Directed by Sergio Leone
A Fistful of Dollars was the first Spaghetti Western, an Italian-made film set in the old west. The film follows Joe, (Clint Eastwood) who enters a town ruled by two gangs. He has no stake in the fight, but we recognize him as the hero when pitted against two tribes that are power hungry and rotten. Joe, whom for almost the entire movie is unnamed, is the quintessential cowboy hero. He rides into town, does what needs to be done, and rides out of town. We don’t know who he was before or where he’s going, but it doesn’t matter. In some ways the hero’s past, whatever pain might haunt him, has hardened him and prepared him for this battle.
It became (and likely already was) a film trope at this point. John Wayne was famous already for playing similar characters, and this film was itself a copy of an Akira Kurosawa film, Yojimbo, just as The Magnificent Seven was a western remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
From what I understand, Sergio Leone wanted to reinvigorate the western genre much in the same way someone like Christopher Nolan reconstructed the superhero genre. Nolan’s Batman Begins and subsequent sequels made the superhero movie darker and more gritty. His movies have been undeniably influential, particularly for the DC reboot of the Superman movies.
I need to go back and watch old westerns, specifically John Ford’s and John Wayne’s The Searchers (1956), to fully understand how Leone remixed the genre. But much of what Leone likely created in Dollars has become what we expect of the western genre. The hero is silent, stoic, a sharpshooter. He is not corrupt like the people around him who populate a lawless, violent town. Death is nothing new there, and everyone seems to have some kind of tangled relationship with each other except for the hero. He rides in, surveys the situation and does what needs to be done.
In Dollars, Joe rides into town and is caught up to speed by a friendly old man, Silvanito. Joe literally climbs the stairs of Silvanito’s bar to the balcony so he can, as he says, get a better view. He might as well be a guardian angel with spurs, but as of this point in the film, there is no one he is yet protecting.
The Baxters, led by the town sheriff, battle for control of the town with the Rojos. Of the two, the Rojos are presented as the much more villainous force. They massacre a group of Mexican soldiers who were transporting gold, and in the end they are the ones who mow down every last one of the Baxter family.
But we first meet the Baxters when Joe rides into town and they mock him and shoot at him, scaring away his mule. Immediately we relish the chance for Joe to put them in their place, and we know he will because, well he’s Clint Eastwood. His aim is perfect, and he’s got ice in his veins. He kills all four of the young men who mocked him.
So we don’t mind seeing either side pick apart the other, and neither does Joe. He goes to one family with information about the other, asking to be paid for the information he’s given, and then he does the exact same to the other. When Joe learns that the Rojos have kidnapped a man’s wife and kept her prisoner, Joe frees the woman, killing the outpost of men keeping her hostage.
The Rojos assume the Baxters are the ones responsible, but then Joe is caught sneaking out at night. He is locked up by the Baxters and beaten, but soon he gets away. Desperate to find him, the Rojos beat up Joe’s old friend, Silvanito. Then, when it’s clear Silvanito isn’t hiding him, the Rojos turn to the Baxters, believing they must be the ones hiding him.
Joe, meanwhile, hides in a coffin, but he peeks out to see the final altercation between the two families. The Rojos blow up the Baxters’ home and then shoot them down, one by one, as they run out. Joe watches the entire thing but doesn’t show any emotion.
Later, Joe learns that Silvanito has been taken hostage by the Rojos as they seek to bring Joe out of hiding. Joe comes into town, wearing a hidden plate of armor under his pancho, thus able to withstand Ramon Rojo’s barrage of bullets like the Terminator (he would later again be Terminator-like at the end of Dirty Harry). We end with the duel that has become as ingrained in this genre as the comic relief robot in Star Wars movies.
Joe wins, Silvanito is saved, and all is right in the world.
The dubbing in this movie is awful, but it’s also kind of endearing, like the dubbing in old French films. There is so much to love in a movie’s imperfections, so long as those flaws can’t take you out of the film. In a western like this, the dubbing is slightly hilarious, but that doesn’t hurt the story. Joe is already pretty much a superhero. His character isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. We want him to win, to embarrass the enemy, to prove wrong his doubters. In a scene like the one in the beginning, we enjoy watching the other characters mock Joe, because we know he will win in the end. Joe, or the mysterious cowboy hero, is someone into whom we can pour our own vanity and pride. He’s the type of character, I’d argue, that Kurt Russell’s character in Big Trouble in Little China is meant to parody.
Old westerns like this also feature a lot of very, very harsh lighting:
Between the sweat, and the strong key light, needed to maintain proper exposure in such a bright, outdoor setting, every character shines like they’re lit for a broadway production. It doesn’t look very natural, particularly by today’s standards, but I love the effect, and I’m not sure why.
I think today, what most movies would do on location is use a screen to diffuse the overheard, natural light. This would cut down on the amount of sunlight, meaning that to maintain a proper exposure, less added light would need to be shone on the actor. This isn’t a great example, but take a look at this:
It’s a night scene… indoors, so not exactly the same, but all the light in this shot is diffused. Everything nowadays is typically diffused, so you don’t get any harsh lighting or shadows cast on an actor’s face. But in the above Dollars image, the lighting is sharp, very harsh.
From what I read, Eastwood’s trademark squinty-eyed scowl is partially due to the brightness of the lights. So I think the effect of all these bright lights is somehow both a feeling of intimacy (combined with the extreme close ups) and a very cinematic feeling.
The whole film features a lot of extreme wide shots and extreme close ups. In one scene Joe might be a speck on the horizon, and in the next shot we might see the sweat glistening above his scowl. The wide shot establishes the environment, but the close ups establish the atmosphere. These are characters who live and die by instinctual, momentary decisions. Their hands hover above their pistol, and they eye the enemy, looking for any sudden movement that will require them to pull the trigger.
Each shootout is like waiting for a bomb to go off. It’s extremely quiet, and then everything explodes at once. The idea would seem to be to make every gunshot feel as loud and impactful as a gunshot should be. When everything is quiet, the first shot will be startling, but in a long, extended shootout, the gunshots start to blend together as you have become accustomed to the noise.
I suppose the feeling I’m left with is that the hero isn’t perfect. He’s not greedy, but he’ll take the money. He has blood on his hands, he’s capable of being beaten to near death, and he’s likely incapable of love. He’s a tragic hero, like a noir character, but he navigates a world that is more corrupt and needs him to restore balance, again like a noir character and very much like the plot of The Magnificent Seven.
In Dollars, the one good thing Joe does is free the kidnapped woman, letting her flee with her son and husband. It’s a strong enough example of his kindness to make us accept everything else he does, and it suggests that our hero has a code. He didn’t mind messing with the tense relations between the two families because in some ways perhaps it was all fun to him. He didn’t take their respective gripes seriously because who cares who wins? This is a violent landscape where people die for saying the wrong thing in the wrong moment to the wrong person with a loaded gun. And everyone has guns. So getting shot is like getting slapped, only you may not come back.
But when Joe learns about Marisol, the kidnapped woman, he decides to take action, sticking his neck out for her and her family. He has his own moral compass, and we’re led to believe that he’s the only one with a sense of right and wrong. He’s greedy when it suits him, but he understands that it’s all a game, at least until someone goes too far.
So Eastwood is the hero the town needs. He’s unafraid of the violence in such a landscape, it doesn’t frighten him off, but he leaves anyways because he’s probably got somewhere else to go and someone else to save.
A film like this feels very much obligated to give us a fist-pumping showdown. There has to be a one on one, final battle. Even though the western hero might have a lot of similarities with the noir detective, there is nothing substantial to uncover here, just a wrong that needs to be righted. Joe is never surprised, I suppose, where the noir hero is constantly surprised but never shocked. They both quickly adapt to the new situation because they’re survivors more than anything else.