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.

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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.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Once Upon A Time in the West

After Sergio Leone completed the ‘Dollars’ trilogy in 1966, the studios granted him the license to make a Western without fear of studio intervention. The film that resulted, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is this weekend’s movie recommendation.

The film is set in a time of rapid industrialisation, when the railway barons raced to connect the coasts of America with iron track. The prospect held fabulously lucrative promise, and Leone constructs a world in which the laws governing the realisation of that prospect were frighteningly flexible. One such baron is particularly ambitious, and reluctantly hires a henchman with higher designs – ‘Frank,’ played by Henry Fonda – in order to help him get the job done Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 00.58.42before tuberculosis denies him satisfaction.

Don’t expect to see the moral probity of Juror Eight, Wyatt Earp, or Young Abe Lincoln in Henry Fonda’s performance. Instead, Frank is a terrifying, psychotic character with an appetite for child murder, corruption, and an unquenchable thirst for power. Charles Bronson appears opposite Frank as an enigmatically taciturn gunslinger. He is identified by the only thing about himself he is willing to reveal from his past – his hauntingly played ‘Harmonica.’ Harmonica cherishes his instrument with as much attention as he does his burning desire to kill Frank, for reasons that he’s willing to divulge “only at the point of dying.”

Frank’s and Harmonica’s stories coincide in the town of Flagstone. There, they meet Jill and Cheyenne, played respectively by the stunning Claudia Cardinale and the charismatic Jason Robards. Jill is an ex-prostitute trying to restore her reputation as an honest woman of means, and Cheyenne is keen to clear his name for the murders – perpetrated by Frank – for which he has been framed.

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Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack assigns a stirring leitmotif to each of the principal characters. The music matches each character’s idiosyncrasies beautifully: for Frank, the music is loud and jarring; for Harmonica, it’s un-placeably morose; for Cheyenne, it’s strangely whimsical; for Jill, the melodic soprano seems dissonant in the barren wasteland of Flagstone.

The feature of Leone’s work that I find especially compelling is his ability to construct a believable history for almost every one of his characters. There are very few character ‘props’ without personalities – Frank’s venal henchmen, the licentious bartender, and the exasperated sheriff officiating the auction – all are believable.

Make no mistake: Once Upon a Time in the West is brutally violent. Clocking in at almost three hours, it will also swallow a sizeable chunk of your weekend whole. It is an exhausting experience, but as the pinnacle of the spaghetti Western genre, it is deeply rewarding. Watch it if you want to see where the clichés come from: my favourite is the way the camera captures an extreme close-up of piercing eyes appearing from under the hat-brim as the head lifts, but you’ll surely notice countless other examples. Just remember that while they may seem dated, Leone is justly credited with having made them the ice cool hallmarks of dramatic cinema that they are today.

For trivia purposes, I think I’m going to play this one a little differently, given that Once Upon a Time in the West is already such well-trodden turf. I’m going to ask people to contribute instances where they think the film has been directly referenced by other films in the comments section. It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide a long list, especially given the love of Leone’s work by just about every director since (Tarantino in particular is a huge fan). The rules are that you must provide clear information detailing the reference between the new film and what scene or aspect of Once Upon a Time in the West to which it refers. Simply naming a film won’t do. Buona fortuna!