By contributor Patrick Zabriskie
Summary: (From the trailer) “A Fistful of Dollars is the first film of it’s kind, it won’t be the last.”
Review: The desert sun shines high as a mysterious gunslinger (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a dusty border town torn apart by the power struggle between a band of bandits and a sheriff who, frankly, isn’t much better. Driven by a vague morality and empowered by being “quick on the draw”, the mysterious gunslinger takes on both factions of the fight in a battered array of violence, deception, showdowns, and retribution.
While not the first “spaghetti western” (western films made by Italian production companies), this is the film that truly defined the genre. Essentially a remake of the classic Akira Kurosawa samurai film, Yojimbo (itself based upon an earlier American novel), this movie transcends its influences to deliver a bold new take on the American West, one vastly different from American-made westerns. Gone are the clean shaven, morally sound cowboys and their polar opposites found in the villains; gone are luscious and beautiful landscapes of the true American West; and gone are the traditionally orchestrated pieces, saloon piano music, and country-western “sing-a-long” tunes that guided heroes on romantic exploits.
Instead we are shown the West as imitated by the harsh, barren landscapes of the Spanish desert, filled with gunfighters, all seeking a profit, whose label as “good” or “bad” depends on little more than who they’re shooting at (and trust me, there is quite a bit of shooting). It’s a grittier, more action filled affair.
Clint Eastwood’s performance fits this new atmosphere like a glove. In his breakthrough role, he talks tough, plays rough, and looks intimidating as the “Man With No Name”, his appearance complete with the famous cigars and poncho. Johnny Wels, as the rifle-toting main villain, Ramon, is quite memorable as well, despite the actor being relatively unknown to American audiences.
As a template for later spaghetti westerns, this movie, of course, features the famous (some would say infamous) spaghetti western music and cinematography, both of which have been satired and imitated over the years. Composer Ennio Morricone delivers a fresh style for the score. Combining Spanish-themed melodies, male chanters, whistling, electric guitars, and trumpet solos, as well as more traditional orchestration at times, Morricone creates a groundbreaking and surprisingly cohesive score, one that his later scores, and those of other Italian westerns, would draw from.
Then there is the camera work. Most people are familiar with the famous “close-up” shots on the eyes during shootouts. It’s become such a cliché and has been parodies so many times that most people don’t realize how affective it is when creating suspense. Leone used a variety of shots, often alternating between close-ups and long-distance shots. He used the contrast to build tension in many of the film’s scenes. In short, it works wonderfully and really adds a new dimension to the movie.
In conclusion, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is everything a spaghetti western ought to be. Some would call it shallow, violent, and lacking in morality. I call it refreshing, and so do quite a few other people. This film not only defined its genre, but it influenced movie making as a whole. Films as diverse as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Kill Bill’, draw influence from this film. With such a unique style and influence, one would argue that this is the best of the spaghetti westerns. Then the sequels came …