Weekend Film Recommendation: A Fistful of Dollars

For the third installment of this month’s series of movie recommendations based on remakes, I wanted to do a Western. The obvious choice would be John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, which is magnificent and often considered one of the top remake films of all time (source material: Seven Samurai). But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spotlight Sergio Leone’s 1964 take on a different Kurosawa movie (Yojimbo) in A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari).

Screen shot 2014-06-20 at 02.06.20The plot centers on Clint Eastwood’s most iconic creation, the Man With No Name (I’ll call him Poncho to make life easier). Poncho is one mean dude with a cunning mind and a lightning trigger finger. When Poncho arrives in the small town of San Miguel, he sees a young boy being abused while traversing the main street. Poncho makes his way over to the inn, where the kindly innkeeper Silvanito tells the story of how the town has been mistreated much like the boy: while trying to get on with one’s day, residents of San Miguel are regularly harassed either by the town sheriff John Baxter (played by Wolfgang Lukschy) or by the three Rojo brothers (of whom Ramón, played by Gian Maria Volonté, is the leader).

Poncho hatches a dastardly plan and soon secures for himself a position as a hired gun for both families. He plays the two against one another, kills some scumbags, re-groups, kills some more scumbags, gets beaten up a little, kills a whole bunch of scumbags, and collects a whole pile of cash. And then he kills some scumbags.

Poncho has frustratingly little to tell us about himself, much like the other characters in the story. This isn’t a film for those looking for profound character development. Only fleetingly does Poncho reveal his own motives for taking on the crime families in San Miguel, or for assisting Silvanito and his daughter. Even then, don’t expect to learn much of his – or indeed anyone’s – backstory. All the characters are pretty thin, really, but there’s plenty to keep you entertained all the same just by virtue of the two character traits you can get some purchase on: almost everyone is unremittingly opportunistic and violent toward one another. When Poncho rolls into town, the first moment in which he seems to pry his detachment loose is when he realizes there’s a chance to make a buck by profiting on death and misery.

Comparing Fistful to Magnificent Seven clarifies one of Leone’s main contributions to Westerns. Before the Spaghetti Westerns, the good guy was always easily distinguishable from the bad guy. What difficulties the good guy had to endure were typically the challenge of forsaking one virtue for another (think Will Kane’s deliberation between being a family man as opposed to being a lawman in High Noon, for example). Not so in Leone’s world. Here, even the protagonist is just rotten to the core.

Screen shot 2014-06-20 at 02.05.20

As one of Leone’s first credited efforts as director, Fistful has some rough edges. There are some woefully bad dubbing edits, and the film is replete with the hallmark gimmicks of a director still learning his craft. Some of those gimmicks would later become Spaghetti Western benchmarks, like the eyes that appear slowly from underneath the brim of a hat as the character raises his head, or characters entering the scene through the dusty cloud of smoke and sand. While it isn’t always perfectly executed, and it can sometimes feel as though Leone’s trying just a little too hard to create a sense of drama, I usually give him a pass. After all, he is the reason those gimmicks became staples of the genre in the first place.

I’ve already written about my love of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. While I maintain that Once Upon a Time in the West is still my favorite Western, each of the installments in the Dollars trilogy is fun in its own – very different – right.

Here’s a fun bit of movie trivia: Leone fully intended to kill off Poncho (as well as Eli Wallach and Lee van Cleef, who would complete the Good, Bad, and Ugly set in the later instalments of the Dollars trilogy) in the opening scene at the train station in Once Upon a Time in the West. This was supposed to be the grand introduction of his next Man With No Name, with Charles Bronson as Harmonica, but scheduling conflicts meant that Leone’s vision never materialized. For the best, really; I might have wet myself if he’d pulled it off.

Comments

  1. Keith_Humphreys says

    Excellent choice. This movie is pure entertainment and also of course critical in Eastwood's career.

    As for the dubbing, for years Italian films didn't bother with voice microphones on sets. I don't know why this was the convention but it was. The voice acting was post-synched on studio loops. The result is that many Italian films that were not dubbed look dubbed anyway In this film, Eastwood was dubbed in Italian for release then re-dubbed in his own voice for the American market.

    • Johann_Koehler says

      I've always wondered about that, and now I know. Yet again, Humphreys flexes his over-developed trivia muscle!

    • Warren_Terra says

      There was a big article a few years back about the Italian film industry (in Harpers maybe?), mostly about dubbing. Apparently Italy had a policy dating to Mussolini's day that all foreign films must be dubbed, subtitles were never to be permitted. This led to established, even beloved roles for the designated dubbers of international film stars, and to a huge infrastructure; you can imagine how it might have led to a broader culture of dubbing in the dialogue even on films made in Italian (and especially on films made by a mixed cast of polyglots and people lacking a common language, and/or intended for dubbing and release in multiple markets). If you're going to dub anyway, why bother with troublesome boom mikes and fighting ambient noise?

      Doesn't really excuse poor dubbing, though – you'd think they'd be really, really good at it, with all the practice. Though, on the other hand, maybe a lifetime watching Italian words dubbed onto mouths speaking English, French, and other tongues leads one to a somewhat loose approach to the art. You might not expect the dialogue you hear to closely track the actor's delivery!

      • Keith_Humphreys says

        Very interesting Warren. Spain had similar rules. I remember watching a Woody Allen film in Barcelona and someone telling me that there is one Spanish voice actor who always gets to do Woody’s voice in Spanish and he makes a good living at it.

    • CharlesWT says

      I suspect, by not having on set audio recording, they saved a bundle on equipment and personnel. And who cared if an airliner was flying overhead if wasn't in the shot. Plus they could use cheaper equipment like cheap, noisy motor-generators instead of the expensive, quite ones.

    • rachelrachel777 says

      According to one story, the great director Federico Fellini once told an actor whose scripted line was "I never want to see you again" to say instead, "You burned the toast again."

      It seems the actor said something like that at breakfast, and the way he said it conveyed exactly the emotion demanded for the scene.

  2. Theophylact says

    What — no mention of Yojimbo (also by Kurosawa), when Fistful is almost a shot-for-shot remake?

  3. bighorn50 says

    Because I'm a musician, I suspect I'm biased but I'll chime in anyway. Morricone's almost minimalist score is also an important part of the movie.

    • Johann_Koehler says

      Agreed! Leone's use of music is a very, very important part of the atmosphere. I especially enjoy Morricone's use of leitmotifs to give each character a musical echo in the soundtrack — a trick he's used more than once.

      • bighorn50 says

        And lifted straight out of Wagner. Not that he was the only (or even the first) film composer to lift that trick.

  4. schmidtb98 says

    Great film of course, thanks for blogging about it. No-Name is deeply cynical and prone to violence, but I'd disagree over the claim he's "rotten to the core". There is a difference between him and the gangs he's manipulating (e.g. treatment of the innkeeper and daughter). He's more of a noirish flawed hero than just one more bad guy.

    • Johann_Koehler says

      I'll concede that he's different from the Baxters or the Rojos, but 'noirish flawed hero'? I keep thinking he'd be happy to manipulate Silvanito if he could stand to gain from it.

    • CharlesWT says

      Antiheroes, like No-Name, seem to be sociopaths with a moral code. Even if it's a self-defined one.

  5. CharlesWT says

    The role played by Henry Fonda in OUaTitW was a bit of brilliant casting against type. After all the the good guy roles Fonda had played, it's quite a shock when the face of the character that has just shot two kids in cold blood is revealed.