A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI) (Sergio Leone, 1964)
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Clint Eastwood made a name for himself on the big screen playing the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s 1964 spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, which is being shown in a new 4K restoration at Metrograph May 25-31. In his first lead movie role, Eastwood, the costar of the television series Rawhide, is a gunslinger draped in a poncho and smoking a small cigar who rides on a mule into San Miguel, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, home to an ongoing feud between the gun-running Baxters and the liquor-dealing Rojos. The stranger decides to play both sides against the middle, caring only that he earns lots of cash. “Never saw a town as dead as this one,” the stranger tells saloon owner Silvanito (Jose Calvo), who explains, “The place is only widows. Here you can only get respect by killing other men, so nobody works anymore.” The stranger hears the sound of banging outside and says, “Somebody doesn’t share your opinion.” Silvanito opens the window to reveal old man Piripero (Joe Edger) making coffins. “You’ll be a customer,” Silvanito tells the stranger with assurance. The stranger goes back and forth between the Baxters, led by the sheriff (W. Lukschy), and the Rojos, who follow the dangerous, unpredictable Ramón (Gian Maria Volontè). Also caught up in the Hatfield-McCoy battle are the sheriff’s wife, Consuelo (Margherita Lozano), and brother, Antonio (Bruno Carotenuto), along with Rojo brothers Benito (Antonio Prieto) and Esteban (S. Rupp) and their enforcer, Chico (Richard Stuyvesant). Ramón, meanwhile, has his eyes set on Marisol (Marianne Koch), who is married to Julio (Daniel Martín), who does not want to get involved in any fighting. Carefully watching it all is Juan de Díos (Raf Baldassarre), who rings the church bell at every death.
The Italian-German-Spanish production is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which led to legal entanglements when the Japanese auteur demanded, well, a fistful of dollars in financial compensation. According to Christopher Frayling’s Sergio Leone — Something to Do with Death, Leone received a note from Kurosawa that read, “Signor Leone — I have just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film. Since Japan is a signatory of the Berne Convention on international copyright, you must pay me.” Frayling also suggests that Leone was influenced by Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters and did not feel he was stealing only from Kurosawa. In The BFI Companion to the Western, Frayling quotes Leone as saying, “Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was inspired by an American novel of the serie-noire so I was really taking the story back home again.” (For a montage of similarities between the two films, check out this video.). Regardless, A Fistful of Dollars, made for about two hundred grand, set the standard for the new genre, and Eastwood was its antihero. He and Leone would team up again on the sequel, For a Few Dollars More, which is not a direct remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo follow-up, Sanjuro, as well as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the best of the Dollars Trilogy.
Fistful is steeped in violence and death, from Iginio Lardani’s rad title sequence of silhouettes in black, white, and blood red to an early shot of the stranger riding under a noose and giving it a long look. Whereas Toshirô Mifune played the bodyguard in Yojimbo with a devilish glee, Eastwood — in a role that had been previously offered to Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and others — is much more serious as the Man with No Name, who would become more sympathetic in future outings. The extremely poor dubbing only adds to the film’s magnificence. To enhance its foreign appeal to American audiences, several members of the cast and crew appear under pseudonyms in the credits, including Leone (Bob Robertson), cinematographer Massimo Dallamano (Jack Dalmas), actor Gian Maria Volontè (John Wells), and composer Ennio Morricone (Leo Nichols or Dan Savio). There is no mention of Kurosawa or Yojimbo anywhere.