A Fistful of Dollars directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood and Gian Maria Volonté opened the way for the coming tide that was to be the genre known as the ‘Spaghetti Western’. On first viewing Fistful is a glorious panoramic story of one man in the middle of two warring tribes. a story which has been told time and time again; but with the exception of ‘Yojimbo’ from which Fistful borrows it’s ideas from, never presented in such a stylish and original way. From the opening credit sequence with the red and white silhouette men being gunned down by the invisible gunfighter, over the pounding, echoing Morricone score, you know that this simple tale will have you rooting for the Eastwood and hoping the bad guys burn in hell.
The International print of Fistful had all the credits with English psydonums which helped to sell the rights to the movie internationally. At 1hr and 36 mins the movie runs at a great pace, never flagging and keeping the viewer engaged enough to ask ‘what will happen next’. Engagement is the key, Leone keeps his audience enthralled and wanting enough from the story, cinematography and music to say… we want more! The musical score is experimental, ghostly and so mystical you wonder if Eastwood is some manevolanet vengeful spirit exacting some vigilante revenge.
The plot begins with The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) enters the Mexican village of San Miguel in the midst of a power struggle among the three Rojo brothers and the Baxter family. When a regiment of Mexican soldiers bearing gold intended to pay for new weapons is attacked by the Rojo brothers, the Stranger places himself into the middle of the long-simmering battle, selling false information to both sides for his own benefit. This begins a cycle of cross and double-cross as the two warring families pick each other off in bloody revenge, while the Stranger continues plays both sides off against each other, until the grande finale.
Eastwood’s first close up in Fistful gives a look that could kill, which is just as well if as to one side he faces the Baxter’s who seem to be rich land owners and the Rojo’s, three brothers each one nastier than the first, with the youngest played by Volonté being the real brains in the family. Upon viewing Fistful, you sense that all the main characters are lonley, Eastwood has nobody but himself to think about, the bar owner enjoys Eastwoods company and is even willing to sacrifice himself to see justice served and he also to has nobody. The coffin maker, who we meet through a window quite cleverly used by Leone as a view into another world, has only the dead as company, but he is also willing to help Eastwood when he is injured. You could say some friendships are made in time of need.
The Rojo brothers are also lonley men, neither have wives, though Ramone is infatuated with a woman who he keeps a virtual prisoner, so he may not have the social graces to get a wife! As for the Baxters they are a family; but a dysfunctional one at that, with a matriarchal mother, weak father and a over excitable son who gets himself into trouble. But Leone has tried to show that violence, as a way of life, is not a life at all but a necessity which fuels a mans motivation to make money from other peoples misfortune and death. The cinematography is awash with yellows and sand coloured hues, bleached into the memory like the deserts of the Mexico Leones’ characters enhabit. Even at night the twilight is also awash with blue, which the viewer can clearly see every bush and tombstone in a haze of dark blues and dimming sun.
At the last third of Fistful, Eastwood is savagely beaten and left crippled as the Rojo’s gang eliminates the Baxter’s and take control of the town. all this is engineered by Eastwood, or so it seems. As our crippled and broken avenger rises out of the ashes and returns in a cloud of smoke and dust like a ghostly avenger in the mist, never dying, unstoppable and invisible, as if mere men can’t destroy him.
Fistful is still the template by which all Spaghetti Westerns are measured which is a mean feat by Leone. Many imitators strayed into the field left by Fistful but few could surpass it in terms of mood, visual excellence and musical score, which when considered it the context of the Italian western, then Fistful is the masterpiece it so richly deserves to be. Leone began what was to be a series of very successful Italian westerns, and it was he himself that ended the genre with My Name Is Nobody (1973) a comedic Italian western which chronicled the end of an ageing gunfighter. We owe Sergio Leone a great debt with his contribution to Cinema.
“Aim for the heart or you’ll never stop me!”