A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

(Dir: Sergio Leone - Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonté, Marianne Koch, José Calvo, Joseph Eggar, Antonio Prieto, Sieghardt Rupp, Wolfgang Lukschy, Margarita Lozano, Mario Brega, Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell, Lorenzo Robledo - Music: Ennio Morricone)

Fistful of Dollars

= A Stranger in Town ==

A stranger rides his mule into a Mexican town called San Miguel, where everybody's either rich or dead. A small boy, crying, is kicked by a big Mexican bandit. The boy's mother, a beautiful young woman, quickly glances at the stranger.

In a normal western, the stranger would have interfered and stopped the bandit from kicking the boy. A man's gotta do what he's gotta do. But we're in a different western, and the stranger is not a normal western character. He has the tall, lean stature and good looks of the western hero, but both his features and appearances are altered by a stubby beard and a poncho. And above all: he does not interfere. All these thing have a disorienting effect: Is he the hero or the villain of the movie? Or something in-between, a man in the middle?


In the town street the stranger is troubled by a small group of cowboys who shoot at his mule. Again the stranger remains passive. He looks around, bemused, and enters a bar. The bar tender, Silvanito, tells him that the town has been taken over by two families, The Baxters and the Rojos, who smuggle liquor and guns. "Two bosses," the stranger mumbles, "The Baxters on one side, the Rojos on the other. Interesting. Which one of the two families is stronger?" The answer is: "The Rojos, especially Ramon."

The three - my mistake: four - men who scared his mule, are men working for Baxter, so the stranger kills them - to show how quick he's on the draw - and offers his services to the Rojos. Ramon, the most dangerous of the Rojos, is not at home, and his two brothers Miguel and Esteban argue about what to do with the stranger. They would like to kill him, but the Mexican army is on their way to town, so they can't afford to have any trouble. After he has witnessed how an entire regiment of the Mexican army is wiped out, the stranger knows nobody can be trusted in this damn town, so he offers his services this moment to the Rojos, and the next moment to the Baxters.

The Rojos on one side, the Baxters on the other, and the stranger in the middle ... Like Silvanito has told him, the Rojos are the stronger of the two, but the stranger soon discovers that even Ramon has a weak point: he is madly in love with the beautiful young woman from the opening scene, the boy's mother, but she won't have him ...

Fistful of Dollars

= Kurosawa and Hammett =

Most people know that A Fistful of Dollars was a rewriting, in western form, of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). Some are also aware of the fact that Kurosawa’s movie goes back, for most part, on a classic American novel, Red Harvest, about a nameless man, called the Continental Op (he's an operative for a detective agency) written by Dashiell Hammett. Some of Kurosawa's fans strongly deny this, but if you're in doubt, just read the novel’s synopsis on the Dashiel Hammett website:

The small northwestern mining town of Personville has been taken over by gangsters, lock stock and barrel. (...) The Continental Op systematically turns faction against faction, and they obligingly begin to wipe each other out. As the bloodbath escalates, he discovers to his own horror that he’s actually enjoying the carnage.

It's exactly what Yojimbo, the samurai from Kurosawa's movie, and The Man with No name, the stranger who rides into the town of San Miguel, would do: turning faction against faction, watching how they try to wipe each other out ...

Dashiell Hammet had Marxist sympathies. Red Harvest was published in 1929, the year of the great Wall Street Crash, which seemed to confirm Hammett’s ideas about capitalism. The Continental Op is the proverbial last man standing after capitalist forces have devoured each other. Kurosawa transferred the story to Japan at the brink of modern times: fire arms have been introduced and many samurai, no longer needed, have become ronin, wandering samurai without a master. They seem to have no other goal in life than survival, but they still uphold their famous code of honor, the bushido: they're forced to protect the poor and defenseless against the wicked and the poweful.

It's a bit funny to notice that while Hammett was looking forward to a radical political change, Kurosawa was looking over his shoulder, deploring a world that was about to be destroyed once and for all. After WWII many Japanese people, especially artists, thought like Kurosawa: Japan should not try to copy western modernity, but turn back to its own roots.

= Looking for an actor =

Leone brought the story back to where it was originally set, but transported it to another time and place: the American-Mexican border, shortly after the Civil War. There's no sign that he was aware of the political and/or social complications of Hammett's novel and Kurosawa's movie; to him, the story simply served a perfect frame for an action-oriented western. The Karl May movies  had created a cultural context for European western movies, but they were low-budget affairs, and this frustrated Leone in his search for the right actor.

According to Leone there was no way to make a western without an American leading man. He thought of Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson or James Coburn, and sent all of them a rough copy of the script. Fonda's agent sent it back without consulting the boss, Bronson thought it was ridiculous and only Coburn showed some interest, but asked too much money. Leone then thought of Richard  Harrison, an actor and muscle man living in Rome, but Harrison chose to do a peplum movie instead. Then somebody (apparently a secretary working for the Italian production company) saw an episode of Rawhide on Italian television, and thought young actor Clint Eastwood might be an interesting choice for the role. Clint's name was put on a shortlist that was shown to Harrison, who advised the production company to hire Eastwood, because he could ride a horse. Leone watched another episode of Rawhide - Incident of the Black Sheep - and the rest is history

= Making the movie =

A Fistful of Dollars was filmed between April and June 1964, on a tiny budget of no more than $ 200,000. The bulk of the movie was shot in Spain, in the Almeria province and Hoyo the Manzanares and Colmenar Viejo, close to Madrid. The indoor scenes were shot in the Roman Elios Studios. Clint used the holster and gun from his Rawhide days and also made changes to the script: it was very talky, and Clint thought it was better to turn No Name into a taciturn person. The stubby beard and the cigar were Sergio's ideas, but the two men disagree about the poncho: Sergio said he wanted to make the slender actor look a bit wider in the shoulders, and thought a poncho would help, Clint has always sustained that he bought it in Mexico, on his way to Europe.

The script was almost a scene-for-scene rewriting of Yojimbo, but a couple of things had to be changed. In the Japanese movie the main villain has a handgun (a symbol of the perverted new world) and the hero outsmarts him by throwing a knife at his shooting hand. Leone and his screenwriters decided to turn this scene into a clash between a rifle and a handgun. The most formidable villain in the movie, Ramon Rojo, thinks a man with a rifle will always beat a man with a gun. It would lead to this classic finale, in which the stranger gives Ramon a fair change (after he has killed all his men!) to say if it's true that the man with the rifle always wins.

I won't give away the outcome ...


= The Score =

Remarkably, Ennio Morricone wasn't Leone first choice for the soundtrack. He didn't like Morricone's score for Duello nel Texas, made shortly before. But the producers wanted Morricone and asked Leone to talk with him first. Leone visited Morricone at his home and discovered that they had attended the same school when they were kids. A Fistful of Dollars marked the beginning of one of the most illustrious collaborations in the history of film making. Morricone was inspired by several western scores by Dimitri Tiomkin, notably his scores for Rio Bravo and The Alamo. The trumpet theme is a bit similar to El Deguello from the Rio Bravo soundtrack. Rio Bravo was called Un dollar d’onore in Italian, and some think it inspired Leone to change the working title, Il Magnifico Straniero (The Magnificent Stranger), into Per un pugno di dollari. The famous whistling was done by Allessandro Alessandroni, who also played the guitar on the soundtrack.

= The smell of success =

The movie was released on September 12th, in a small cinema in Florence. It did quite well, but it took a couple of weeks to draw larger audiences. It was then transferred to bigger cinemas and when it reached Rome, it quickly became a smash hit. It was shown in all larger cities and by Christmas it had become the most successful film of the year in Italian cinemas, beating My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins at the box office. The film made Clint Eastwood first a star in Italy, then in Europe, then in the whole world, and instigated the spaghetti western craze that would last until the early seventies.

= Looking back (but not in anger) =

Today most people think A Fistful of Dollars is the weakest part of the so-called Dollar Trilogy (the other two parts being For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). At the same time, it's often called the most influential western in history, along with John Ford's Stagecoach. It changed the history of the western movie, by redefining its myths and genre characteristics. The Man with No Name was a new type of western hero and A Fistful of Dollars a new type of western.

Watching the film again (and again), nearly fifty years after it was made, it's a surprise to notice how modern, how fashionable or even hip it still looks and feels. Like The man with No Name and his opponent, Ramon Rojo,  several other characters, such as the beautiful Marisol, the bartender Silvanito, and the undertaker Peripero, have become icons, part of the collective memory of mankind. The movie's not perfect, but some parts are simply marvelous and the finale, Clint announcing his arrival with dynamite, is breathtaking, one of the most suspenseful western duels in history.

"The heart Ramon, you won't ever stop me if you don't hit the heart."

Clint Eastwood

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