“Everybody here has become very rich, or else they are dead.”
In 1964 things were very different from the way they are now. The Hollywood western movie was winding down. The genre had pretty much played itself out and was struggling to maintain even on television. Few people knew who Clint Eastwood was. He had a pretty sweet gig on the television series Rawhide but wasn’t anywhere near a household name. Sergio Leone was a name almost no one had heard of. And there was no such thing as a Spaghetti Western. With the release of one very low budget film, all of those things changed practically overnight.
Fistful Of Dollars would introduce the entire world to Clint Eastwood as the famed “man with no name”. The movie was the mastermind of an unknown filmmaker named Sergio Leone, who longed for the days when movies were something magical. He wanted to tell fairy tales, but for adults. And that’s exactly what Fistful Of Dollars is. The story wasn’t exactly an original one. It’s an “unofficial” remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Clint’s “man with no name” is essentially the Samurai from that film. There are even several scenes that are almost directly lifted from the Asian classic, including the memorable scene where Clint demands that the four Baxters apologize to his horse before taking them out. Leone added a little inflation on the punchline to the coffin-maker by making the gag four coffins instead of three. Make no mistake, this film closely follows Yojimbo’s plot and milestone moments.
Clint Eastwood stars as “the man with no name” who rides into the isolated Mexican town of San Miguel. While a couple of the characters do refer to him as “Joe”, it’s never intended to be a name, more a foreign reference for a gringo. He discovers that the town is as dead as any he’s ever seen. There are few men and a lot of widows. He discovers that two rival gangs have been terrorizing the town for years. The Baxters deal in arms and the Rojos deal in liquor. They buy them here cheaply and sell them to the Indians above the border. They kill anyone who doesn’t cooperate with their operations. “Joe” decides that there is plenty of money to be made by exploiting the situation to his advantage. He’ll play both gangs against each other, collecting from each. It works perfectly, until he goes soft for a family that has been victimized by the Rojos. The husband has been wrongly accused of cheating at cards, and he was exiled while his wife Marisol (Koch) is held hostage and raped by their ruthless leader Ramón Rojo (Volonte). The soft spot gets him beat for his trouble and having to make a daring escape. Of course, he gets the revenge he’s after before the final reel plays out.
While the story is lifted from Yojimbo, don’t believe for a second that this isn’t an incredibly original work. It is. It changed the way westerns were made both in Italy and here in America. Leone had an eye for style that makes this trilogy such a landmark collection of films. It starts from the moment you see the opening credits. The animated silhouettes represent key moments in the film and look more like they belong in a James Bond opening credit. That’s no coincidence. Leone was a devoted Bond fan, and the series was just gaining international success at that time. Then there’s the completely unique score of Ennio Morricone. It’s an almost impossible score to describe. He uses thin electric guitar leads combined with whistles and a shouting chorus of human voices that you can’t quite make out the words, if indeed they are words. The sound design of the film has become iconic and has been spoofed and repeated countless times since these films were made.
“Shoot to kill; you better hit the heart.”
Leone also makes use of exaggeration in his films. Everything from images to sound is exaggerated. He takes simple sounds that would merely be background like the squeak of a wagon wheel and amplifies it so that it is almost deafening. It creates a heightened reality that plays well against his trademark long pauses. No one can deliver stillness in quite the way that Leone can, but again it’s that exaggeration of the senses that puts you on edge instead of to sleep. When gunfighters face each other, they will stare each other down for incredibly long pauses. Leone will deliver a tight close-up of just the eyes or the mouth. Sweat drips from these unusual faces with pock-marked features or bizarre lines. He knew how to use these cinematic moments to increase the suspense. You might already suspect who is going to win, as you would with most western showdowns, but Leone makes you wait for it with anticipation that builds to an almost unbearable point. And just before he loses you, the fateful moment occurs, and then he’ll linger on the aftermath. What once took a typical western all of 30 seconds to play out takes Leone several minutes. And it’s all enhanced even more by the haunting score. One thing is for certain. There had never been a movie like Fistful Of Dollars before this.
The cast of this film is one of the most perfectly put together casts in history. I’m not just talking about Clint Eastwood. Gian Maria Volonte is almost out of control as the main bad guy here. He has the wildest eyes, and his penchant for animated theatrics works as the perfect balance to Eastwood’s stoic power. Then there’s Joseph Egger, who plays the coffin-maker. Along with Antonio Prieto as the tavern owner who befriends “Joe”, they form a kind of Greek Chorus who are pretty much the only ones except for Clint who survive. Marianne Koch doesn’t really get a ton of things to do as Marisol, but she’s very different from any of the women people were used to seeing in their westerns. She has very few lines, but we understand how she might have gotten Clint to stray from his plan of getting rich. It’s not the romantic love interest we’re used to. He helps her return to her husband and son. There’s nothing in it for Clint except a beating. The film is filled with characters you will not quickly forget, no matter how small the part.
Clint Eastwood fans relish these movies because this is where it all started. Leone had an instinct for how to use the unknown actor. He saw potential in his ability to stare down an audience. Credit Eastwood himself for playing to his own strengths. Most actors fight for more lines. Eastwood fought to have less lines. He’s always had an uncanny ability to say more with less. It’s a rare skill, and Leone made the most out of it. It’s almost hearsay to us now to think that Eastwood wasn’t even in Leone’s top ten for the role originally. He wanted the likes of Henry Fonda. But just about every American leading man in the business turned him down. The rough translations of the scripts he presented didn’t do the project justice, and after all, who the heck was this portly Leone character anyway? He first saw Eastwood in an episode of Rawhide called The Incident Of The Black Sheep. For Eastwood’s part, it was a chance to make feature films, which he was barred from doing in America because of his television contract. Even then he wasn’t completely sold on the young actor, but the two of them would form a collaboration that changed both of their lives forever… and ours.
Fistful Of Dollars is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35-40 mbps. Of course the film is nearly 50 years old, and there are going to be some limitations here. You will find some scratches and dirt. The cleanup isn’t as extensive as it might have been. However, what you will find is a level of detail and texture that does nothing but enhance the things Leone was trying to do. Those close-ups deliver the kind of sharpness that he never could have dreamed of at the time. You can see all of those feature imperfections, the hair stubble and the beads of sweat as they drip from the perspiring gunfighters. When a gunfighter bites the dust, you can almost taste the dust yourself. Black levels are only average, but you just can’t beat this -definition image presentation by any of the versions of the film that have come before. I’ve owned the film on laserdisc and DVD before, but this is truly special.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is there to bring to life these exaggerated sounds and the dialog, of course. And they’ve never sounded better. But what really impresses is the way it isolates and accents Morricone’s special score and sound effects. The uncompressed sound gives you a whole new perspective on the man’s genius. It’s enough reason on its own to warrant the upgrade.
There is an Audio Commentary with film historian Christopher Frayling. The guy has written definitive books on both Leone and the trilogy. He knows his stuff, and while he ventures a bit too much into the symbolic and philosophical, it’s worth a listen.
The Christopher Frayling Archives: (18:40) HD The historian gives us a peek at his extensive collection of posters and other memorabilia from the movie.
A New Kind Of Hero: (22:54) SD It’s Frayling again, pretty much offering us the bullet points from his commentary.
A Few Weeks In Spain: (8:33) SD Clint Eastwood in a 2003 interview talks about the film.
Tre Voci: (11:12) SD The title means three voices, and the three men here are: Producer Alberto Grimaldi, screenwriter Sergio Donati, and actor Mickey Knox. They talk about working with Leone.
Not Ready For Primetime: (6:20) SD This feature talks about the prologue shot in 1977 because the television studio was concerned about the lack of morality the film’s hero displayed. It gave a motivation that was more “honorable”. Here Monte Hellman, who directed the piece, talks about it.
The Lost Prologue: (7:40) SD We see a video tape of the prologue kept by a viewer who recorded the television broadcast. No other copies of the Clint-less prologue exist.
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The collaboration between Leone, Eastwood and Morricone changed the face of cinema forever. Many of the later strong heroes that followed owe their beginnings to these three men and the film trilogy started here. A review of For A Few Dollars More will follow soon in these pages, and I’ll have more to say about the style and importance of these three films in that review. Suffice it to say that these three men started a genre. You could say they “sold lead for gold”.