With the re-release of A Fistful of Dollars hitting cinemas around the country, a look back at Sergio Leone’s first film in his unintended Dollars trilogy shows how it changed the way the Western was to be viewed on the world stage. Along with this seismic change in attitudes to the humble and previously very American Western, A Fistful of Dollars also has the honour of catapulting Clint Eastwood into the cinematic world and changing the face of the on screen cowboy hero.
Although A Fistful of Dollars is not the first Spaghetti Western (a term associated with films that were produced in Europe, and in particular Italy) it is the first to really make an impact on the world market, making a staggering $14million from a modest budget of only $200,000. Having originally been finished and released in 1964 it would be another three years before it reached the US, but more on the reasons behind that later.
In A Fistful of Dollars, a wandering cowboy (Clint Eastwood) arrives at the little town of San Miguel where he spots an opportunity to use his gunslinging talents to play two rival families against each other for his own monetary gain.
It has been more than 50 years since its initial release and A Fistful of Dollars still looks absolutely amazing, managing to capture some of the fantastic scenery (Spanish scenery in this case) juxtaposed alongside Leone’s lengthy close-ups. It is in these great investigations of the actor’s face, searching for any movement or any sign of stress or strain, that fantastic tension or emotion is added to the scene.
Eastwood has made a name for himself by being able to hold a hard stare but it was a combination of the Spanish sun and the bright lights that Leone utilised that caused him to use his now-famous squint. But it worked as Eastwood’s impassive, unmoving, icy-cold eyes pierce into his adversaries as they crack under the intense scrutiny. But it is not just these close ups, Eastwood is a huge presence throughout with his stoic nature and commanding presence, exuding confidence and ruthlessness where necessary.
Ennio Morricone’s score is just as impressive as the visuals. He puts his mark on the idea of a Western theme and even though it is not as iconic as his later work on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly he still manages to get the feel of this harsh lifestyle coming across in his score and he lays the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy.
As good as this film was to elevate Clint Eastwood’s big screen career he was not the first choice to play “The Man with No Name”. Or the second. Or third, fourth, fifth or even sixth. For various reasons Henry Fonda (cost), Charles Bronson (poor script), Henry Silva, Rory Calhoun and even James Coburn all turned the role down and it was from a list of available actors, and a recommendation from another actor who turned down the role (Richard Harrison) that Eastwood was given the chance.
Eastwood later spoke about transitioning from a television western to A Fistful of Dollars:
In Rawhide, I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat … the hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody. I decided it was time to be an anti-hero.
And the archetypical anti-hero he is, providing ambiguity to his moral values, being kind and nasty is equal measure. And it is this change in the standing of the “hero” that had some of the biggest repercussions for Westerns going forward as they too created their leading characters with more flaws and being less pure. In addition to the change in values for the leading characters, the level of violence also got ramped up, giving the Spaghetti Western an edge that the old American Westerns did not try to employ.
After the completion of the Dollars trilogy, Eastwood never performed in another Spaghetti Western. Instead he returned to American Westerns but with the updated ideals and a new direction to follow, which his, and Leone’s, work on A Fistful of Dollars and the subsequent films influenced greatly.
However, it was not all plain sailing. A legal dispute held up the US release for three years until 1967 (when it got released only a few months apart from For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). The lawsuit was raised against A Fistful of Dollars for being an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. As the remake rights were not secured beforehand, and with Leone initially ignoring this lawsuit, it eventually resulted in Kurosawa being given 15% of worldwide receipts from the film, to which he later commented that A Fistful of Dollars brought in more money for him than Yojimbo ever did! He also said in a letter to Leone, to make his point:
“Signor Leone, I have just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film.”
To confuse matters more, in an attempt to be more American a large number of cast and crew changed their names for the title sequence and credits. So if you see Bob Robertson listed it is actually Sergio Leone, Dan Savio is Ennio Morricone, Jack Dalmas is cinematographer Massimo Dallamano and even the main villain, Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte) is listed as John Wells. I, however, am not changing my name for this piece of work!
Originally published on Set the Tape