A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Written by Sergio Leone, Adriano Bolzoni, Víctor Andrés Catena, Mark Lowell, Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil, Fernando Di Leo, Duccio Tessari, and Tonino Valerii
Directed by Sergio Leone
The Western is an American storytelling genre predicated on the myths of Western Expansion and Manifest Destiny. Starting with dime story paperbacks and evolving into radio plays, comic books, films, and television, Westerns were even more prominent than Marvel movies at their peak. Their influence was so considerable that Westerns and gangster pictures became the exclusive representation of American cinema abroad. Italian director Sergio Leone grew up as the child of a film director and silent movie actress, so he was constantly exposed to moviemaking. Historical epics, nicknamed “swords and sandals,” were the popular genre films of the 1950s in Italy, but they fell out of favor as the decade closed out. So Leone decided to combine his love of samurai movies (particularly Akira Kurosawa’s work) and Westerns and make his own in the wilds of Spain. Nicknamed “Spaghetti Westerns” due to their Italian origins, this subgenre managed to reignite new interest. They challenged American directors’ rose-colored depictions of the West and presented the audience with a much darker, violent, and sexually threatening frontier.
A Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) rides into the little town of San Miguel on the US-Mexico border. The innkeeper, Silvanto, tells the Stranger about the power dynamics of this town. On one side of the main street are the Rojo Brothers (Don Miguel, Esteban, & Ramon) and the Baxters (Sheriff John, his wife Consuela, and their son Antonio). Both families are smugglers and have harmed the citizens of San Miguel through their violence & rivalry. The Stranger decides to play both families against each other, first by hassling the Baxters to “prove” himself to the Rojos. Once he’s in the good graces of these banditos, the Stranger begins manipulating the brothers into compromising their operations. What motivates the Stranger? Well, he won’t admit it, but he wants to reunite a woman with her husband and child after she was taken by the Rojos.
Fistful of Dollars is clearly a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but that doesn’t stop it from becoming its own dynamic reinvention of the American Western. Compared to the movies Leone will make as a response to Fistful’s popularity, it doesn’t seem spectacular. However, I think of this as a test. Leone would see the robust response and realize a massive audience wanted these kinds of movies. I can see why audiences were drawn to Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns from this first one. They exude a dynamic energy and momentum that the American brand had yet to embrace. A Leone film feels like a roller coaster in all the best ways, letting tension crank up and then releasing it in fantastic set pieces & showdowns.
One line Leone crosses here (and will cross again even more spectacularly) is the depiction of violence. Once The Stranger has his plan going, we witness the Rojos unleashing brutality on their enemies in a manner that feels tame by modern standards but, in 1964, had to be quite shocking. The lack of mercy or feeling from the Rojos as they slaughter a family is chilling but a much more accurate depiction of the lawlessness of the American West than many films set in the same period. Leone manages to keep this violence from tilting the movie into a bleak affair by inserting moments of humor, primarily through the local coffin-maker who sees business booming with the Stranger’s arrival.
The character of The Man With No Name borrows some traits from pre-established Western archetypes but is also something original. Like your typical Western hero, he handles a gun with near supernatural skill, but he doesn’t entirely rely on gunslinging. Instead, The Stranger uses his wits & close observations to defeat his enemies, finding permanent alliances to be things of momentary convenience, not anything you would spend the rest of your life on. His morality is far more complex than most “white hats,” as he’s comfortable killing some Baxters to get into Don Miguel’s good graces. The Stranger is ultimately an anti-hero who makes extensive efforts to convince people he only cares about money.
When The Stranger first encounters Marisol, the woman being held by the Rojos, he doesn’t have much of a reaction. Something shifts in him when he sees she has a child and spouse she was taken from, who hold out hope they will get her back. The Stranger never openly admits anything but this is clearly a case of actions speaking louder than words. He’s asked by Marisol why he would help her, and his response is, “I knew someone like you once, but there was no one there to help.”
When the Rojos and the Baxters are entirely wiped out, only then does the Stranger pack up and leave. There’s no reason for him to stay. This informs us that he stuck around because he saw an imbalance of power in San Miguel. The people outside these smuggling cartels were being victimized, and the Stranger will admit this is wrong. My personal read is that The Stranger has no problems with organized crime & violence; it is wrong when it harms people who have not willingly chosen to “play the game,” especially if the perpetrators are taking sadistic pleasure in the violence they inflict. The Stranger is amused by tricking and eventually killing his foes, but he’s not getting off on it.
Leone has laid out every building block he will build upon for the remainder of his career in this single film. This is a fantastic picture right out of the gate with Leone’s tense showdowns, tight close-ups on eyes, and Ennio Morricone’s music building to an operatic crescendo. It’s easy to imagine how excited a picture like this could get an audience for Westerns, providing them with a take that remarked on familiar tropes while cutting out its own path. Leone would top this film immediately with his next (and, in my opinion, arguably his best) movie, For a Few Dollars More.