously, since it’s not actually Eastwood), and he never speaks, only nods in response to yes/no questions. The special edition DVD contains this footage, with commentary by the scene’s director mocking how terrible it is.
  • The film was originally titled “The Magnificent Stranger” and changed only days before premiering in theaters. Supposedly no one told Eastwood about the change, so he didn’t find out the movie was out and doing well until weeks later.
  • Ennio Morricone handles the score, with wind instruments a-plenty. Interestingly, Leone initially didn’t want Morricone (a former classmate no less) to do it based on past work, but changed his mind quickly after hearing the finished score. He would go on to work with Morricone extensively throughout his career.

Groovy Quotes

      Mw/NN [to undertaker]: Get three coffins ready.

Mw/NN: I don’t think it’s nice, you laughin’. See, my mule don’t like people laughin’. He gets the crazy idea you’re laughin’ at him. Now if you apologize, like I know you’re going to, I might convince him that you really didn’t mean it.

Mw/NN [to undertaker]: My mistake. Four coffins.

Don Miguel: That’s the right idea? You didn’t misunderstand?
Mw/NN: I get the wrong idea only when it suits me.

Mw/NN: When a man’s got money in his pocket he begins to appreciate peace.

Consuela: Very soon you are going to be rich.
Mw/NN: Yeah, that’s not going to break my heart.

Chico: Our orders are to make sure he does not die… but also to make sure he regrets the day he was born.

Mw/NN: What’s wrong, Ramon? Losing your touch? [gets shot] Afraid, Ramon? You shoot to kill, you’d better hit the heart. Your own words, Ramon. [gets shot] The heart, Ramon. Don’t forget the heart. Aim for the heart or you’ll never stop me.

Mw/NN: When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said the man with the pistol’s a dead man. Let’s see if that’s true.

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11 Comments

  1. You’ll pardon me, Drew, if I take issue with your opening statement. It’s just that many of the “debunkings” of Westerns should be taken with a grain (and, in some cases, an entire shaker) of salt. I say this because many scholars who would challenge the historical authenticity of Westerns tended to cherry-pick sources which agreed with their desired conclusions while ignoring other equally valid sources. The end result is a presentation of the Old West which is just as fraudulent as anything seen in a Tom Mix film. It should also be kept in mind that, while the early Westerns had plenty of horse hoo to go around, there were some elements of truth in them.

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    • The one which probably chafes my hinder the most is the one concerning firearms. It gives a false impression of both the reliability and accuracy of the period’s firearms. You’ll pardon my lengthiness.

      On the subject of reliability, I’ll use as examples the Colt Peacemaker and the Winchester rifle, as both were widely used at the time and have become the iconic guns of the Old West as a result. By the time these weapons were developed, interchangeable parts which were machine fabricated (and thus less likely to have inperfections than hand fabricated parts) were standard in manufacturing firearms. Then of course they also use metal cartridges, thus doing away with the issue of hand loading the right amount of powder (not easy if you’re being shot at). Most important, the Peacemaker and Winchester were among the first firearms to take center fire cartridges as opposed to rim fire (and thus significantly reducing the chance of a misfire). Of course, not properly maintaining the firearm would increase the likelihood of misfires and jammings. Something to keep in mind though is that mass production as we know it didn’t exist at the time. Not only does this mean that firearms were comparatively expensive, the modern day disposable mentality was equally nonexistent. So taking proper care of a firearm had greater importance. A professional gunman who didn’t perform proper maintenance was one who wouldn’t last long. Even cowboys, who mostly used theirs for self-defense and killing the occasional rattler or horse in need of putting down, weren’t prone to just letting entropy have its way. After all, the typical pay for a cowboy was miniscule, so buying a new sidearm wasn’t something to be done on a whim.

      As for accuracy, this is mostly a case of the cherry-picking I mentioned previously, where one or two incidents notable for really bad marksmanship are cited as proof that that sort of thing happened all the time.

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