Daily Archives: March 17, 2020

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

*. A Fistful of Dollars is Sergio Leone’s Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and it stays quite close to the original, copying certain scenes and plot elements nearly verbatim. Despite this, upon being sued by Kurosawa Leone tried to argue that he was actually going back to earlier sources (including Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, a source also touted for Yojimbo, and an 18th-century Italian play called The Servant of Two Masters). He could not have been serious, and the defence was properly rejected.
*. To take just the most obvious example of borrowing, when Eastwood’s Man With No Name asks the coffin maker to prepare three coffins and returns to apologize for his mistake and to make it four, he is only slightly inflating the identical scene in Yojimbo where Sanjuro asks for two coffins and then asks for three.
*. It’s a movie we have to see in hindsight today knowing its importance in introducing the spaghetti Western and what Eastwood would go on to do, not only in rounding out Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy (this movie would be quickly followed by For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) but on his own. Given all that, we have to then note that Eastwood was not Leone’s first or even second choice to play the part (Henry Fonda was tops, followed by Charles Bronson, who didn’t like the script).

*. As fate would have it, Eastwood was perfect. Why? Because like most great action stars he understood the value of minimalism. As another of his iconic characters would put it, a man has to know his limitations, and Eastwood knew his. Meanwhile, Leone (who didn’t know English) wasn’t expecting much. “More than an actor, I needed a mask, and Eastwood, at that time, only had two expressions: with hat and no hat.”
*. For the role, that was enough. Sanjuro would have a shrug and a habit of stroking his chin. Eastwood would squint and chew on a cigar. Neither character would even have a proper name, though the hotelkeeper here does call Eastwood Joe.
*. It’s a performance that also might say something about the evolution of cool. The Man here is borderline autistic, but violent. And also very much alone. Marisol may catch his eye, but because he’s attracted to her? Because he wants to help her? Or just because she’s connected to the gang he wants to take down and he thinks she’ll be useful?
*. Speaking of unconvincing, this movie came out during the pre-squib days of gun battles, which gets us the truly laughable slaughter of the Mexican Federales by the psychopathic Ramón Rojo. I mean, how do they manage to not kill all the horses? In a quick gunfight, like the Man specializes in, we don’t mind not seeing blood. But when you see so many extras all dying in the throes of the same ludicrous ballet gestures it’s ridiculous.
*. Is this some of the most unconvincing day-for-night photography you’ve ever seen? It is for me. Which only really matters in the graveyard shootout, but does matter there. Things are very mixed up. If you accept that they can’t see that the two men are already dead, how can they see well enough to shoot at each other?

*. In some ways it’s an even more fanciful and abstract movie than Yojimbo. In that movie we at least saw some shots of townspeople hiding in their homes. San Miguel, on the other hand, seems truly deserted. How does the hotelkeeper stay in business? There’s literally no one here but him and the coffin maker.
*. Stephen Prince’s DVD commentary sees in Yojimbo an allegory for the decline of a noble old order due to commercial capitalism. This explains Kurosawa’s motives, but leaves Sanjuro’s a blank. In this film business is even more soulless and destructive, but I don’t get the sense that Leone cares much. Meanwhile, the Man doesn’t even have a samurai code to honour. He’s on the side of women and children and old men, which is nice, but as far as it goes. It’s interesting that when this movie was shown on TV they added a prologue giving the Man some back story (he’s been released from prison so he can go clean up San Miguel). Obviously somebody thought audiences needed more to go on. But they didn’t. Less was always more.
*. It’s an important movie, and a good one too. I don’t usually get too excited by restorations, but the 4K version of this film is stunning, with the tracks in the characters faces looking like desert gullies in satellite photographs. Seeing it like this is a revelation, and really drives home how visual a movie it is. That same reliance on visuals, however, also makes it less interesting on repeated viewings. I find there’s just not very much going on here, and I say this as a fan. Leone was building up to greater things though.