18 August 2011

SERGIO LEONE: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)

In 1961, Sergio Leone cast an actor from an American TV Western in one of his movies. The actor was Rory Calhoun, and the movie was The Colossus of Rhodes. In 1964, he again cast an actor from an American TV Western in one of his movies. The actor was Clint Eastwood, and the movie was A Fistful of Dollars.

It worked out better the second time.

A Fistful of Dollars, it can be fairly said, is an iconic film, maybe even one of the most iconic films. Its influence over the subsequent development over the Western in both America and Italy is all but impossible to over-estimate, and its outrageous fame and prominence can be best indicated by observing that it is customarily referred to as Eastwood's first feature (no, only his first lead role), Leone's directorial debut (not remotely), and the first of the "Spaghetti Westerns", the next genre the Italian B-movie industry turned to, with the help of Spanish money, after the sword-and-sandal movies began to run out of steam (not at all, though it was the first to receive an American release of any prominence, and that not until 1967). It should be all of these things, at any rate, for although it's not the first Italian Western, and not the best - I'd be inclined to suggest that it is in fact the worst of Leone's five attempts at the genre - there is something about its certitude that gives it An Aura. An Aura of what, exactly, I've never been able to pin down, but at any rate the film seems oddly aware that it is legendary, that its reduction of Western tropes to their primal, punk essence is tremendously important and innovative. Proving, once again, that Kurosawa Akira had more intuition for the soul of cinema than any other director in history.

Don't look at me like that. It's no secret that A Fistful of Dollars is a straight-up copy of Kurosawa's 1961 samurai picture Yojimbo, one that didn't even have the decency to credit the original film - "no secret", hell, it's maybe even the single most famous fact about Leone's film. And I personally have never heard of anyone, unless they are resistant to subtitles to a dysfunctional extent, who doesn't allow that the original film is better; a little better, a whole lot better, it doesn't necessarily matter. The point is, Leone's career-defining masterpiece, with its cocky nihilism and sudden violence, is close enough to Kurosawa's model that it gets to be a little bit difficult figuring out just where the credit goes.

I don't want to go so far as to say that Kurosawa "invented" Leone - though he and his pair of cinematographers, Massimo Dallamano and Federico G. Larraya didn't shy away from copying Kurosawa and Miyagawa Kazuo when it suited them, which was often (and why not? If Kurosawa already directed something, it stands to reason that he used the best possible compositions), there's still just enough of the specific aesthetic that Leone would bring to bear in his future projects that finally came into being with this film to prove that the Italian had ideas of his own. But the big impact A Fistful of Dollars made on the pop culture landscape was, undoubtedly, the degree of nastiness it brought to the quintessentially open, striving genre of the Western, particularly in the form of the anti-heroic nameless protagonist ("Joe", he's referred to, for all it's worth) and his casual brutality, a far cry from the typical Western hero back in the states; Yojimbo got there first - and samurai film or not, Yojimbo is a Western, with swords in place of pistols - though A Fistful of Dollars is much less overtly funny and meaner than Yojimbo, and this (aside from the language and color) is probably the biggest difference between the two projects.

It's worth noting, the story originally came from the world of the gangster novel, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest to be precise, and that world was already far darker and more violent and cynical than the Western had ever even daydreamed about, darker than the Western would become until later still than 1964: for A Fistful of Dollars sparked a vogue in America for darker, edgier Westerns that would result in the escalation of the nihilism and violence in the Spaghetti Westerns themselves, as well as increasingly morbid home-grown examples of the form in the wake of the increasing freedom of adult material in that decade. That vogue ultimately culminated in The Wild Bunch, probably the meanest & bleakest of all Westerns, but that needn't concern us right now.

What concerns us right now is a desolate Mexican border town, San Miguel. Here, a rider wearing a distinctive brown poncho and battered black hat arrives to get some food and drink and hopefully some work; but the innkeeper (José Calvo) informs him, with all due weariness, that San Miguel is a ghost town: the only profession is to be a soldier in the turf war between two factions: the Rojos, a family of smugglers led by brothers Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and the deadly Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté), or the Baxters, under the leadership of Sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), who only nominally stand for law and order, but in practice are nearly as bloody as their enemies.

The nameless gunslinger takes one look at this situation, and knows what to do instantly: no, not to bring lasting peace and happiness to San Miguel. That would be the kind of thing a good guy in a normal Western would do, though at least our man with no name has the kindness to rescue Marisol (Marianne Koch), being kept hostage by Ramón, and send her and her family packing before the really nasty shit goes down. What really drives him, though, is money; money and perhaps a good measure of smug cunning, because his plan involves selling false information to both sides of the feud, insinuating himself as a hired gun with both families, and proceeding to do his damnedest to make sure every last member of both gangs ends up dead.

I shall not say how he does this, for fear of spoiling not one but two classic movies which, if you haven't seen yet, you ought to do. I will say this much, though: it is clever; and it is amoral in the extreme. And it's the amorality that made A Fistful of Dollars such a sucker punch when it was new, though at the same time that amorality has been picked up by such a wide cross-section of filmmakers in the years since that it feels absolutely quaint nowadays. I mean, heck, there's not even any blood to speak of! But let us keep our heads in 1964, when this was the damned apocalypse: when a man with an indifferent squint could just pull a gun out and shoot somebody, and we'd see the whole action in one complete over-the-shoulder shot. You didn't do that kind of thing in '64 - deaths happened in tasteful bites, where the violence was isolated and compartmentalised. Certainly, you didn't have a filmmaker grind your face in it the way Leone did, with his long takes and the corrosive ugliness of his whole movie.

That, by the way, is the best place to draw the line between A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo: Leone's film looks squalid and dirty and wretched. I mean, it's beautiful; the Spanish landscape looks absolutely mythic in that super-wide aspect ratio, and the Kurosawa-inflected compositions are naturally exquisite. But the color palette is so savagely bare, mostly variations of brown, with some washed-out blues and greens for seasoning; and the lighting is so hard; and those close-ups, a Leone trademark from here on out, are so cruel and unforgiving. When the camera clamps on to a character's face from just a foot or two away, and we can see the dirt and sweat coating his skin, you feel it, viscerally. The movie reeks of heat and sweat, and even if the violence didn't do the trick, that would be quite enough to convince you that this would be a horrible, unpleasant place to exist. Though the violence is, really, enough to do the trick, shot in such a disinterested, callous way, as though it's just another part of the dusty scenery, and not really even a terribly interesting part.

The film is, then, kind of hopeless, compared to its model or to anything else that existed at the time; it is in fact a little bit grimy, and in future films, Leone would do a better job of striking the balance between the viciousness of violence and the poetry of violence. Even here, though, the nihilism achieves its own kind of epic quality, nowhere better than in Eastwood's monolithic face - I like to think that history has proved him to be a better-than-capable actor, but here, he's locked into an all-purpose snarl that suits the film quite well, as it leaves his nameless character something of an embodiment of the unforgiving environment and culture of the West, death and chaos incarnate.

Him, and the music; the groundbreaking, extraordinary music by Ennio Morricone, who would go on to become one of the truly great composers in all of cinema, who crafted for this film a score that would typify the Spaghetti Western, and define, after a fashion, what the West is "supposed to" sound like. I do not have the proper vocabulary to describe it - it twangs, and groans, and suggests in a jarring, atonal way the endless desert and the blazing sun. Like the rest of the movie, it would be bettered; Morricone's later collaborations with Leone include arguably the single most famous piece of film music not composed by John Williams. But for a starting point, his score here is amazing, harsh and hypnotising and unsettling.

Again, I actually think the film is somewhat unsteady: the pacing sags in the middle, and Leone would have a much better sense for what to do with Eastwood next time, while refining his visuals quite a bit. It is, still, the moment where Sergio Leone, anonymous costume drama hack turned into Sergio Leone, keen stylist and poet of cruelty, rising fully formed into the role he seemed born for. If it had stood alone, instead of kicking off a trilogy of increasingly accomplished films, it would still deserve attention even half a century on, for this was in its way one of the cornerstones of modern genre filmmaking.

A last thought: the Italian title, Per un pugno di dollari, better translates as For a Fistful of Dollars. I defy you to hear that once, and not forever after regret the loss of that one tiny word that does so much to balance the whole phrase.

8 comments:

Athelstan said...

Great review, but no love for the title sequence? It's probably my favourite title sequence in all of cinema.

I think you're right to say that Eastwood is hardly at the top of his game here - and it's quite jarring to see him largely not do the squinting and growling we're used to.

The.Watcher said...

Ah, yes, finally we get to my favorite trilogy in all of cinema - 3 essentially perfect movies, each one better than the one before... I remember the first time I saw the Dollars Trilogy, 1 a day, in a private little projection room in the campus where I was staying, in a town called Borga, located in Finland. I had a friend who was taking film class (I was studying Swedish) and he had the keys to the room, so one day, after finding out that I had no idea who Sergio Leone was - I was 15 so it's still understandable - he showed them all to me. Those were, without a doubt, the best 3 days of my life.

Mysterious F. said...

The two people in charge of the They Shoot Pictures website prefer this to Yojimbo.

There, now you have. XD

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

We can fight!

jjjonatron said...

I actually prefer this to Yojimbo too, if only because of the more striking visuals and music and what-not. They're both great movies, though.

And Yojimbo was followed by the inferior Sanjuro, whereas this was followed by the superior For a Few Dollars More. I dunno what the point is I'm trying to make, besides, I like this better than Yojimbo.

Tim said...

Athelstan- I think the first two have good title sequences, but it's the third where the title sequence becomes totally amazing, and I was waiting for that.

The.Watcher- Great story! I have nothing to compare to that. First saw them over the course of about a year, in reverse order.

Mysterious F., jjonatron- Well there we have it. I stand corrected. But Seven Samurai vs. Magnificent Seven, surely everybody can agree on that?

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson said...

Yep, I think we can all agree that everyone and their grandmother prefers 'Bug's Life' to both 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'Seven Samurai'.

javi75 said...

You don't even need to see The seven samurai to notice that The magnificent seven is go-dawful!