“My mistake. Four coffins.”
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Directed by Sergio Leone
Written by Victor Andres Catena & Jaime Comas Gil & Sergio Leone
99 minutes, rated R
It should be noted that while I do believe very strongly in the wonderment of an audience experiencing a movie’s twists and turns on their own, these reviews will not shy away from spoilers if they are necessary to discussion of the film.
Quick rating: 3/5
I’ll be honest right from the beginning about two things. First, it is likely possible that I had never seen this movie before. There are at least three sequences that I remembered vividly, but if pressed would have sworn were sequences in For A Few Dollars More, the (unofficial) sequel to this film. Second, I had an immense amount of difficulty getting through it. I had to break my viewing of it up over three evenings because I kept falling asleep. Perhaps I was just overly tired from long days at work, but this movie was simply not holding my interest as it should have.
With that said, I am officially critiquing this movie as if I have just finished watching it for the very first time. That presents problems itself, though. I have vivid recollection of the two films that follow it (these three films make up what is erroneously referred to as The Man With No Name trilogy), and it’s difficult to separate this movie from them. Essentially, I watched these movies out of order. That somewhat ruined the experience of watching this one “for the first time.” The third one is rightly considered one of the greatest Westerns in the history of cinema. The first one, not so much. It doesn’t even come remotely close to being the movie-going experience you’ll see in a couple months here that I find The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly to be.
So . . . it begs the question: Would I have enjoyed this movie more had I not seen the other two, clearly far superior movies first? I don’t know. I’ve already told you that I kept falling asleep. That’s not a good sign. And neither is the fact that the movie’s poor production value kept pulling me out of the narrative, kept reminding me that I am, in fact, watching a movie. I’ll get deeper into that statement before we’re through here, but I will say, as a general thesis of sorts, that I think A Fistful of Dollars has pretty major flaws that can’t rescue it from being just a decent entertainment instead of a very good one.
The plot is not the issue, even if it is a simplistic one. Basically, our hero (played by Clint Eastwood) quickly learns upon arrival in an almost desolate town that the town is at war with itself, largely due to a struggle for control between a trio of rabble-rousing brothers and the sheriff. For reasons known only to him, our hero decides that there is a money-making opportunity to be found in pitting the two sides against each other. Eventually, both sides realize that they’ve been played by one stranger and he spends the rest of the movie trying to escape their angry, homicidal wrath. There is considerable cleverness in some of his schemes to trick his adversaries. The final gunfight, in which our hero and Ramon, the ickiest of the three brothers (played by Gian Maria Volonte), must struggle to reload their now-empty weapons before they can take their final shots is utterly sublime.
But I think great stories are serviced by great characters as much as they are great plotting, and there isn’t much character here. When the movie begins, Joe (yes, our “Man With No Name” does actually have a name) is already in town. He’s just there. We have no idea how he got there. We have no clue as to why he is there. There’s no offered information as to his backstory or what he might have done in his life that has taught him how to be so handy with a six-shooter. His dialogue is mostly quips and one-liners that offer no development or information about his past. At the film’s end, he leaves town without accepting payment for the help he has offered. He has gained nothing. He has learned nothing. He is completely devoid of arc. We know almost nothing about him except that he is smart.
Honestly, we know almost nothing about any of these characters. Characters are so poorly-defined that it’s actually difficult to tell, during a major gun battle sequence, if the characters getting gunned down are with the Rojo brothers or with Sheriff Baxter. There’s a kindly undertaker named Piripero (played by Joe Edger) who is eager to help Joe when he gets himself into trouble. There’s a sarcastic innkeeper named Silvanito (played by Jose Calvo) who provides a couple of exposition dumps, a bland scene of torture, and one of the most obvious deux ex machinas I have ever seen in a film. There’s Marisol (played by Marianne Koch), the beautiful damsel in distress, but she only has one line of dialogue (the same word repeated twice) and disappears from the movie as quickly as Joe can get her out of town. There’s also a guy who cackles. A lot. He sees Joe get punched and he cackles. He watches him get kicked and he cackles. He cackles when Ramon inverts a lit cigarillo and shoves it into a bound Silvanito’s mouth. I don’t know the character’s name; my notes simply refer to him as “The Cackler”.
Where are we now? Great plot, characterless characters, a lot of cackling. All that’s left to talk about is the production value, and I don’t even know where to start. For the most part, the movie appears to have been made by a bunch of college students who said “We have cowboy hats and a camcorder. Let’s make a western!”
Admittedly, I am being unfair. The movie was filmed as a joint venture between Italy, West Germany, and Spain with a very small budget of only $200,000 ($15,000 of which was, reportedly, set aside to pay Eastwood). Certainly not a lot of money to make a quality movie, but couldn’t they have spent a little bit of that money on buildings that don’t look like 2-D flats? There’s one scene where a man standing on a balcony gets shot. As he crashes through the railing, it’s dead obvious that the railing was never attached to the balcony in the first place. The remains of a large whiskey barrel (used, I will add, very cleverly as a weapon of mass destruction) are clearly easily-splintered plywood. At least two shots of explosions appear to be second-unit stock footage filmed for another movie. There is more than one microphone boom extending into the top of the frame.
And let’s talk about the voices . . . Apparently, the movie was filmed silent (most Italian films were at the time). The voices of the actors were added later in post-production. This means that some of the voices do not sync up with the movement of the lips. And, even worse, some of the words being spoken are far more dramatic (or even far less dramatic in one or two cases) than the physical actions of the actors who played the roles. A clearly Hispanic actor speaks with an Italian accent? It’s jarring, and it really took me out of the movie.
I know it sounds at this point that I didn’t really like this film. That assessment is only partially true. If this movie lacks in sound effects editing and set design, it certainly makes up for it in director Sergio Leone’s visual style. This man knows how to wield a camera. Favorite shots include: a bird’s eye view of a pair of boots appearing to step through the camera into the frame, repeated images through the sight of a Gatling gun, and the visually-striking image of Clint clad in his famous Man With No Name hat and poncho after the smoke from an explosion has cleared. This movie looks cool from a cinematography standpoint. I got completely caught up in it . . . until, at least, someone started talking or the sound of a gunshot preceded anyone actually pulling the trigger.
I don’t know. Ultimately, I think my dislike for the movie is better described as disappointment. I hold The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in such high regard that I expected the films that preceded it to be of much higher quality. Maybe Leone learned something new about directing in subsequent films. More likely, the popularity of this character and the box office success of this film meant that producers were more than willing to fork over more dough for a higher quality picture. Regardless, it cannot be denied: despite my disappointment in it, this is the movie that started it all, folks. Spaghetti westerns and Clint Eastwood’s popularity because of them are only a thing at all because of this sparsely shot, underwritten film of little substance.