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A Fistful of Dollars

Before A Fistful of Dollars the Hollywood western reigned. A few Italian westerns were being made, but those did not look significantly different from the Hollywood western. This changed after A Fistful of Dollars was released, and soon countless hordes of the new "spaghetti-western" genre were being created by many directors, and scored usually either by Ennio Morricone or Bruno Nicolai.

A Fistful of Dollars is almost a scene-for-scene remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. The plot of Yojimbo is the tale of a lone samurai who comes to a town torn by two rival gangs of fighters, headed by two rival gangs. He plays them off against each other, helps a family to escape, and in the end finishes off pretty much the whole town and leaves with all the money. Replace a samurai with a gunslinger, and replace the Japanese village with a small western town, and you have A Fistful of Dollars. Also borrowed from Yojimbo is Kurosawa's busy sets, the quiet, confident, and deadly man with no name, the use of music to replace dialogue, and finally Kurosawa's slow motion photography.

However, A Fistful of Dollars is not simply a copy of Yojimbo. Leone uses Kurosawa's techniques perfectly, but also uses elements of his own style: quick zooms and extreme close-ups of thin, squinty eyes. As a western, the film broke a number of conventions. There were no Indians. The man with no name did not pull out a guitar and sing a song (thank god!). The hero was every bit as ruthless and money hungry as the villains. The only difference is that he would spare the innocents. Also, the film is considerably more violent than the normal western. Leone did not know the Hollywood rules about what is and is not acceptable violence, he did whatever he wanted. The results redefined the rules

Starring in the lead role was Clint Eastwood, whose appearance in this and Leone's next two westerns won him international fame.

When deciding on the music for A Fistful of Dollars, Leone was going to use Francesco Lavagnino, who did Leone's score for The Colossus of Rhodes. Luckily, he met Ennio Morricone. Interestingly enough, Morricone remembered that they knew each other as boys, when they went to the same school! Leone was not happy with Morricone's previous scores, which were at that time typical western scores. However, when he heard an earlier Morricone experimental piece, he changed his mind. The score that Morricone created like no western score before it. Previous western scores sounded like popular American music, almost always pleasant, with male vocals. Morricone's score was in a Western style, and sounded much like Mexican folk music. Violent folk music. The main theme is punctuated by unintelligible shouts and calm whistling.

For the release of A Fistful of Dollars, Leone was afraid that American audiences would not go to see a western made in Italy. After all, the western was up until then an American controlled genre. So both Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone changed their names, becoming Bob Robertson and Dan Savio. However, the movie was quite successful, and became the first of a rapidly growing genre of spaghetti westerns. After this movie, westerns would never be the same. There was no going back.

As with all his westerns, Leone's shots are very wide, to give the movie an uncluttered and spacious feel. The best way to see this movie in on laserdisc, since that version has letterboxing to preserve the aspect ratio.

You should also note that ABC added a prologue which has become rather infamous. It appears to have only aired once in the 1970's and featured Harry Dean Stanton releasing Eastwood from a jail cell on the agreement that he take care of the gangs in San Miguel. It's been suggested that ABC added this to give moral reasoning to the Man With No Name's quest. It wasn't sanctioned by Leone and featured new shots cut together with several close-ups of Eastwood taken from later segments of the film. To date this prologue seems to have disappeared. You can click here for more information.