Sunday 27 October 2019

A Fistful of Dollars by Leone, Catena, Gil et al

There was a remarkably prescient review in the show business newspaper Variety when this Sergio Leone western came out.

The reviewer not only recognising that it was something special, but also drew some very perceptive parallels with the James Bond films, which were still new on the scene.

I've just watched a Blu-ray of A Fistful of Dollars, complete with an excellent documentary track and featurette by Leone scholar Christopher Frayling, which takes note of those parallels...

From the violent, colourful graphics of the title sequence, through the unforgettable electric-guitar based score to the hip and cynical central character.

A Fistful of Dollars arrived like an earthquake and was a milestone in the history of popular cinema.

It's also a very low budget film, shot on an existing set of a Western street in Spain. The environment depicted is virtually a ghost town — not just because there's been so much killing in the backstory, but because the producers couldn't afford any extras.

I first saw this movie when I was a kid and I thought I remembered nothing about it, but I was surprised by how much came back to me and how quickly — like Eastwood's remark to the coffin maker, "My mistake, four," after he guns down some bad guys.

What I definitely hadn't forgotten though, was how the film was based on Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest by way of Kurosawa's film Yojimbo.

In other words, A Fistful of Dollars rips off Yojimbo without credit and Yojimbo rips off Hammett without credit. (Maybe that's why there's no screenwriters named during the credit sequence on A Fistful of Dollars.)

Essentially this is a story about a smart, ruthless outsider who comes into a corrupt town and plays off the factions of bad guys against each other. In Hammett's original — and no one disputes that he originated the story — the outsider is a detective, the Continental Op.

In Kurosawa's film that figure is a samurai, in Leone's a gunfighter.

It's a testament to the strength of Hammett's concept that it works so well in these very different contexts.

It's also interesting to note that Dashiell Hammett never gave the Continental Op an actual name. Just like Eastwood's Man with No Name.

Despite its larcenous origins and its breadline budget, Fistful is a forceful and revolutionary film. Leone's direction, with its gigantic close ups and casual violence was something altogether new.

But the unsung hero of the movie is Carlo Simi, the production designer. His contribution to the film's visuals is considerable. (That dandelion fluff floating around in one scene was his idea. As were the windblown dead leaves in another.) Simi was also responsible for creating both the sets and the costumes — notably Eastwood's iconic poncho.

In this humble garment, never before worn by a Western hero, Eastwood has tremendous screen presence from the very first shot. He looks young, but haggard. And his stubble is again something entirely new.

Before this, the bad guys had stubble and the good guys were clean shaven.

Enio Morricone's music deftly shapes and punctuates the anecdotes of the film, brutal or funny. It's terrific and the fact that Morricone's name is hidden under a ridiculous pseudonym on the Blu-ray print is, I think, disgraceful.

Like the score, Clint Eastwood has a tremendous impact. He says very little, apparently having requested extensive cuts in the dialogue, but he's charismatic — and entirely convincing in the scene where he's beaten to a pulp. (One of the few other bits of the movie that I remembered.)

Eastwood in his poncho and Morricone's music add up to a fantastic blend, especially in the final confrontation when he comes walking out of a wall of smoke. And in this scene the poncho actually becomes a plot point, concealing a primitive bulletproof vest.

This movie is by no means perfect. It occasionally drags. Some of the story is ridiculous (no one would be fooled by those dead soldiers in the cemetery), there are often silly sound effects and laughable dubbing. But...

A Fistful of Dollars is unquestionably a classic. It changed the rules of the game and began a remarkable sequence of Sergio Leone westerns which would culminate in Once Upon a Time in the West.

(Image credits: More wonderful posters from the excellent site Movie Poster Shop. If I had the wall space I would be buying crazy amounts of these.)

No comments:

Post a Comment