Within the last century, cinema has blessed the world with exciting tales of the American West; the grand landscapes establishing an atmosphere that paints a rather poetic picture of an alluring setting of beauty and mystery, sprinkled with memorable characters that relay emotions impacted by both environment and circumstance. Many notable films such as Stagecoach, The Searchers, and Rio Bravo have utilized the western genre to convey compelling stories of the American Frontier, but soon enough they would be undergoing a complete makeover which would consist of reading between the lines of this wild west “dreamland” and creating a rather gritty formula which resulted in the most outlandish, yet iconic film ever to be made on celluloid: A Fistful of Dollars.
Italian film director Sergio Leone had released his directorial debut, entitled The Colossus of Rhodes, in 1961. The film fell under the category of the sword and sandal sub-genre, which was quite popular in Italy during the 50’s and early 60’s. Leone was influenced by many Japanese films; one in particular that had captured his attention upon first viewing was Akira Kurosawa’s lone samurai picture, Yojimbo. As a filmmaker, Leone admired the work of Kurosawa, so much so that he would implement the same structure of the Yojimbo story and inject it into his own film narrative. With the help of screenwriters, Tonino Valerii and Duccio Tessari, the story would be developed as a proper screenplay called, “Per un Pugno Di Dollari” translated as the title, “A Fistful of Dollars”.
The barbaric poetry of A Fistful of Dollars is not only executed well in direction but also deftly represented through the characters of the film. The film’s most notable performance, which would soon become a blueprint that other actors sought to emulate, was the portrayal of the main character “Joe” played by none other than Clint Eastwood. Joe is a mysterious drifter who finds himself pitting two rival gangs in a small Mexican village. Although the flow of the narrative is mostly minimal, it’s Joe who acts as a somewhat tattle-tell bounty killer, who enjoys smoking cigars and seems to have an almost mystical aura about him. Western films of the old Hollywood era had championed the ‘good vs. evil’ pitch; the rugged hero who takes down the ruthless villain, the inevitability of the triumph of light over darkness. In the case of Leone’s film, this trope would find itself flipped upside down as Joe, who was rather rugged, did not possess a hint of “good” about him. Joe is not a bad person but has a cynical, almost selfish demeanor, which would be a trait that Leone would revisit later on in his future films.
The element of experimentation fits in quite well with A Fistful of Dollars. As in most other westerns, there are reoccurring tropes and particular themes to follow in order to keep the audience completely engaged with the characters and narrative. Leone was experimental with shots, like using long-quiet moments, and included a scene Eastwood’s character shooting down four gang members without having to cut the shooting (it was uncommon in western and noir pictures to have someone pull a gun and shoot it without cutting in between the shooter and the ‘victim’). It’s commonly said that A Fistful of Dollars pushed boundaries for future westerns to follow but in reality, it had to be made in this exact way. Otherwise, you have a film that runs dry of any form of emotional obstacle. The infamous ‘close-up’ has now become synonymous with the Italian Western, also known as Spaghetti Westerns. A rapid close-up on any character in Leone’s films signaled the building of tension, which was one of Leone’s most defined directorial talents.
Not only is A Fistful of Dollars a highly praised masterpiece, but it opened the floodgate for other writers/directors in Italy to produce many great Spaghetti Western films like Day of Anger, The Mercenary, If You Meet Sartana… Pray For Your Death, Bullet For The General and Django (not that one).
To conclude, A Fistful of Dollars is a masterclass in itself, from intricate works of the camera, stylized violence, and using location to harbor an almost barren-land like atmosphere that practically manifested as one of the characters to work into the film. Although this would not end the retelling of Kurosawa’s adapted tale, as it has visited other realms of the cinematic medium, it is the powerful direction and vision from Sergio Leone that rejuvenates the art and beauty of this outrageous gem.