DVD Review Of A Fistful Of Dollars

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/4/10


  A Fistful Of Dollars, the 1964 film by Sergio Leone, that ignited the Spaghetti Western craze, is a very interesting film, even if it is only a pretty good film, cinematically. Among the interesting things about it is that its English language title, as presented within the film, lacks the article ‘A.’ It is Fistful Of Dollars, translated from the Italian Per Un Pugno Di Dollari. Another of its interesting facts is that it is perhaps one of the miost successful examples of artistic plagiarism ever, basically being a rework of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (Kurosawa sued Leone over the film and reaped substantial financial benefits from an out of court settlement, getting 15% of the film’s worldwide gross, and exclusive distribution rights for Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, making more money with this film than with any of his own). And, despite claims of this film’s being rooted in other sources, including those that aided Yojimbo, there are simply far too many scenes that are not the same, but virtually identical, down to dialogue and camera angles. No doubt, this film is plagiarism, but, as the saying goes, if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best). Naturally, it is an inferior film (less depth, details, nuances, and intricacies), but Leone was simply too good a director to let the film totally flail away in imitation. Another fact is that the film is often said to have been the first part of a trilogy of films called The Man With No Name Trilogy. This is not so, for the whole Man With No Name concept was an American marketing campaign, and not something original to Leone. The trilogy is The Dollars Trilogy, but the character played by Clint Eastwood, in all three films: this, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, is a) not unnamed (he has three names or nicknames in each film), and b) the films are set in different times and places, so are not likely the same character, merely the same mythic archetype, a sort of Old West Everyman, yet one with the talents and luck of James Bond and an inscrutable mind (unlike the Sanjuro character in Yojimbo, for whom rumination’s the thing).

  This film follows Eastwood’s character (here known as Joe) as he arrives at a Mexican border town called San Miguel, where a barkeep named Silvanito (Jose Calvo), tells him of the warring clans: There are the liquor running Rojo brothers, Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and the psychopathic Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte) and the gun running Baxters, led by patriarch John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy). Neither clan is as comic as those in Yojimbo. Joe plays the families off of each other after showing he is quicker with a gun than anyone. After several family battles, Joe and Silvanito watch the Rojo clan massacre Mexican soldiers over a gold shipment, then plant dead Indians to simulate a battle between those two combatants. Seeing a further opportunity, Joe takes two of the corpses to a nearby cemetery, then tells both sides that two soldiers survived the attack. Both sides battle it out at the cemetery. The Baxters want them to prove the Rojos’ treachery, and the Rojos want to silence the ‘survivors.’ That neither side figures that the pair are corpses (they remain still during the gunfight) is evidence of the Dumbest Possible Action trope of the narrative. The two corpses are shot, and the Rojos also capture John Baxter’s son, Antonio. While the clans fight, Joe searches the Rojo compound for gold, and accidentally knocks out Ramon’s hostage mistress, Marisol (Marianne Koch), when she surprises him. He takes her to the Baxters, who will swap for Antonio.

  During the exchange, Joe learns Marisol’s history, and how she is basically Ramon’s sex slave, despite having a husband and child. That night, Joe frees Marisol, shooting the guards and wrecking the house to make it seem the Baxters attacked. This leads to the nihilistic film’s only moment of motivation. Joe tells the family to leave for the American border, and Marisol asks why he is helping them, to which Joe says, ‘Because I knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help.’ But the Rojos find out Joe freed Marisol, capture and beat him. He escapes, after killing two of their thugs. The Rojos search the town for him, and think the Baxters are protecting him, so they torch their residence. They massacre all the Baxters as they flee, including John’s wide, and the toughest of the clan, his wife, Consuelo (Margarita Lozano), and son Antonio. They then beat Silvanito, who they think is hiding Joe. After recovering for an unspecified time, in a mine shaft, Joe faces down the Rojos, with a steel chest plate beneath his clothing. He Chides Ramon to ‘aim for the heart,’ an echo of Ramon’s earlier boast. In the real world, Ramon would have simply blown off the head of Joe, but the Dumbest Possible Action trope (the use of which forbids a film from ever being great) dictates that Ramon keep firing at the heart. Joe then kills off Ramon’s henchman, leaving only the two of them. Ramon earlier boasted that when a man with a .45 and a man with a rifle meet, the man with a .45 is a dead man. Still taunting, and with Ramon’s rifle on the ground, Joe tosses his revolver down, and both men then retrieve their guns, to reload them, but Joe’s reloads quicker, and he kills Ramon, whose final moments are of the camera wobbling, as if from Ramon’s viewpoint. Esteban Rojo is shot by Silvanito, as he aims at Joe from a nearby building. Joe then says goodbye to Silvanito and San Miguel.

  The film was shot in Spain, and has some strong points, but overall, it’s far too reliant on the Dumbest Possible Action trope to be true drama. It is, at its root, melodrama, but a good one. Leone invented many stylizations of the Spaghetti Western, such as the use of modern music with films set in a historical period, and the use of Fellini-like close-ups alternating with wide vistas, rather than close-ups used just as reaction shots between master shots. In short, this film is about style, not substance, for there really is little of depth in the film; thus why it innovated things such as the dilation of time in events that are shown in subjective time, rather than objective time (see the gunfights, or rather their buildups). Also, this film was Ennio Morricone’s first score, and it was much more successful than the innovative score for Yojimbo because, while the Yojimbo music was good alone, it did not serve its film well. Morricone’s score, however, made this film better. It is also probably the only area between root and successor film where the later film was the better. The screenplay, by Leone and Jaime Comas, is solid, and the cinematography, by Massimo Dallamano, is, at times impressive, and other times pedestrian- see the day for night scenes. One can see that Leone was not the only one feeling his way through this film. The acting, outside of Eastwood, is generally over the top, but one of the really good aspects of this film is how well it is dubbed into English. There simply is no need for distracting subtitles, and the excellent use of post-synch dubbing (aka looping) became another innovation Leone came up with, which also helped allow the use of sound as a design tool along with visuals. Far more jarring than the occasional slight missynchronization of lips is the use of Spanish landscapes for the high Mexican desert- neither the mountains nor the coloration of the landscape looks right, and it took almost half the film for me to forget that I was looking at a clearly European landscape, not a native American one.

  The two disk DVD, from MGM, is a good one. Disk One has the film, restored in all but the graveyard scene, where damage to the original negative results in streaks that, apparently, computer fixes could not aid. The 100 minute long color film is seen in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It has a good audio commentary track from film historian Christopher Frayling. He is scene specific, and quite enthused, although he often overreaches in his praise for the film, and his mitigation of the obvious plagiarism by Leone. He scores some points when he comments on the influence of the James Bond films on the film, from its animated opening sequence through its main character’s emphasis on ‘cool’ over characterization. Disk Two has several good featurettes: A New Kind Of Hero; A Few Weeks In Spain: Clint Eastwood On Fistful Of Dollars; Tre Voci: Three Friends Remember Sergio Leone; Not Ready For Primetime; Network Prologue With Harry Dean Stanton; and Location Comparisons; as well as ten radio spots, and MGM trailers.

  Taken on its own, A Fistful Of Dollars is a more influential than great film (all plagiarism aside), and it augured Leone’s true mastery of the craft, evidenced in later films, like his two Once Upon A Time films: Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America, but it is its own influence on its successor films that is the most interesting thing about this film. Leone was just beginning a two decade ride to being, simultaneously, one of the most underrated yet influential great film directors of all time. As I said earlier: interesting; very interesting.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Cinescene website.]


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