erik lundegaard

Monday April 22, 2024

Movie Review: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)


Clint Eastwood became a major movie star the year after I was born. I’m 61 now and he’s still a major movie star. He’s had a run like almost no one in Hollywood history.

And he owes it all to James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Eric Fleming.

Those are among the actors who turned down the lead in “Il Magnifico Strangero” a western to be helmed by some sword-and-sandals Italian guy, Sergio Somethingorother, and filmed in the backwater of Spain—get this, without an audio track. It would be dubbed. Oof. Plus they were about to get sued by Akira Kurosawa for plagiarizing “Yojimbo,” so the movie might not even be seen in the States anyway. Thanks but no thanks.

Eastwood, 34 years old and on hiatus from another season of playing callow junior partner Rowdy Yates in the TV western “Rawhide,” was initially a no, too. But he agreed to read the script, caught the whiffs of “Yojimbo,” and overall liked its roughness. He liked how, in the opening scene, the hero, Joe, witnessed a cruel act—a child kept from his mother, who was apparently a concubine—and did nothing. He just kept getting the lay of the land. That made sense to him. He wound up reasoning: If the movie bombed, most people in the States wouldn’t even know it existed; and he’d get to see Italy and Spain. So why not?

Here’s what Eastwood brought to the project:

  • The guns, belt, boots and spurs he wore on “Rawhide.”
  • Several boxes of thin, foul-smelling cigars that he cut into thirds. “They put you in the right mood—cantankerous,” he later told his biographer, Richard Schickel
  • The leather vest he wears more often than the iconic poncho
  • His dialogue trimmed to its essence

What he brought, in other words, was the Clint Eastwood persona—as if he already had it fully formed in his head. Indeed, when director Sergio Leone tried to get him to act more like Toshiro Mifune in “Yojimbo,” Eastwood told him, “Sergio, I’ve got to do my own thing here.”

The anarchic threat
I’ve never seen “Rawhide,” but apparently it was a bit like “The Lone Ranger” in that Bob Dylan way. In each episode, Rowdy Yates and Gil Favor, leaders of season-long cattle drives, would encounter folks on the trail, often name guest stars, and help them solve whatever problem they had, then move on. But Schickel identifies a deeper theme:

Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Virginian and The High Chaparral featured all-wise elders rallying a real or surrogate family against the anarchic threat posed by the outsider, the other.

Eastwood’s role was, of course, restorer of the status quo, but he was bored with it. With “Strangero,” he got to play the outsider and anarchic threat. More, since the town of San Miguel is corrupt, the threat he poses is not only anarchic but moral. It’s necessary. Thus, in a blink, Eastwood went from a ’50s sensibility (the system is good and I'll uphold it) to a decidedly ’60s one (the system is corrupt and I'm going to bring it down). All within the framework of the western genre.

He starts out as a stranger, stopping for water, and silently witnessing the tableau of mewling child and distraught concubine. There’s no dog carrying a human hand here, as in “Yojimbo,” but as he rides into town he sees a noose hanging from a tree, frightened faces in windows, and a somnambulant horserider who’s actually a dead man with a note tacked to his back: “Adios, Amigo.” A bell ringer laughingly tells him he could get rich or get killed. The latter nearly happens when a gang of toughs pick on him but merely spook his horse. As it rides off, he grabs a wooden overhang, swings for a moment, then says his first line of dialogue to a townie: “Hello.” We’re eight minutes in.

The townie, Silvanito (Jose Calvo), tell him two families, the Baxters and Rojos, are fighting for supremacy of San Miguel and creating chaos as a result. The town is dead, Silvanito says, and urges the American to leave as soon as he can. Joe's got another idea.

Baxters over there, Rojos there, me right in the middle. … Crazy bell-ringer was right. There’s money to be made in a place like this.

That’s why he confronts the toughs, who are on the Baxter side of things, and shoots them all dead before they can draw—demonstrating his worth. He’d told the coffin-maker to get three coffins ready, but now, as he strolls away, he adds, in the laconic Eastwood manner, “My mistake. Four coffins." 

You know what’s odd? Before this confrontation, he talks aloud to the Rojos but we don’t see any of them. He’s just a guy in the street talking to the air. It’s like Leone decided they needed that scene after everyone went home.

I’ll just state outright that “Fistful of Dollars” is not in “Yojimbo”’s class. Actions that make sense there, don’t quite here. When the matriarch overrules her husband about paying Sanjuro, I bought the Lady Macbeth vibe. When it’s the younger Rojo brother, Esteban (German actor Sieghardt Rupp), questioning his older brother Don Benito (Spanish actor Antoni Prieto, 25 years older), I didn’t buy it—particularly since the power of the family lies with Ramon (Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte), who’s, what, off getting ready to slaughter armies? The wild card in “Yojimbo” is tech—the gun of Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakaadai)—while here it’s Ramon, who’s crazier and more malicious than the crazy, malicious men around him. Kurosawa went for “A plague on both your houses” feel but most of the evil in San Miguel resides with Ramon. You get the feeling the town wouldn’t suffer much with the Baxters in charge.

  Ushitora Seibei
Pay the hero/kill the hero   X
Wild card (gun) X  
Concubine X  
  Rojos Baxters
Pay the hero/kill the hero X  
Wild card (loco) X  
Concubine X  

Even the concubine isn’t quite on the Ushitora side of the ledger. Sold by a local farmer immersed in gambling debt, Ushitora gives her to Tokuemon, the sake brewer, to curry his favor. She’s transactional, a pawn in the game, who’s only introduced halfway through the film. Leone’s concubine, Marisol (German actress Marianne Koch), is there from the start and is one of the main drivers of the plot. And she belongs to Ramon, not some third party. He wins her through trickery and is obsessed with her. It’s personal.

Why does the hero decide to help the concubine and her family? In the Leone script, there was a prologue about Joe’s mother caught up in a similar situation, but it wasn’t filmed, so Leone tried to add it as exposition. It’s one of those pieces of dialogue Eastwood trimmed. It became: “I knew someone like you once and there was no one there to help.” But Mifune doesn’t even need that much. He just acts. His ronin is disgusted that the situation even exists, so he fixes it. Not out of nobility but disgust. It’s brilliant, and it doesn’t need an explainer. It’s all right there.

I could go on. Ramon’s slaughter of the armies and the stagecoach—with Joe and Silvanito watching from over the hillside—is overlong and dull. So is Joe’s trickery with the corpses at the graveyard. It’s a stupid plan that works because everyone else acts stupidly. Joe is undone only because of a change of plans. And the final showdown works only because Joe games the system with an iron chest-plate beneath his poncho.

Here's the thing: I still like it.

Jesus, this isn’t too bad
In Schickel’s biography, Eastwood describes, better than any critic, why Leone’s films work:

Leone, Clint thought … was trying to recreate the very feelings a child brings to his first experiences of the movies—the enormity of the screen looming over him, the overpowering images of worlds previously only imagined suddenly made manifest, made realer than real in the mysterious darkness of the theater. … Clint sees it in the low angles Leone favored for the characters he played, angles that offered, to put it simply, a child’s-eye view of heroism. He sees it, too, in the vast panoramic views of countryside and town streets that Leone loved, and loved alternating with extraordinarily tight close-ups of faces, of guns being drawn and fired, even of boots carrying their wearers toward their violent destinies, the jingling of their spurs unnaturally loud on the soundtrack. “Everything’s enhanced,” says Clint. “You’re seeing the films as an adult, but you sit and watch them as a child.”

That’s pretty fucking sharp.

Leone’s movie has its share of Christ metaphors: Joe rides into town on a low-slung beast, derided as a mule, as Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; the mewling kid’s name is Jesus, while his parents are Joseph and Mary knock-offs: Julian and Marisol. Julian is ineffectual, etc. The main Christ metaphor, though—rise, death, resurrection—is in the original Japanese. It's storytelling 101.

So what did young Eastwood think after shooting this thing in Spain? He wasn’t sure. “Could be something, could be nothing,” he later told Schickel. During that summer and fall, he didn’t hear at all from Italy, while the American trade publications reported bad news: the western genre was dying in Italy. Only one film was doing well and it wasn’t “Il Magnifico Strangero”; it was something called “Per un Pugno di Dollari.” So much for that, Eastwood thought.

Eventually he realized “Dollari” was the Leone movie, and it—and he—were huge in Italy. A copy of the film was shipped to him in LA. Per Schickel:

Clint booked a screening room at the CBS Production Center and one night after work invited a few friends over to see it. He was careful, he says, not to heighten their anticipation. “You want to watch some little joke?” he remembers saying. “There’s this thing, and it’s all in Italian. I mean, it’s [probably] a real piece of shit.” But then everyone assembled, the lights went down, the picture started unreeling, and “in a while we said, ‘Jesus, this isn’t too bad.’”

No. Not bad at all.

Rowdy grows up.

Posted at 07:56 AM on Monday April 22, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1960s  
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