Ah, 1964’s Per Un Pugno Di Dollari, better known as A Fistful of Dollars. I’ve never seen it until now, but I always felt as if I had since it’s pretty notorious. If Stagecoach is the Bela Lugosi of westerns, A Fistful of Dollars is Christopher Lee with a generous dash of Kung Fu. Or something like that. It’s commonly credited as the first spaghetti western even though it’s more like the third or fourth, but it’s one that people remember.
The movie opens like a James Bond film, with animated figures, descant-driven, monosyllabic music, and rapid-fire credits. Then we see the Stranger (Clint Eastwood), our mysterious, “Don’t Fence Me In” American (although some people call him Joe) stop to drink at a well just in time to see local tough, Chico (Mario Brega), beat up on a small boy, Jesus (Nino del Arco) who’s trying to sneak into what appears to be a brothel. A beautiful woman, Marisol (Marianne Koch) stares out the window forlornly but doesn’t come out of the house. The little boy runs to a man, Julio (Daniel Martin) in the house next door, but Chico beats Julio up. Julio and Jesus limp inside like beaten dogs.
The Stranger rides into town to find it looking rather ghostly, and three toughs basically shoot The Stranger’s horse right out from under him. The only friendly face is Silvanito (José Calvo), a local innkeeper who’s a wealth of information about the town. The townspeople have stopped living because there’s a feud going on between Ramón Rojo’s gang and the Baxters, the head of which, John (Wolfgang Lukschy) is sort of the town sheriff. No one works except Peripero (Joe Edger), the local coffinmaker. Marisol is basically Ramón’s concubine because Ramón cheated her husband, Julio (Daniel Martin) at cards.
The Baxters are no better because they’re smugglers from Texas who also run in a gang and bully townspeople. The only decent one in the family is Consuelo (Margarita Lozano), John Baxter’s wife. The Stranger isn’t impressed with the Baxter males.
After a hearty meal in Silvanito’s saloon, Stranger goes outside and confronts the three Baxter toughs, shooting all of them in quick succession. John Baxter comes out of his house and flashes his badge, but his blah-blah-blah-I’m-sheriff grandstanding just says he doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing. The Sranger is unimpressed and tells Baxter to bury his three men.
Things are tense, but there’s no all-out war until the Rojos kill a company of Mexican troops. Then the Stranger trolls both factions by telling them two Mexican troops survived and are in the cemetery. Everyone rushes to the cemetery to shoot at what are actually two dead soldiers the Stranger propped up on a tombstone.
The Stranger figures the best way to take out the Rojos is to work for Ramón. Silvanito isn’t too happy, but there’s no stopping the Stranger, and he comes around pretty quickly when the Stranger rescues Marisol and returns her to Julio, telling all three of them to get across the border to America. He gives Marisol a wad of money Consuelo gave him and sends them on their way.
Needless to say, Ramón’s thugs aren’t too happy. They capture the Stranger and beat him up, but the Stranger’s got some tricks up his sleeve. He’s almost like MacGyver that way except that he’s a crack shot with firearms. Like any good western, there’s a showdown, the particulars of which I was expecting because I’ve seen the Back To the Future trilogy more times than I can count. And of course there’s comeuppance galore.
I had certain other expectations of this movie too. I expected lots of grit and shots fired. I expected obvious ADR because there’s no way to make Italian lip movements look like spoken English or Spanish. I expected Clint Eastwood to look all cool and inscrutable.
What I didn’t expect was the humor. Dollars is most often associated with Clint Eastwood staring down the camera, but the movie as a whole has quite a few light moments. Like when the saloon keeper tells the Stranger that no one really works in the town, right before he opens a window to reveal the cheerful Piripero hammering away. Or the suit of armor used for target practice at the Rojo estate–someone shoots a heart-shaped line of bullets in it. Or the cemetery scene, which is actually pretty funny.
When the movie brings the grit, it brings the grit. The Stranger looks honestly beaten up by Ramón’s men and it’s a bit hard to watch, especially when Chico grinds his heel into the Stranger’s hand. Nice fella, that Chico. There’s blood all over the movie, although it’s not as overt as it could be, at least by today’s standards.
I also liked that the story is told in looks. While it can seem clunky because it feels like every time something happens the film cuts to someone staring, it gets a lot across without a lot of dialogue. Apparently closeups of faces was director Sergio Leone’s trademark, but I have to wonder if it was additionally used here because of the language barrier between Eastwood and the rest of the company.
Speaking of Clint Eastwood, his performance as the Stranger was career-making. He’s the epitome of cool but he’s not untouchable, and while he’s not exactly a cuddly fellow, you know where he stands. He strikes an interesting balance between being in things for money but not being a greedy mercenary. It’s worth hanging in there just to see what he’ll do next.
There’s a reason A Fistful of Dollars is an iconic film. It tells an epic story about an unforgettable character in a simple way and it made Clint Eastwood a star. It might not be the first spaghetti western, but it made the genre.
For more Legends of Western Cinema, please see Heidi at Along the Brandywine, Rachel at Hamlette’s Soliloquy, and Olivia at Meanwhile, In Rivendell… Thanks for hosting this, ladies–it was great! Thanks for reading, all, and see you on Thursday with another review…
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