Continuing the IMDB Reviews again today, as I look at #222 on the Top 250, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The film is referred to by Sergio Leone, as an attempt to recreate the western as American westerns had mostly become a way to mass-produce content, resulting in a series of stagnant and dull films. A Fistful of Dollars is notable for creating the incredibly popular character ‘The Man with no name’ who has appeared in popular culture ever since. The film also resulted in a successful lawsuit, as Toho sued United Artists as it apparently had an incredible likeness to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), even though this was adapted from a noir film from the 1940’s. How bizarre.
Our story starts has our mysterious Yankee (Clint Eastwood) wanders into the Mexican border town of San Miguel. The locals warn him that he might gain unfathomable riches in San Miguel, but more likely he’ll just be killed. Almost immediately men from the local native Rojos family gang start to fire at The Man with no name, causing his horse to scurry away in the process. After dealing with them, he begins to understand the dichotomy of the town, and that two gangs are at constant war. The Rojos, and and the Baxters, those aligned with the town’s relatively ineffective Sheriff. The Yank begins to play the families against each other acting as a double agent. Things get complicated as the elder Rojos brother Ramon reveals he stole a man’s wife who he assumed cheated at cards. The Man with no name attempts to put this wrong right, his only reward being, a fistful of dollars.
The film is a cultural landmark for many reasons. First of which, it’s the very first film to capture Leone’s very unique, and amalgamated style. He adheres to John Ford’s method of capturing the landscape, envisioning great and sublime open terrains. Leone himself is quoted in saying he wanted a touch of the operatic in his films, arguably burrowing from the Japanese style that he clearly is influenced by. In his use of close-ups and point of view shots, he managed to create tension and emotion, which was an element highly lacking in westerns up to this point. This marriage between the styles made Sergio’s own style, which in turn greatly influenced the spaghetti western which soon took off with great help from A Fistful of Dollars. In addition Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score that appears throughout Leone’s filmography would make the tone of Fistful even more palpable.
In addition, The Man With No Name became an incredibly popular icon among the western iconography, and is still referred to one of the best film characters ever conceived. In production, Leone originally asked established actors like Henry Fonda to play the role, with no success. He then asked Richard Harrison who had recently starred in a spaghetti western, who also refused. However, when presented with a list of lesser-known actors Harrison chose Eastwood, and claimed Eastwood was a convincing cowboy. From that point on, Leone designed the character around Eastwood. Clint is quoted on saying that he deeply wanted to be the anti-hero, he was bored of being the white hat wearing symbol of justice he played in Rawhide. The mysterious nature of the character was ideal, completely contrasting to dull and traditional stock characters that had littered the western through the 50’s played by the likes of John Wayne, and Robert Mitchum. With the help of Sergio Leone, the film elevated Clint Eastwood to long lasting stardom, along with the film’s two sequels.
However, about the film it’s self, I think it receives a lot of respect because of it’s influence, in a time of transition. Eastwood’s performance is fantastic, but Fistful doesn’t compare favorably to For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or even darker incarnation of Fistful, Django (1966). I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think A Fistful of Dollars is so highly praised and on the IMDB Top 250 because it’s an outstanding film. I think it’s more about what it started, it’s cultural impact, it’s sequels, and the origin on this phenomenal character. However, I think it coasts by on it’s aesthetic, and cultural impact to deserve it’s place quite comfortably.
Judgment – Deserving