If the American Western film wasn’t completely dead in 1964, it was surely on life support. Television had saturated the market with weekly oaters to the point of overkill. John Wayne’s starring vehicles were still making money, but the rest of Hollywood’s big screen Westerns were mainly made to fill the bottom half of double feature bills, from Audie Murphy outings to the low budget, veteran laden films of producer A.C. Lyles.
Meanwhile in Italy, writer/director Sergio Leone was as tired of the sword & sandal films he was making as was his audience. He had a notion to revitalize the failing western genre by giving it a new, European perspective. Leone grew up on Hollywood westerns, and wanted to turn them on their ear by showing a more realistic, grittier version of the Old West. Searching high and low for an American name actor to star, Leone was turned down by the likes of Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Rory Calhoun before finally settling on a young television actor named , Clint Eastwood co-star of the series RAWHIDE. The result was A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the first true “Spaghetti Western” and a bona fide film classic.
Clint, with his iconic serape and cheroot, plays The Man With No Name, who arrives in the Mexican border town of San Miguel. Two rival factions, the Rojos and the Baxters, rule the roost, with violence and death as commonplace in the town as its dusty streets. He kills four Baxters and signs on with the Rojos, but ultimately plays both sides against the middle. Eastwood helps the beautiful young Marisol escape the clutches of the murderous Ramon Rojos and flee with her husband and son, only to be beaten and tortured for his troubles. But of course, Clint escapes and returns for his revenge in a bloody five against one conclusion.
If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Akira Kuroswa’s samurai epic YOJIMBO (1961), of which this film’s a remake, in the way THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was a remake of SEVEN SAMURAI. Only Leone didn’t credit it as such, and a lawsuit was pressed by Kurosawa, who said it was “a fine movie, but it was MY movie”* (the suit was eventually settled out of court). Leone was also obviously influenced by the films of John Ford, with beautifully framed shots of Spain’s Tabernas Desert and Cabo de Gata-Najir National Park standing in for Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, all captured by DP Massimo Dallamano. Those trademark Leone close-ups are in evidence here, a tactic reused by virtually every man who ever helmed a Spaghetti Western. The violence is swift and unromanticised, another Leone trademark that would later be usurped by a score of directors, especially Sam Peckinpah.
Another Leone trademark began here, his collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone. Right from those animated opening credits, we hear something out of the ordinary, as budget constrictions (the entire film only cost around $200,000) caused Morricone to improvise, using whipcracks, gunshots, a chorus, and that twanging Fender guitar to create a unique, memorable score. Morricone woud work on all of Leone’s Westerns and soon became the most sought-after film composer on both sides of the Atlantic, finally receiving his due with an Oscar for THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 2016.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS made Clint Eastwood an international star, and Spaghetti Western aficionados will recognize many Faces that may not be Familiar to most film fans: there’s Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon), Marianne Koch (Marisol), Jose Calvo, Sighardt Rupp, Mario Brega, Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell, Lorenzo Robledo, Antonio Molina Rojo, and Jose Canalejas, all of whom pop up in dozens of other Italian horse operas, including Leone’s. It became Italy’s highest grossing film ever, but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. It was a huge success stateside as well, and a few months later Leone’s sequel, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, opened in America. We’ll take a look at that one next time…
*quote taken from The Emperor and The Wolf (2001) by Stuart Galbraith IV, New York: Faber and Faber.