A Fistful of Dollars (1964) Director: Sergio Leone
Per un pugno di dollari is the first film in Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, followed by For A Few Dollars More, and then The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. The series essentially vaulted the “Spaghetti Western” genre into international popularity. Each of the three films is brilliant with amazing Ennio Morricone scores, as well as terrific acting from Clint Eastwood. This first film is an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which was in turn inspired by early John Ford masterpieces. Because permission was never granted to Leone for a remake, the Japanese film company filed a successful lawsuit against Leone for the film.
In A Fistful of Dollars, A “man with no name” (Clint Eastwood) arrives at a small western town in Mexico called San Miguel. He tells the casket-maker to prepare three coffins. He quickly kills four men who insult him on the way into town and he apologizes, noting it should have been four coffins. The stranger befriends a local barman/innkeeper named Silvanito who tells the stranger about two local gangs struggling for control over the town. One gang is lawless “Rojo” brothers, led by Ramón (who always uses a Winchester rifle aimed at the heart), and the other is led by the sheriff, John Baxter. The stranger plays both sides in the conflict. After the Rojos massacre a group of Mexican soldiers and rob them, the stranger led both gangs into a ruse wherein he claims there were two surviving soldiers that are in the nearby cemetery. The Rojos capture the Baxter’s son. Both gangs flee to cemetery and battle each other, while the cemetery searches the Rojo hacienda for their gold. In his search, he accidentally knocks a woman, Marisol, unconscious. She is returned to the Baxter group who immediately trade her for the Baxter son. The stranger demonstrates his fearsome quickness with a gun and his natural power as an outsider. One he learns of the situation facing Marisol, he breaks in and frees Marisol with her family, giving her money so they can flee across the border. The stranger is then captured and tortured by the Rojo gang.
In an intense scene, the stranger escapes (though he is badly injured) by sending barrels crashing into members of the Rojo gang, setting fire to his former prison, and crawling beneath the buildings and hiding out in a casket (with help from Piripero, the local casket maker). Meanwhile, the Rojos believe the stranger has been freed by the Baxters, so they utterly massacre the hacienda of the Baxters, setting it on fire and killing every single man and woman. The stranger secretly watches the scene unfold from his casket as he covertly skips town. He hides out in a nearby mine to heal until he returns to San Miguel to face Ramón and the Rojo brothers, who have captured and tortured the innkeeper, Silvanito. He is left hanging by his hands in the middle of town. In an intense stand-off, Ramón shoots at the stranger as he dramatically returns to San Miguel. The stranger does not die (it is revealed he is wearing armor under his shawl) after he taunts Ramón, telling him to “aim for the heart.” Ramón uses the full clip in his Winchester rifle. The stranger shoots the rifle out of Ramón’s hands, kills the remaining Rojo brothers, and shoots his final bullet at the rope holding Silvanito. The stranger then challenges Ramón to a duel, but he outdraws Ramón, killing him. Meanwhile, another member of the Rojo brothers has been hiding in an upper window. He lowers his gun and aims at the stranger, but Silvanito shoots him dead. The stranger collects himself and heads up out of town.
The film was shot on an extremely low budget – Eastwood was paid about $15,000 for his role. It was financed by a mixture of Spanish, German, and Italian financiers, while it was mostly filmed in Spain.
Sergio Leone is an undeniably brilliant director. A Fistful of Dollars was supposed to be a low-budget Italian B-movie, but instead it revolutionized the Western film genre and became an essential “Spaghetti Western” picture (it was the first in Leone’s incredible “Dollars” trilogy). We experience the vastness and desolation of the frontier in this film as Ennio Morricone’s incredible score plays the role of a character in the film, announcing scenes of high drama, and also disappearing so the audience can experience long, empty shots of silence. The bulk of this film takes place in one small Mexican town, far from civilization, as one lone outsider (a bounty hunter) arrives hoping to get rich, but who ultimately restores a balance between good and evil after killing off both rival gangs. The story is as much about his plot to get rich, as it is about his ‘goodness’ or perhaps simply his desire for revenge. He is mythical and unnamed -a rogue gunslinger from the frontier who plays by his own rules. He is neither a friend to the law nor the lawless. He is simply a smart egotist who is highly skilled with a weapon. What is Leone saying about Westerns by highlighting such a heroic anti-hero? If the mythology of the West is dependent upon a noble belief in the frontier, Leone’s films do not necessarily reinforce that mythology. A Fistful of Dollars is a much a grittier, even darker story. The hero is not noble for its own sake, but rather only his nobility is evident only when it coincides with his personal exploits and vendettas -and this is perhaps Leone’s deeper comment on the mythology of the Western genre.