Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Fistful of Dollars

Originally Written and Posted at on 12/4/07 w/ Additional Edits.

Directed by Sergio Leone with a script he co-wrote with A Bonzzoni, Victor Andres Catena, and Jaime Comas Gil, A Fistful of Dollars is about a no-named gunslinger who plays a double for two feuding gangs in the middle of a gang war in a small, Western town. Playing the Man with No Name was a then-unknown American TV actor named Clint Eastwood who was at the time, barely known for appearing in the TV show Rawhide while couldn't do films in the U.S. for contractual reasons. The film would mark the first of three collaborations between Leone and Eastwood as they would make history with this film. Also starring Gian Maria Volonte, Marianne Koch, Mario Brega, Benito Stefanelli, and Jose Calvo. A Fistful of Dollars is a thrilling, exciting, and intense film from Sergio Leone and company.

A no-named man arrives into a border-town near Mexico as he notices a town that has gone quiet. He realizes that a feud between two bosses over control of the town has emerged where he makes an encounter with a group of bandits. Entering into a tavern where he meets an old bartender named Silvanito (Jose Calvo), he learns what is going on. A beer-brewing baron named Miguel Rojo (Antonio Prieto) is in a feud with a weapons merchant named Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) over control of the town. The man with no name encounters four of Baxter's men whom he kills immediately as he catches the attention of Miguel Rojo and his brother Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp) who wants to hire him but the no-named man wants more money since he isn't cheap. Making things worse is the arrival of the calvary who comes to stop at the town for a gold exchange to a group of American calvary.

The no-name man and Silvanito arrive to see that the calvary is immediately killed by Rojo's men in disguise led by the crazed, rifle-toting Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte). After meeting Ramon, the no-name man learns that Ramon is indeed crazy while keeping a mistress named Marisol (Marianne Koch) in secrecy. Deciding to get the feud between the Rojos and Baxter clan rolling, he and Silvanito grab two dead calvary men while feeding information to Baxter and his wife (Margarita Lozano) about the stolen gold. When he gives the Rojos false information about two living calvary going to the Baxter clan, a feud is waged as Baxter's son Antonio (Bruno Carotenuto) is captured. Yet, the battle is used as a distraction for the stranger to find the stolen gold as he encounters Marisol whom he gives to Baxter's wife.

An exchange is later occurred the day after the battle where the stranger learns about Marisol's role whose husband (Daniel Martin) got cheated at a card game by Ramon who threatened to kill their son Jesus if he could have Marisol. After Marisol's return to the Rojos' ranch, the stranger decides to free her by killing six of the Rojos men and making her, Julian, and their son leave to reach the border. Yet, after their departure, Ramon learns of the stranger's role in the game as he is immediately beaten for information. After barely escaping with help from the town's coffin maker Piripero (Joseph Egger), the war is over as the Rojos have captured Silvanito as the stranger, now in full recovery, goes for a showdown against Ramon and Rojo gang.

While the film's plot is simple about a stranger with no moral justification playing both sides in the middle of a gang war. The fact that the source came from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo is also noted that both films not only have different sources for background but were both rooted in the American western. While Kurosawa's film was a homage to the western, Leone went the opposite by giving the genre more edge, more violence, while spitting at the conventions of American westerns. The film's protagonist like Kurosawa's Sanjuro in both its title film and predecessor Yojimbo are both intelligent and witty. Yet, the no-named man doesn't talk very much and instead, prefers to sit back and observe with help from Silvanito who is the film's conscience.

While the script is similar to Yojimbo in some respects, the direction by Leone has the same similarities that Kurosawa's film had but the result overall is very different. Particularly for Leone's portrayal of the genre in relation to his own background. The film's violence is stylized but with dabbles of blood and gunshots that show the men falling down after they're killed. It was a reaction against the American style of violence in westerns that had been restricted at the time by censors since the 1930s. Leone rails against the conventions while making the character of Marisol, who is a bigger character than the sake brewer's mistress in Yojimbo, an unconventional female character as opposed to the schoolmarm character that is seen in American westerns.

With those unconventional takes on the genre, another shot in the arm to the western protagonist that was against the old-man idealism of John Wayne was a youthful protagonist. Here, we have the no-name man. He's fast, witty, has a dead-pan sense of humor, and is tough. It is claimed by some that this is where the prototype of the modern-day action hero comes from. The man has no morals except in one moment where he saves the life of Marisol and her family while telling her to flee. That's a brief moment where he's out of character but when he tells them to leave, it's a return to that laconic figure. When he's in a jam, he has to figure out to get himself out of the pickle he's in. Here's a figure who isn't a conventional figure but an anti-hero that people could relate to. It is there that Leone gives new life to the genre and there's more to what he brings.

The visual scope that Leone presents is just jaw-dropping. Even with inspiring locations of Almeria, Spain, the film has a look and feel that is different from American westerns. Still, Leone's depth of field from the look of the mountains and towns from various shots is indeed inspiring. Another presentation from Leone's camera that would become a trademark of his is his extreme close-ups. The close-ups refers to what the characters are feeling as well as objects, notably the film’s climatic showdown where shots of boots, guns, and such would be the prototype of what was to come in The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly. The overall presentation that Leone presents is just awe-inspiring as it's a big step of what is to come from this legendary director.

Cinematographers Massimo Dallamano and Federico G. Larraya do great work with the film's Technicolor, Techniscope format in the widescreen to capture the colorful yet desolate landscape of Almeria, Spain while the interiors are wonderfully eerie to convey the stylish look of the west while paying homage to the cinematic style of Akira Kurosawa. Editors Roberto Cinquini and Alfonso Santacana do great work in capturing the film's intensity and action that would also become the prototype for action-film style editing that would later be perfected by Leone's longtime editor Nino Baragli in The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly.

Carlos Simi, who would become Leone's longtime art director/costume designer, does some great work in creating the look of the homes and ranches of the town that looks like the west but also the look of the graveyards to convey the sense of Catholic symbols that are prevalent for the film. Simi's work on the costume is great for the look of differing boss while the look of the Man with No Name is handled by Eastwood himself who brought his own boots, pistol, and gun belt from his show Rawhide while buying the pants from a San Francisco shop. The rest of the look including the pancho and hat were created by Eastwood and Simi. Sound mixer Elio Pacella does some great work in creating the winds and gunshots for the film to convey the world that is the American west.

One notable highlight that is above a lot of the technical achievements is the music and it's from the man who would also gain fame in the years to come and that is the Maestro, Ennio Morricone. Credited, like many people on the film as American names, as Dan Salvo, Morricone creates a score that is unlike any other before or since then with music that captures the intensity of the film's pacing and movement. From its title theme, to the accompanying score throughout the entire film. The huge, flourishing arrangements with strings, guitars, whistles, and a trumpet is just amazing and completely unforgettable. From the film’s dramatic tone to the final showdown that is filled with operatic arrangements that grabs the audience by its ear knowing what is to come and the music is just the icing on that sequence. If there's one person who needs to be noted for his technical achievements, it's Ennio Morricone.

The film's cast is brilliant with great, small performances from Aldo Sambrell, Benito Stefanelli, and Leone regular Mario Brega as Rojo's men, Bruno Carotenuto as Baxter's son, Daniel Martin as Julian, Nino Del Arco as Julian's son Jesus, and Joseph Egger in a hilarious performance as Piripero, the coffin-maker. Sieghardt Rupp and Antonio Prieto are great as two of the three Rojo brothers with Rupp as the dangerous but cautious Esteban and Prieto as the leader Miguel. Wolfgang Lukschy is good as Baxter with Margarita Lozano as Baxter's power-hungry wife. Marianne Koch is excellent as Marisol, the unconventional female character who is forced to be a mistress while dealing with not seeing her son and such as she acts like a Virgin Mary-like figure from an Italian/Catholic point of view.

Jose Calvo is great as the film's conscience and reluctant side-kick Silvanito who often warns the no-named man about his role. Salvo's performance is just memorable to watch as he sometimes get involved in affairs as he knows what is right and wrong. Gian Maria Volonte is amazing as the villainous Ramon, a man who is convinced that a Winchester rifle is stronger than anything. Volonte's performance is just mesmerizing for his charm and psychotic demeanor in the same way Tatsuya Nakadai has portrayed as Sanjuro's main nemesis in Yojimbo who matches the no-name man with wits and skill. It's a great performance from the late actor who would also appear in the sequel For a Few Dollars More.

Finally, there's Clint Eastwood in what has to be a real breakthrough performance as the Man with No Name. Eastwood's laid-back, laconic persona matched with his gun-slinging skills and dead-pan wit is a persona that defines the anti-hero. If there's really one word to describe Eastwood's character and his performance, it's this... cool. He's just cool as hell. From the way he smokes the cigar, the unshaven look, everything about the character and Eastwood's performance is truly iconic. While the Man with No Name might not be one of the toughest guys in the room but if he's armed with a pistol and street smarts, he is one of cinema modern-day bad*sses.

The 2007 2-disc Collector's Edition of A Fistful of Dollars that is also part of the eight-disc Sergio Leone Anthology Box Set that includes the 2-discs Collector's Edition of For a Few Dollars More and Duck, You Sucker! along with the 2004 2-disc Special Edition of The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly from United Artists and MGM. With a wonderful packaging that features two discs featuring more than a hour's worth of material. The feature film, remastered and restored with remixed 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound plus in mono for both English & Spanish including subtitles in the two languages plus French. The film is presented in the widescreen 2:35:1 aspect ratio to preserve the same theatrical feature the film had more than 40 years ago.

The sole special feature in the first disc with the feature film is a feature-length audio commentary track from noted film historian Sir Christopher Frayling. Frayling's commentary is informative in the comparison and contrast of Leone's film to Kurosawa's Yojimbo in 1961. While explaining the similarities and differences of both films, he also mentioned the lawsuit made by Kurosawa about A Fistful of Dollars over copyright infringement. Eventually, it was settled with Kurosawa getting 15% of the worldwide grosses of the film claiming he made more money off of Leone's film more than any of his own films. Frayling also goes into detail of Leone's cinematic style while profiling a bit on two of Leone's long-standing collaborators in art director/costume designer Carlos Simi and composer Ennio Morricone. The film, originally titled The Magnificent Stranger, originally wanted to have the likes of Henry Fonda, Charles Brosnan, or James Coburn in the leading role but with a budget of $200,000, it was too expensive. Instead, they got Clint Eastwood, who was paid $15,000 for the entire production.

Another important visual style that Leone had put into the film was a lot of iconography with crosses and Catholic images since Leone made the film directly for a Southern Italian audience. With less dialogue and more action, it was an approach from Leone to that audience to have something with more attention as opposed to the films of Northern Italy by Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Even the unconventional approach to the Italian style of Western when it came to the film's violence while Frayling notes that this was not the first Spaghetti Western. There were many westerns made for Italy but as a co-production with West Germany and Spain but A Fistful of Dollars was still the first film that had an Italian feel. Frayling's commentary overall is brilliant and incisive.

The second disc of the DVD featuring six featurettes, trailers, and 10 radio spots promoting the film. The first featurette is a 20-minute documentary called A New Kind of Hero featuring Sir Christopher Frayling. Fraying discusses some of the similar stories that he explained in the film commentary. He discussed more about the decline of Westerns as a genre where it became more about the old heroes like John Wayne and Gary Cooper rather than the story. He also goes into length of Leone's inspiration from the Kurosawa film Yojimbo while deciding to cast Clint Eastwood after watching an episode of Rawhide. Eastwood, ended up doing the project despite having hesitation while in his contract with Rawhide, wasn't allowed to do any Hollywood films in the U.S. but could do films in Europe. Frayling goes into detail about the film's impact on the genre while also claiming that it was this film that started the prototype of the modern-day action hero. Particularly in the 1960s which was against the grain of the old-school cowboy of John Wayne.

The eight-minute featurette A Few Weeks in Spain is an interview segment with Clint Eastwood recorded in 2003 originally for the special-edition of The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly. Eastwood discusses the reason he took the part largely because of Yojimbo while revealing that with the costume, because there weren't any duplicates. He took the costume home every night. Eastwood, who asked for less dialogue in the film, knew that the sound would be lost during the shoot as for the post-production dubbing, whatever he said was basically an improvisation. Eastwood admits to the overall experience being fun despite the constant arguing between the productions from West Germany, Spain, and Italy.

A ten-minute featurette called Tre Voci that featured interviews with three of Sergio Leone's friends including translator Mickey Knox, producer Alberto Grimaldi, and screenwriter Sergio Donati. The three men discuss their friendship with Leone as Donati was one of the men who saw Yojimbo with Leone during that late 1963 screening in Rome. Donati knew Leone for years and ended up contributing to the script for For a Few Dollars More and revealing that when Fistful came out, critics hated the film. Knox reveals Leone's love for the Western and wanted to add some edge to the dying genre as the film ended up being played all over Europe and at one point, played in France for a year with huge audiences. Alberto Grimaldi, recalled that when the film came out, he was an aspiring producer and when he made a deal to get the film out worldwide, he unknowingly realized that the film's success helped the industry as he ended up being one of Leone's great collaborators.

Two more featurettes involve a rarely-seen prologue by director Monte Hellman of Two-Lane Blacktop. The first featurette entitled Not Ready for Primetime was about the first-ever network showing of A Fistful of Dollars in 1977. Yet, network president Mike Medavoy felt the film's story and lack of moral justification was too obscene for the public. There, Monte Hellman was hired to create a scene where the Man with No Name was sent to the town to stop a feuding gang as he was hired by a man, played by Harry Dean Stanton. Hellman discusses how he got the job and shot the whole prologue for a day with Stanton in the role. While they were never able to get Clint Eastwood, they hired a double whose face was never seen. Hellman never talked about the prologue until now for the DVD but never considers it one of his best work as the prologue was only shown once. What was more surprising was Eastwood saw the prologue that night and wondered when did he shoot this.

The second featurette is the prologue itself with an introduction from Howard Fridkin, a Leone collector who provided the rarely-seen prologue from a recorded Betamax tape that he used to record the entire film. He recalled at the age of 9, already have seen Leone's films that he was baffled by the prologue and almost, stopped the tape. Having kept it so long, he realized he had a rare item and gave it to MGM. The prologue itself is then shown with the Man with No Name wearing all of his trademark clothing, though it is not the poncho, gun belt, or anything that is like the original film. The overall prologue and in its delapidated look on the Betamax tape, is pretty cheesy despite Harry Dean Stanton's performance. It's worth watching for Stanton but really doesn't have anything to do with A Fistful of Dollars.

The final featurette is a five-minute segment called Location Comparisons Then to Now featuring many of the film's original locations then and now in Almeria, Spain where some of the interiors is now someone's home, some places are in ruins while others are now part of a park or just with more trees and such. 10 radio spots are included that each saying it's the most exciting western in years starring Clint Eastwood is nice to hear for hardcore fans of the film. The trailers section features a double-bill trailer for A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More plus the 2004 2-disc Collector's DVD for The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly along with DVD trailers for The Great Escape, Hoosiers, Raging Bull, and the box set for the Rocky movies. Included in the DVD is a booklet explaining the film and its legacy along with a brief quote from Eastwood and details on the DVD itself.

A Fistful of Dollars is a thrilling, exciting, and entertaining film from Sergio Leone and company. Fans of Leone will no doubt consider this essential while fans of Westerns will consider this one of the best films of that genre. While not as superior as The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly or even 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West, the film still remains exciting while making it part of a great marathon for Leone's beloved westerns. The film also makes a great double feature with Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo for comparison reasons. With a great look, style, Ennio Morricone's music, and the laid-back persona of Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars is a must-have for any aficionado of westerns or cinema itself.

(C) thevoid99 2012

No comments: