Clint Eastwood Becomes a Star in Sergio Leone’s Groundbreaking Spaghetti Western
DIRECTED BY SERGIO LEONE/1964
STREET DATE: MAY 22, 2018/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
The annals of film history are full of tales of star-making roles. Sergio Leone’s Gatling gun of a Western, A Fistful of Dollars, is no exception. It is, quite famously, the film that instantly immortalized director Sergio Leone’s eleventh choice leading man, Clint Eastwood. It’s a special moment in cinema, perhaps quite literally. Meaning, in the case of this actor in this film, it might be possible to isolate the very shot in which Eastwood, as the Toscano smoking stranger, became an icon. Such is the precision and alchemy of A Fistful of Dollars.
Though never specified on screen, when the story begins, it’s supposedly New Mexico, 1872. That timeframe, it can’t help but be noticed, meddles significantly with the assumed chronology of the next two films in this budding series (For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), wherein the third entry takes place during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Good thing, then, that Leone himself, never considered the films to be connected…
Almost immediately upon his arrival in town, the stranger comes upon a very young boy and his mother, Marisol (Marianne Koch), catching terrible trouble from one of the two dominant local gangs. Instantly violating any kind of heretofore established hero’s code in movies, he does nothing. Instead, he watches, soaks up the situation, squints, then moves on. Help the downtrodden in need? Maybe later. (Yes; later). Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling (Something to Do with Death), in his commentary track, points out that at this point, foreshadowing a truly morally murky 1960s, “The hero stops being a crusader and becomes a style statement”, making Fistful ground zero for the modern action hero.
Though 007 preceded the mass popularization of the spaghetti Western by a few years, Fistful would prove to be the film that pushed the morally challenged protagonist loner into a direction of unshaven charmlessness, even a sidelined morality amid his own brutality. Eastwood’s “Joe” is pure badassary, a man without a life, without an existence, one frame before or after the movie starts and ends. It would be this aspect that immediately grounded itself in the zeitgeist; grafted itself to Western film iconography as strongly as John Wayne, and has inspired so many thousands of paling copycat protagonists.
The town, already a faded ghost of itself, is run by two warring gangs. There are the Baxters, headed by an Anglo family, and the Rojos, a Mexican family. Baxters are headed up by matriarch Consuelo Baxter (Margarita Lozano); the Rojos by brothers Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp) and his savagely psychotic brother Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté). In rides our antihero stranger, who goes about slowly playing both sides until no one is left standing.
Through it all, he’s got exactly one trustworthy friend who functions as the movie’s soul main expository vessel, a bartender played by Jose Kelvo. As the stranger advances his unspoken agenda, a lot of people die along the way, most of them scuzzy trigger-happy varmints. A justice prevails, if not conventional justice. This sort of thing had happened before in Westerns, but never with such pronounced verve.
Anyone with a reasonable familiarity with the cinema of the tough-guy loner likely already knows that A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 ronin actioner, Yojimbo, transplanted into the American West. (Or more accurately, a version of the American West). They might also know that Walter Hill then took a crack at it in 1996 with Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis in a desolate prohibition era setting. Perhaps arguably, Fistful is at least a punch above the others.
Originally titled The Magnificent Stranger, Fistful landed yet another title after Kurosawa won a lawsuit, awarding him Japanese distribution rights. In that country it was Return of Yojimbo, and still directed by “Bob Robertson”. It also proved to be a major hit there, and a primary source of wealth for Kurosawa.
Early on, as the stranger in the desolate town passes the local wood shop, he quips to the geezer, “Get three coffins ready.” The beef he’s got with a few loudmouthed members of the Baxter gang also provides him a demonstration of his impossibly perfect marksmanship.
Their offense? Taunting his mule.
You see, his mule doesn’t like people laughing. He gets the crazy idea they’re laughin’ at him. As silly as that is, that explanation in the dusty, mostly empty town is the moment when Eastwood looks up, his hat brim methodically revealing a pair of righteously stone cold angry eyes; a look that draws audible gasps from viewers and signals certain imminent death to the loudmouths. This is the aforementioned single shot that made Eastwood a star. In a film that is, by design, an aggressively entertaining piece of pure cinema from beginning to end, this moment may be the most astonishing. From here, there was no turning back. Not for Eastwood, not for Leone, and not for the spaghetti Western.
A commentary track from the 2004 MGM special edition DVD by Sir Christopher Frayling is thankfully carried over, as no one knows more about Leone or spaghetti Westerns than him. That said, Tim Lucas is on hand to give Frayling a run for his money with his own, newly recorded commentary track. It is one of his best and most lively efforts. Several newer interviews as well as the myriad of vintage MGM featurettes are here as well, this time properly flagged, thankfully not repeating the problems that plagued Kino’s otherwise terrific release of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly last year. This release of A Fistful of Dollars surpasses that one in terms of pure all around quality. It is a true keeper.
Frayling estimates that Fistful is the twenty-fifth spaghetti Western ever made, though it is the first distinctly Italian Western, as opposed to being a clone of the American genre. That didn’t stop promoters from taking liberties in terms of false Americanization. As though there might be something toxic about the mostly unknown name “Sergio Leone”, the initial Italian and Spanish ad campaign boasted “Directed by Bob Robertson”, an Anglo nom de plume concocted by Leone himself. Even in two of its native lands, this Spanish/Italian/German co-production was the victim of whitewashed ad copy.
But not for long. Soon enough, the names “Sergio Leone” and “Clint Eastwood” would be advertised loud and proud; remaining so to this day.
Frayling calls the film’s audio track is a “symphony of tension… almost abstract”, in and of itself. Feet crunching through dirt, bullets ricocheting into thin air, doors being smashed open- all of it thought through, planned out and orchestrated by Leone. And that’s before Ennio Morricone’s incredibly sweeping and richly epic score. Morricone’s score is an entire world unto itself; a landscape of electric guitar, echoey vocal howls, and whip-cracks. Leone owes as much to Morricone for the landmark success of this career-igniting film as he does to Eastwood.
Vitally, A Fistful of Dollars is the spaghetti Western that innovated the use of extreme close-ups; not as reaction shots but as pure style, pushing facial textures and eye glint to the forefront of the cinematic experience, and equating it with the traditional genre importance of the landscape itself.
For this reason among the many others, Fraying goes with the descriptor “rock n’ roll Western”, being that Leone and company did, in attitude, tempo, and morality, bring James Bond to the West. (Just don’t remind Sir Frayling that the Bond of Goldfinger didn’t like the Beatles.) Even the rugged, animated opening titles deliberately evoke the Bond titles, right down to a through-the-gun barrel shot.
Yet for all of its violent bombast, misogyny by omission, and over the top bloodlust, Leone considered Fistful to be a kind of fairy tale for grown-ups. It’s a fable-like quality that he’d take with him for the remainder of his filmmaking career, a notion not the least prefiguring his use of “Once Upon a Time…” in two of his later epics.
In this vein, it’s observed that employs what some might consider unlikely “Easter tropes”. The symbolism is present, for what it’s worth: Villains have a last supper, Eastwood is crucified, much in the way of life, death and resurrection.
The Leone/Eastwood series that sprung from A Fistful of Dollars proved altogether so successful that marketing people immediately dubbed it the “Man with No Name Trilogy”, cultivating a rickety-at-best chronology. In today’s box office world of shared Marvel Universes and franchise tentpoles being the be all end all, Leone and his refusal to blatantly connect the “Man with no name” dots laid before him, renders him all the more of a maverick.
By dragging the genre down to into the exquisite dirt of foreign soil with the aggressively entertaining A Fistful of Dollars, Leone prompted an elevation, even a resurrection, of the whole thing. If that’s the case, it’s also true when the stranger says, “Things look different from higher up.” And even from down in the grave, his unyielding audacity remains a fistful of relevant.