CINEMA CLASSICS: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Clint Eastwood makes his debut as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western. Oscar gives it another look. 

Who made it?: Sergio Leone (Director/Co-Writer), Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil (Co-Writers), Arrigo Colombo, Giorgio Papi (Producers), Constantin Film/Jolly Film/Ocean Films.

Who’s in it?: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volontè, Wolfgang Lukschy, José Calvo.

Tagline: “This is the man with no name. Danger fits him like a glove.”

IMDb rating: 8.0/10.

In modern times, it has become a cliché to call something the “Dark Knight Trilogy” of a certain genre, but this was hardly the first time that a genre was revitalized by a strong artistic and directorial vision. On reflexive impulse, I was tempted to say the same of the Man With No Name Trilogy for the western genre. However, rather than utter such a disservice to this iconic triad, I can assert that each of these films truly live up to their towering reputations. A Fistful of Dollars is where it all began, a film that broke new ground with regards to what a western could do with its distinctive visual style, impressive direction and instantly memorable iconography that would carry over for two more films, inspiring a whole subgenre in the spaghetti western. While just shy of perfect, it deserves its classic status.

A Stranger (Clint Eastwood) arrives at the village of San Miguel. Silvanito (Jose Calvo), the town’s innkeeper, tells the Stranger about a feud between two families vying to gain control of the town: the Rojo brothers – Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp) and Ramón (Gian Maria Volontè), and that of the town sheriff, John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy). The Stranger, also called “Joe”, decides to play each family against the other in order to make money, and proves his speed and accuracy with his gun to both sides by shooting with ease the four men who insulted him as he entered town. The Stranger seizes his opportunity when he sees the Rojos massacre a detachment of Mexican soldiers who were escorting a shipment of gold. He takes two of the dead bodies to a nearby cemetery and sells information to both sides, saying that two Mexican soldiers survived the attack. Both sides race to the cemetery and the Stranger.

With his iconic hat and poncho, squinty-eyed glare and intimidating physique, Eastwood makes an indelible first impression; his cavalier bearing and dry sense of humour make you believe he is as smart and dangerous as the other characters say he is. His laconic dialogue surrounds him in an air of mystery and makes for an engaging antihero. Marianne Koch’s silent strength and resolve as Marisol provides heart to the intense nature of the film. Calvo offers a warm, dependable supporting role as Silvanito which contrasts with the cruelty of the Rojo brothers. Volontè makes for a complex and charismatic figure as Ramon, while Rupp has a more theatrical presence that belies a thinly-veiled bloodlust. Mario Brega as Chico makes for a good physical opponent to the Stranger, and he makes great use of the part. Due to the large cast and the division of focus in a short span of time, it does become a bit of a challenge to follow every character besides the Stranger on first viewing, and the Baxters are largely undeveloped despite being the less murderous of the two families.

What is there to say about Ennio Morricone that hasn’t already been said? With the use of guitars, trumpets, flutes, percussion, whistles, and a choir, he produced a powerful, memorable score that undeniably stood apart from the bombast of Hollywood western soundtracks. The opening theme sets a precedent for the subsequent themes, ranging from intense to exciting at the drop of a hat, with all of the combined orchestral and choral elements working together perfectly. This is the sound that would define the Wild West for millions of film fans across multiple generations.

Similar to other Italian films shot at the time, the dialogue and sound effects were dubbed over in post-production. For the majority of the cast, it works very well and never comes across as campy or unbelievable. However, the dubbing on the little boy is really quite poor, and unfortunately, it detracts from the drama every time he’s onscreen. Something about the chosen voice coming out of such a small child feels off. Had he been mute but remained as expressive as he was, I fully believe Leone would have been able to create the most sincere emotional hook possible. While the dubbing varies across the trilogy, this film also set a precedent for excellent sound mixing, with loud gunshots that enhance the action and intensity.

The lack of music in certain scenes successfully draws attention to the violence and brutality on display. The town has an aged, lived-in quality and the internal sets all blend seamlessly with the outdoor shoots. While many western towns made on the cheap in Hollywood certainly looked like obvious sets, Leone avoids this issue seemingly effortlessly.

Cinematographer Massimo Dallamano adeptly frames the vast landscapes and crowds of soldiers and cavalry, instilling a sense of the epic in the proceedings; this is where the John Ford influence is evident. But it’s in the more intimate scenes that his camera work shines. The use of sharp contrasting light in each closeup could be considered an artform unto itself. The emphasis on stubbly, distorted and rather unattractive faces (enhanced by that sharp lighting) adds to the deliberately unpleasant and gritty aesthetic. Leone makes expert use of closeups to create tension and unease, building up to an explosive gunfight. While it’s certainly not the sanitised gun duels of so many American westerns, it is of a somewhat theatrical and heightened flavour. Getting up close and personal with the grungy state of the characters forces us to confront the undeniable ugliness of life in the Wild West. The cinematographic style is firmly rooted in Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, with works such as Yojimbo. While there are clear similarities in framing and story, the grounding and sincerity of its approach allows it to stand on its own.

The striking opening credits, which in themselves owe a certain debt to the stylistic opening credits of the James Bond movies, give a clear idea of what to expect from this film. In a short span of time, Leone visually establishes the feud between the two families and that the Stranger is caught in the middle of it. The underlying theme present is that the struggle of power and resultant family feuds has the potential to be mutually destructive. Mixed in is the broken family motif of the little boy trying to reunite with his mother on the Rojo side of the town. Deliberate religious allegory is present with Marisol, Julio and little Jesus as Mary, Joseph and Jesus Christ respectively, as the symbolic sufferers in the feud between the Rojos and the Baxters. Perhaps Leone is weaving a metaphor for the waning of religion, faith, war and bloodshed, but if so, it’s a more earnest depiction of belief than in his later films. The standoff between the Rojos and Baxters as they exchange hostages is another highlight of the film, showing the audience a moment of rare mercy between the two feuding families. The sheer inhumanity and sadism the Rojos show to the Baxters in the third act is truly unnerving, taking the theme of ugliness in the west to a horrifying climax.

There is also the sense that the Stranger is the only truly free character in this story because of his solitude and removal from any and all emotional ties. The Rojos and Baxters are bound by their blood in mutual destruction, and Joe forms no real connection with Silvanito or Marisol beyond helping them out of fatal situations. Silvanito is bound to his tavern and Marisol is a hostage to the Rojos, but is still bound to her family, and willingly chooses them when given the chance to do so. He remains a loner to the end and survives thanks to his self-reliance and unwillingness to set down roots and attachments which would, in all probability, have gotten him killed.

In the context of a diminishing period of white hat/black hat westerns, the presence of a morally-grey main character was a bold move in 1964. Black-and-white westerns of old had fuelled Leone’s imagination as a youth with their grittiness, serious subject matters and morally-questionable characters. The Stranger projects an image of a cold mercenary in it only for the money, but he willingly helps Marisol to escape with her husband and son. He also repays Silvanito not just in cash but for the guidance and companionship he gave him throughout his time in San Miguel. The cool, strutting, smoking image of manhood resisting the allure of beautiful women has become archetypal for westerns in the wake of Leone. But the Stranger is never depicted as invincible; he becomes subject to a violent beating and bruising, and seeing him endure and survive adds to that legend of machismo.

Westerns have always been about legendary figures in larger-than-life exploits, but this is an instance where that same kind of legend-building is shown through making the hero’s challenges and enemies all the more merciless. Our protagonist is not a shining paragon of goodness but just a man trying to survive in a ruthless wild frontier. That effort to break from tradition and indulge in the then frowned-upon excesses of style, ironically enough, would lead to A Fistful of Dollars becoming the opening salvo for three films that would cast a legendary shadow over a great many westerns which would last into the next century.

Best Scene

Talk about iconic.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • After considering Henry Fonda, director Sergio Leone offered the role of the Man with No Name to James Coburn, who proved to be too expensive. Charles Bronson then turned it down after describing it as the “worst script I have ever seen.” Third choice Richard Harrison also declined the role but pointed Leone in the direction of Rawhide (1959). Leone then offered the part to Rawhide star Eric Fleming, who turned it down but suggested his co-star Clint Eastwood for the part. The rest, as they say, is history. Leone would eventually work with both Fonda and Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and Coburn in Duck, You Sucker (1971).
  • Eastwood helped in creating his character’s distinctive visual style. He bought the black jeans from a sport shop on Hollywood Boulevard, the hat came from a Santa Monica wardrobe firm and the trademark black cigars came from a Beverly Hills store. Eastwood himself cut the cigars into three pieces to make them shorter. Eastwood himself is a non-smoker.
  • Since all footage was filmed silent, Eastwood did not add his voice to the soundtrack until 1967, when the movie was prepared for U.S. release.
  • This was the first time that Leone and composer Ennio Morricone worked together. Initially, Leone was not keen on using Morricone for this film. Lacerenza’s initial trumpet performance of the score made Leone quickly set aside any reservations. Leone and Morricone, who had known each other since school, would develop a close working relationship that would last through all of Leone’s future films.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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