It is difficult to imagine how the western genre would have persevered as long as it has if not for the contribution played by the legendary Italian director, Sergio Leone. Together with Clint Eastwood and Ennio Morricone, Leone completely revolutionised the genre as well as creating one of the famous figures in the history of cinema, The Man With no Name. The film launched the career of both director and actor and made the term Spaghetti Western, meaning a movie set in the frontier days of the old west yet being filmed largely in Leone’s home country Italy, a well known household phrase.
The idea for Fistful of Dollars was born when the cameraman Enzo Barboni watched Akira Kuroswawa’s film Yojimbo at his cinema in 1963 and felt there was something unique about it, the cynicism and arbitrary violence had not been seen like that on the screen before. He recommended it to his friend Sergio Leone who went to see the film the following day. He was so impressed by the film’s plot, with its strong levels of darkness and pessimism, as well as the movie’s central character Yojimbo that he decided that he would model his own western on it.
Yojimbo does feel like Kurosawa’s homage to the Hollywood Western so it is not much of a stretch to replace the Japanese actors with Italians and Americans and place the dusty town on the edge of the frontier. Though Leone did not hide the fact that he took inspiration for his film from Kurosawa, the Japanese felt Fistful of Dollars was too similar and sued the producers of the movie, delaying the release date until a deal was eventually struck.
One of the main differences between Toshiro Mifune, who starred as Yojimbo, and Clint Eastwood’s The Man With no Name is Eastwood’s character is strictly looking out for himself. Using his wits and quick gunplay he manages to instigate a small war with the town’s rival gangs merely to collect cash from both sides. There is also more humour in Fistful of Dollars than in Yojimbo with a prime example being the first scene in which Eastwood shows what he can do with his .45 pistol. Before approaching the gang in which he has had an earlier confrontation with he mentions on the sly to the town’s coffin maker that he should get three ready. Upon confronting the gang he says that they need to all apologize to his mule for shooting at his feet as his mule doesn’t know what he did wrong. This causes nervous laughter amongst the gang members as it is obvious Eastwood’s cowboy isn’t intimidated in the slightest. When he finally brings out his pistol killing the four men with four bullets in what seems like a fraction of a second the audience as well as the characters in the town see his unrivalled skills as a gunman.
Although initially Eastwood’s Man With no Name seems to be only looking out for his own interests, Leone wanted the audience to have some sympathy for this character. By having him save a woman and her family from where she is being imprisoned by a leader of one of the gangs, Eastwood becomes a hero for the downtrodden who doesn’t walk away from injustice. This also allows the audience to have a sliver of back story when the woman asks him why he is saving her he replies that he knew a woman in a similar situation which he was not able to do anything about. The audience is left to speculate as to whether it was his wife that was killed by bandits causing him to wander the frontier, or maybe even his mother.
One of the main distinctions of the film which allows it to stick in the film-going audiences collective memory is Ennio Morricone’s punching score. The credits alone are worth the price of admission with gunshot noises that sound as if they are whizzing past the audience’s ear and silhouetted cowboys ride across the screen to the sound of trumpets. In fact it was said that Sergio Leone was so impressed with the score that he slowed down the pace of the film in order to let the music in the scenes finish uninterrupted. Morricone continued to collaborate with Leone right up until his final film in 1983 Once Upon A Time in America.
Upon the film’s release it was toted as a huge international success receiving a rave review from The New York Times among many well known publications. The reviewer, Bosley Crowther, described the film as having every western cliché in the book yet highly recommended it as “an engrossing morbid, violent film.”
The amount of violent spectacles to be found in the film made it stand out from other Hollywood westerns of the same era. It grew to be so popular in fact, that it spawned two sequels starring Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, 1966’s For a Few Dollars More followed by The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in 1968 which is widely regarded as one of the finest westerns ever made. This legendary Spaghetti Western is still widely recognised and celebrated to this day, with the Johnny Depp animated film Rango paying homage to Eastwood’s legendary character.
Although Fistful of Dollars may seem to be the less ambitious of Leone’s Spaghetti Western trilogy it introduced to film-goers all of the technique and skill which would become trademarks of his films. The close-ups of the character’s faces during the shoot-outs, Morricone’s unforgettable score, the violent gunfights, but most importantly it introduced us to Eastwood’s nameless hero strolling into town with his famous brown poncho and chewed up cigar.