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Fistful of Dollars (1964)

by on 2011/06/04

“Strange how you always manage to be in the right place at the right time.”

* * * *

As a child, I snuck in on my parents one weekend afternoon. They were watching an airing of Hang ‘em High, and I got a small taste of what it meant to be traumatized. The image of a grizzled Clint Eastwood hanging from a rope was etched into my fragile little mind.

I’ve seen most of his westerns since, many more disturbing than that one, and I count them among the best. High Plains Drifter is a particular favourite, but here I’m going to focus on a movie whose poster I’ve proudly displayed on my living room wall: Fistful of Dollars.

If not the first, it is certainly the first most important of the “Spaghetti Westerns” produced by the Italian film industry, from the 1960s on. A little-known director, Sergio Leone, joined forces with Rawhide’s clean-cut cowboy, Eastwood, and emerged with a landmark piece introducing the so-called Man With No Name.

No name, my eye. He’s actually hailed as “Joe” at least six times throughout by an old and doddering undertaker, Piripero, played by Joe Edger.

He comes skulking into the town of San Miguel, with a poncho, hat, cigar, and .45 pistol. He quickly susses out the local political situation. Aside from neutral cantina man Silvanito (Jose Calvo), there are two distinct competitors in the “bandits and smugglers” sweepstakes. The Rojos run liquor, the Baxters run the guns.

Initially, Joe seeks his fortune by playing both sides against each other. Later, he comes to realize there are greater fortunes at stake.

If it all seems oddly familiar, it’s unsurprising. Roughly a year ago I reviewed a Japanese gem, Yojimbo. Similar dynamics are at play here, with characters and plot points transplanted to a western milieu. As Magnificent Seven did with Seven Samurai, so does Fistful of Dollars with Yojimbo. But where Magnificent was a rousing boys club adventure, Fistful is a lean, grizzled beast . . . and I mean that comment in the most complimentary way.

Joe is not your usual hero, ambiguous and complex, though not by any clue from his shallow comportment. He appears a simple mercenary and, morally, he’s questionable. He allows allies to be harmed, tortured for his actions, in his stead. Even when he does something good, his execution gives pause.

On the other hand, he’s also put in unflattering positions. Few heroes ‘til then were reduced to as much pulp. And exaggerating this wincing, cringing factor is Leone’s penchant for the close-up.

Imagine a typical one-shot.

Now, go closer.

No . . . closer.

The discomfiting portraits of framed characters reveal every drop, bead, and line we pay estheticians and airbrushers their wages to conceal. I imagine a viewing on Blu-ray disc would ensure my transition to total recluse.

Combined with the edits and pacing, these shots highlight the spectrum of emotions, from the smouldering Eastwood, to his more theatrical enemies. Apathy, fear, and sadism alike are very nearly palpable. In concert with Ennio Morricone’s evocative score, intensity becomes this movie’s true currency.

It’s easy to see — indeed to feel — why Fistful of Dollars stands as the defining landmark in the Spaghetti Western vanguard. Its cast and crew threaten to reduce the typical oater to caricatures on a lark. Many fans favour The Good the Bad and the Ugly in the Eastwood and Leone run, but I prefer this distillation. It’s short and sharp, blunt and brutal, an astoundingly successful early effort.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

100 minutes

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