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: Groggy's Review  ( 2698 )
Groggy
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« : January 06, 2010, 01:11:00 PM »

I hope this will serve as penance for my previous dismissal of this film.

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Perhaps it was the budding snob in me, but my last few viewings of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) left me somewhat cold. Although a passable little film, I found it lacking in any real style or quality and dismissed it as Leone's weakest effort - not having seen The Colossus of Rhodes, in all fairness.

Well, I rewatched the film the other day and am willing to revise my opinion. Certainly A Fistful of Dollars isn't a work of cinematic art like, say, Once Upon a Time in the West indisputably is, but it's a damn well-made entertainment, with Leone's talents already on display despite the low budget, recycled story and dingy atmosphere. And Clint Eastwood, fresh off his success as TV star, creates an instant superstar icon here as the cool, deadly Man With No Name.

A poncho-wearing stranger known only as Joe (Clint Eastwood) rides into the Mexican border town of San Miguel, which is ruled by two feuding families: Sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Luckhsky), and the Rojos, led by the psychotic Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), each selling guns and liquor and keeping private armies of gunfighters. With the reluctant help of bartender Silvanito (Jose Calvo), Joe plays both sides against each other, gaining a huge wad of cash in the process. But when Joe helps Ramon's lover Marisol (Marianne Koch) and her family escape San Miguel, Joe is repaid for his treachery with brutal torture. After the Rojos slaughter the Baxters, Joe rides back into town for the final showdown with Ramon.

Fistful was not the first Spaghetti Western, but it was unquestionably the most important. Early films, like the German Winnetou adaptations and Gunfight at Red Sands, attempted to ape the look and feel of American Westerns, with generally negative results; they looked like the cheap pastiches they were. Leone's film, along with Sergio Corbucci's over-the-top Django, revolutionized the subgenre, infusing it with a mix of exaggerated violence, gleeful amorality and a dark cynicism completely distinct from classic American Westerns. If American Westerns like My Darling Clementine and The Wild Bunch are cinematic novels rich in characters and thematic material, Fistful and most of its successors are comic books; over-the-top and outlandish, style over substance, but a distinct form of art in their own right.

The success of Leone's film started a stampede of imitators. By the mid-70s, over 400 Spaghettis had been produced, ranging from the good (Face to Face, Death Rides a Horse) to the cheap and cheesy to some truly bizarre, hyperviolent and outlandish films like Django Kill! and Cut-throats Nine. The films equally influenced Hollywood, whose depictions of the Old West grew increasingly darker and more violent through the late '60s and beyond. All of these films find their genesis with Leone's first Western, and it would be important if only for the baggage it carries. Fortunately, Fistful is a good enough film in its own right.

Fistful blatantly recycles the plot of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, seamlessly transposing it into the Old West. The film lacks the graceful artistry and construction of Kurosawa's film, replacing it with dingy minimalism, crude wooden. It's not an issue of realism, as many of Leone's fans claim - certainly not when Joe guns down four opponets with a single burst of pistol fire - low budget is largely to blame or credit here. Nonetheless, the movie has a bleak, desolate and violent atmosphere distinct from American Westerns, and its story of violence and treachery is sparse enough to justify this simplicity. The story is simple and well-told; characterization and thematic depth are not to be found, but violent, well-made entertainment is abundant, and that's all that's required here.

Leone already showed a great cineamtic eye in Colossus of Rhodes, which for all its faults is certainly a well-directed film. Working on a budget of $200,000, his production is fairly economical, but Leone still films the action scenes with style, his trademark use of extreme close-ups and eye for landscape already in evidence. He would hone his style on his later films, catapulting the Spaghetti Western in genuine art, but the embryo of these films is certainly here. Ennio Morricone's score is, needless to say, invaluable to the film; his score is typically eclectic, using whistles, chants, bells and whip-cracks alongside blaring trumpets and mournful strings. It's a far cry from the soaring arias and orchestrations of Morricone's later work, but it's certainly brilliant in its own right.

Clint Eastwood instantly went from the meek Rowdy Yates of TV's Rawhide to international super-stardom, reteaming with Leone on For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly before returning to the US and even bigger stardom. He's already got the squint, the poncho, the cigarillo and the smartass quips down pat in his first big scene facing off against the Baxters, and he would only grow in stature from here, from future Man With No Name adventures to Dirty Harry to his own directoral efforts. The heavily dubbed supporting cast is adequate: Gian Maria Volonte rehearses the psychopath he would create even more memorably in For a Few Dollars More, Jose Calvo (Day of Anger) provides the film with a conscience, and Leone's usual Italian thugs - Benito Stefanelli, Antonio Molino Rojo, Lorenzo Robledo, the hulking Mario Brega - provide bench support.

A Fistful of Dollars is by no means a masterpiece, but it's a solid, gritty bit of entertainment, and a fine first Western for Sergio Leone. Both Leone and Eastwood would go on to bigger and better things, but this is a fine place for each to start.


http://nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.com/2010/01/fistful-of-dollars.html

« : January 06, 2010, 01:13:00 PM Groggy »


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« #1 : January 06, 2010, 01:27:12 PM »

Sorry ain't enough, Grog.



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« #2 : January 06, 2010, 01:27:47 PM »

Pistols at dawn then?



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« #3 : January 07, 2010, 07:29:38 AM »

Interesting review Groggy. Nice to see you're finally giving this film at least a small portion of the immense amount of respect it deserves :P

Your comment about budget constraints possibly working in Leone's favor is interesting and was no doubt compounded by Eastwood's supposed removal of much of the dialogue. I guess the question is whether Leone's style was inherent in him or molded originally by budget constraints and Eastwood's laconic style. Although it no doubt developed over time, I favor the former on the following main grounds: the comic irony is already present in the Colossus of Rhodes where most notably Calhoun's character is modeled on a laid back version of Cary Grant in North by Northwest and is very similar to the laconic Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy; higher budgets in Leone's later films do not destroy his style, which appears even more honed and stylish, but they possibly would have done so had this not been something originally in him rather than something that emerged out of constraint. Although things said in retrospective hindsight are not always the most reliable indicators, Leone did say that it was not until the "Once Upon a Time" trilogy that he could really show his own style which was somewhat subdued in the "Dollars" trilogy.  

« : January 07, 2010, 07:31:10 AM Novecento »
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« #4 : January 07, 2010, 10:20:14 AM »

I spelled cinematic wrong. I should be shot for that if nothing else.



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« #5 : January 08, 2010, 03:07:36 AM »

Interesting review Groggy. Nice to see you're finally giving this film at least a small portion of the immense amount of respect it deserves :P

Your comment about budget constraints possibly working in Leone's favor is interesting and was no doubt compounded by Eastwood's supposed removal of much of the dialogue. I guess the question is whether Leone's style was inherent in him or molded originally by budget constraints and Eastwood's laconic style. Although it no doubt developed over time, I favor the former on the following main grounds: the comic irony is already present in the Colossus of Rhodes where most notably Calhoun's character is modeled on a laid back version of Cary Grant in North by Northwest and is very similar to the laconic Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy; higher budgets in Leone's later films do not destroy his style, which appears even more honed and stylish, but they possibly would have done so had this not been something originally in him rather than something that emerged out of constraint. Although things said in retrospective hindsight are not always the most reliable indicators, Leone did say that it was not until the "Once Upon a Time" trilogy that he could really show his own style which was somewhat subdued in the "Dollars" trilogy.  

I have no opinion on that matter, but just wanted to pintpoint the fact that budget on FFDM and, to a lesser extend, on GBU, was still the main constraint.



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