Wednesday, 11 July 2007

A Fistful of Dollars

Dir: Sergio Leone
Date: 1964

A Fistful of Dollars was not the first western made in Europe by a long way. It was not even the first one made in Italy or Spain. But it was the film whose style and financial success lit the touch paper on a whole new sub genre which exploded into the sensibilities of sixties cinema goers. It also laid out the blue print by which a veritable tidal wave of band wagon jumpers were produced over the ensuing 10 years or so that was the lifespan of what became known as the ‘Spaghetti’ Western.
Moreover, the success of these films internationally breathed fresh vigour into a genre whose life in Hollywood seemed almost over. A genre which despite its long and high profile history had largely (John Wayne features excepted) retreated into the lower budget sanctuary of television.
So why should a low budget genre piece co produced with German, Italian and Spanish money, based largely on a Japanese Samurai film, shot in Spain and Italy by a novice director have such an impact and leave such a legacy? You need only to sit and watch the first few minutes of this film to have everything become lightning clear.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the story of Joe, a mule riding loner who rides into the sleepy township of San Miguel and sets about using an existing gang rivalry to line his own pockets and ultimately free the town of its bloodthirsty overlords. Clint Eastwood plays the character with extreme economy. Joe is a man of few words but these words tend to communicate more than their sum parts. Early in the piece, soon after he has arrived in town to an unfriendly welcome, Joe stands on the balcony of Silvanito’s cantina ruminating on the makeup of the town. “The Baxters on one side and the Rojos on the other and me in the middle. A man could get rich in a town like this”. So saying, the entire plotline of the film is laid out, with Joe playing one side against the other in turn until everyone is dead and his pockets are bulging.
Here was a new style of hero, as laconic and self reliant as his predecessors but with a cynicism and amorality that matched the contemporary mood of his 1960’s audience. A hero whose speed and skill with a gun had reached a new and exaggerated level of artistry, and who was happy to utilise them in as cold and mercenary fashion as his villainous adversaries. Far from wearing a traditional white hat, his was decidedly dirty. In short, he was cool.
But A Fistful of Dollars did far more than offer a new cynical anti hero into a flagging genre. It showcased a whole range of possibilities for new direction in soundtrack, direction and cinematography: a European approach to an American tradition.
It is obvious when viewing the films of Sergio Leone that he had a strong affection for the classic western films of his American predecessors and a clear understanding of their visual iconography. As a largely ‘visual’ director, that is to say a director who concentrated heavily on the image rather than the dialogue of a film, his generic sympathy led to striking and hugely satisfying pictures linking explosive action sequences. A combination which would be copied by many in the ensuing decade but never equalled. In particular, Leone’s tight framing and ultra close ups of lined, haggard faces (there are no pretty boys here) jump out of the screen leaving lasting impressions of grittiness, evil and greed. Boots, spurs and pistols, long standing dressings of the western genre are in Leone’s hands magnified before us into almost monastic icons. Triggering our responses with their placement. Playing us like pop culture Pavlov’s dogs, salivating with the expectation of the next showdown.
And running across all of this is the musical score of Ennio Morricone.
The soundtrack, along with those of the following ‘Dollar’ films has become iconic in itself. An eclectic mix of solo guitar and trumpet in combination with a variety of sounds from whistling and Jews harp to whip cracking and choral voice create a total that is both rooted in the 60’s and transcendent of time. It announces characters with almost operatic motifs and drives the mood and suspense of the narrative with themes that stay with you for days after.
All in all, A Fistful of Dollars deserves its place in cinema history. The combined genius of Leone’s comic book art visuals and Morricone’s piercingly emotive sounds set a lasting standard that has been rarely matched. The film perhaps lacks some of the depth that the following Leone masterpieces attained but on the other hand it can boast a tightness of pace that Leone eventually lost sight of as he strove for larger and larger canvases. It is as watchable today as it was 43 years ago and has lost nothing of its impact and style. If that is not the sign of a truly great piece of cinema I don’t know what is.
For a devotee of the Spaghetti Western genre, this is where it all begins.

1 comment:

Annalise said...

Excellent introduction to the genre - obviously based on many viewing hours. Look forward to more.