A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS wasn’t the very first entry in the genre they call “Spaghetti” Western, but it sure as hell was the spark that lit the firing pin. Sergio Leone is arguably the greatest and certainly the best known and most influential of the “Spaghetti” directors. He started out working on historical epics, and was somewhat hilariously credited as “Bob Robertson” on the American release of this, his first Western, but the name Sergio Leone is now synonymous with the genre.
Leone’s inspired approach was right there in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS – his absolute mastery of the widescreen frame, his deliberate and confident pacing, and his enlisting of his most important collaborator, composer Ennio Morricone, whose name will recur on such a number of examples of the genre that it is literally difficult to count. Morricone is the most innovative and experimental of the great film composers – there is literally nothing in movies like a Morricone score. Leone reportedly played selections from Morricone’s scores on the set – a brilliant inspiration that was unprecedented then, and completely unheard of today.
The plot of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is an appropriation of the story from Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO – a taciturn stranger strolls into a town that is ruled by a feud between two warring families, and plays them against each other for his own gain. In this movie the families are recast as the ‘Baxters’ and the ‘Rojos’, which adds a dash of racial tension to the mix, but not really. Leone wasn’t particularly concerned with social implications, and besides, the Rojos are mostly played by Italians – including popular “Spaghetti” fixture Gian Maria Volonte.
Of course, the main legacy of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, beyond its world-changing score and the fact that it remains entertainment of the highest order, is that it brought us Clint Eastwood. Leone took a lanky second-stringer who was wrapping up eight years on a TV show that is now largely forgotten but for its theme song (Rawhide) and cast him perfectly as the mysterious lead, who despite the famous “Man With No Name” ad campaign, does have a name here. It’s “Joe.” Of course there isn’t a last name, or anything resembling a backstory. Whether Joe’s sparse dialogue was a function of character or a response to the international nature of the production, he sure doesn’t talk too much, and when he does, it either means a mountain, or it reflects a sense of the blackest humor. This introduced the main Eastwood persona that proved a durable basis for five unprecedented decades of the greatest career in movies.
If you’re looking for an entry point to the “Spaghetti” Western, this movie is the best possible choice.
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