A Fistful of Dollars: The Birth of an Icon

Clinton Eastwood Jr  was born on 31 May 1930, but Clint Eastwood, the cinema icon was born in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. Sergio Leone’s  seminal western launched Clint Eastwood to stardom and created a new film (sub)genre of the spaghetti western. 

Clinton Eastwood Jr  was born on 31 May 1930, but Clint Eastwood, the cinema icon was born in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. It’s hard to find another film that had such an obscure genesis, and then went on to become the one of the most influential  films of all times. The film birthed three movie legends, a new genre (or sub genre)  and an entire industry that flourished  under the shadow of the success of this film. Sergio Leone had made movies before , but he found his auteur voice on this one: a distinct voice that would produce just 5 more movies after this one, but would  influence multiple generations of filmmakers; Music maestro Ennio Morricone , who broke out with this film by creating a completely new electronic score for a western, became one of the greatest and most popular music composers of all time. Westerns were made in Europe before with expatriate American actors and local talent, but this film set the template in defining a movie genre called spaghetti western, that served as a brutal revisionism of the classical American western, with its gritty, violent, down and dirty treatment of traditional western themes and characters. And the new genre triggered, or rather revitalized the Italian film industry which was down in the dumps after the flopping of ambitious local productions like The Leopard as well as  big budget Hollywood biblical\historical epics like Cleopatra, which were regularly filmed in Italy and Spain. The film itself would spawn a franchise, with two more films made- in what would be referred as the Dollars trilogy, with all three principals; Clint, Leone and Morricone coming together for the other two as well.


In 1964, Clint Eastwood was just a T.V. actor appearing in the western series Rawhide. He gets an offer: to star in a movie, that can only be called downright Weird. The offer was from an obscure Italian Director named Sergio Leone, whose credits constituted: working as second unit director on the big Hollywood epics that were shot in Italy like Ben-Hur, and directing two cheap Italian sword and sandal movies namely Last days of Pompeii and Colossus of Rhodes. Now Leone was planning to make a Western (of all things), A Spanish-Italian co-production, to be shot in Spain. A western, in all probability, that would only be released in Europe. One thing that Leone did not publicize, but Clint was well ware of and excited him most about the project, was that its going to be a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed film Yojimbo. This may be the craziest offer that any American T.V. actor may have received. After mulling over it, Clint accepted the offer and traveled to Italy. As an actor who wanted to make his mark in American cinema, Clint was taking a risk of a lifetime. The actors who went before him to Europe never returned: they were all exiled for life from Hollywood. Then there was this crazy idea of an Italian trying to make a western in Spain for a paltry budget of 250 thousand dollars; he could end up a laughing stock . But it turned out to be a defining moment for Clint, as the journey would change his life and film history forever.

An illustrated silhouette of a man on a mule gallops against a blank, blood-red  backdrop while Ennio Morricone’s score whips up a frenzy on the soundtrack – with an assortment of electric guitars, trumpets, gunshots and Whistling sounds. The colors of the man and the backdrop alternate between red and black- as we see the man riding a horse and shooting downs other illustrated silhouettes of gunfighters. Later, we realize that these are no random illustration , but actually scenes we are about to see in the film. This is the credit sequence of A Fistful of Dollars. From this very sequence , we realize that we are in a very different kind of a Movie and, of course, a completely different kind of ‘Western’. The sequence sets the mood for the film that follows; it’s obvious that this is not going to be the classical John Wayne western directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks, but a wild, wacky, irreverent  and ultra-stylish rock western for the 60’s. And no sooner has the title sequence finished, our new age, Rock-star western hero make his appearance: we first see only his back, riding on a horse. Then he stops near a well, close to a town, to drink some water and we get our first full glimpse of the hero. He is wearing a distinctive brown poncho and battered black hat. He has a grizzly growth of beard, a short burning cigar on his lips and his eyes are perpetually squinting into the camera. In short, he  neither looks nor  behaves like other western heroes who came before him. This is the introduction of the iconic character of  ‘Man with No name‘ in movies.  This is also the big-screen introduction of movie Icon and Legend Clint Eastwood; A legend who is actively pursuing his passion for films even today, at the ripe old age of 91, and 57 years since the release of this film. Clint turned out to be a very different western hero from his iconic predecessor John Wayne. Though he  possesses  the same towering physicality of Wayne , he does not have his skills as a performer. Wayne, for all the jokes and parodies that are made about his acting , was a very nuanced movie actor possessing a majestic voice and dialogue delivery skills .Clint’s main weaknesses were his lack of technical expertise as an actor and his hoarse voice . But in this film (and the subsequent sequels), he uses this to his advantage: creating a character that is mysterious, laconic and too cool; Too cool to care for anything other than his own survival, too cool to show any emotions, too cool to be even romantic or have a love interest in the film; and as opposed to an earthy masculine sexuality of John Wayne, Clint possesses a more modern, rock-star like swaggering sensuality; in his nonchalant  body language and his lazy speech patterns, that’s perfect for this modern Western.

San Miguel is a desolate Mexican border town. There is a turf war going on between two factions: the Rojos- a family of smugglers led by brothers Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and the deadly Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté); and the Baxters, under the leadership of Sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) (or his Lady Macbeth like wife), who only nominally stand for law and order, but in practice are nearly as bloody as their enemies. A lone rider – with no name , no past -arrives in town on his way to god knows where. He only intended to get some food and drink , but once he understands the set up of the town, he decides to stay. By offering  his skills as a gunfighter to the highest bidder, he works for both sides, depending on who would make the highest bid for his services. But as blessedly amoral he is, he does posses a human side: a crack in his armor that might leave him vulnerable  at an opportune moment to the blood thirsty killers he is double crossing. And the moment comes post his gallant rescue of Marisol, a sex slave of Ramon , whom Ramon stole from her husband on the excuse of a gambling debt. But after he helps her and her family to escape from town, he is caught red-handed and beaten up by Ramon and thugs . He is badly wounded and imprisoned , but he is still ingenious enough to escape from the town, wait out till he is healthy again, and return in time to save his friend: the bar owner Silvanito (José Calvo). In the climactic bloodbath , he kills Ramon & family, and then rides out of town.

The cartoonish, comically malevolent tone that is set by the title sequence is maintained throughout the film. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was a deeply psychological examination of the titular Ronin, Sanjuro, and his place in the society in the changing times when the Japanese feudal structure was crumbling . A Fistful of Dollars is completely devoid of any deep psychology for the lead character, or any depth as far as the theme is concerned. Its an exercise in pure style with a strong undercurrent of black humor. Everything is on the surface, like Clint’s costumes and gear. like the flipping of the gun after he has shot somebody, or the manner in which he bites and lights  the cigar . It’s all these externalized stuff that the film revels in. Then there is the violence: brutal , sadistic and in your face , that makes the fistfights and gunfights in classical American western look like child’s play; the film was a precursor to the bloody films of Sam Peckinpah or even the graphic violence of new Hollywood films like Bonnie and Clyde. There is also the unique way  Leone shoots the picture: an endless procession of long shots of wide open spaces and tight close ups of scarred, sweaty, weather-beaten faces. The lighting is harsh, colors are earthy , production design is baroque and the tone, mainly set by Morricone’s music, is operatic; though this film is less operatic, and more minimalist and fast-paced, than all the great Leone Films that would come after this. Though he is influenced most by John Ford, Leone is closer to Hitchcock in deceiving and manipulating an audience. The scenes do not play out as you imagine. Violence breaks out in most unexpected times and the times we expect violence, it does not happen. Take the scene that introduces Ramon in which an entire squad of army men are massacred. The violence is abrupt and shocking. But then there is the scene of prisoner exchange between Rojos and Baxters, involving Marisol and her child. The way it’s shot and edited, it gives the feeling that Clint is going to shoot it out with Ramon and save Marisol, but it doesn’t happen; instead, Clint speaks in Ramon’s favor. Leone, who is steeped in American western film myths and their clichés, is having fun here- by revising and subverting them. He is more of a Postmodern prankster in the garb of a director.

But as already mentioned, the biggest revisionism on part of Leone will be in the treatment of the lead character. He is a dark, amoral version of George Stevens’ Shane, who is only interested in his survival  more than anything else. He is presented as a mythical force, who plans his destiny in advance and fulfills it , perhaps with slight deviations on the way,  but the ultimate result is the same as what he had originally planned . Like the famous scene when he goes out for his first Gun Fight. He tells the undertaker: “Get three coffins ready“, After the shootout , he apologizes and says “Sorry , my mistake . Four Coffins“. And the most entertaining aspect of the  film is that it revels in this unpretentiousness. He plans his double dealing with both sides systematically, but getting caught upsets his plans a little. Ironically, It’s a little humanity that he posses that  proves to be his undoing. But then, he bounces back in the mythic climax. He materializes out of a dust storm as if he was a god., and for a moment there he does seem to possess Divine powers, as he appears invulnerable  to bullets. But again, Leone, the irreverent prankster, strips the moment of it’s magic and reveals the iron shield inside his Poncho that protected the mythical god from the bullets. In the end, “The man with no name”  proves Ramón’s theory wrong: that a Winchester repeating rifle will always be better than a .45 pistol- more with his wits than his gun. He beats Ramon to the load and draw- sending Ramon to meet his maker. And in the film’s final moment, he chooses to follow the routine of the classic western hero, as he had done in the beginning with his classic entrance: he moves on and rides out of town, like “Shane”; though he’s now a lot richer than he arrived. His entrance and his exit is straight out of a  classical Western, though Leone messes up everything in between. That’s the real beauty of this film.

The film is a unique mixture of Leone’s operatic  excess and Eastwood’s minimalism; this contrast  would become more amplified in the subsequent films in the series, when Leone’s grandiose, operatic sensibilities will be fully formed. The contrast between the hero- who does very little and talks very little- in films where the director is going bonkers with his visual pyrotechnics sets the mood for these bizarre and wildly entertaining movies. While other actors would insist on increasing their lines, Clint would do the opposite. He would reduce his lines and keeps his dialogues to the minimum. This is what he did immediately after reaching Rome: cutting out most of his lines from the script. He realized that the success of the character depends on keeping him as mysterious as possible and reduce any form of character exposition; so that he is defined purely by his actions. This also plays into his strength as an actor. The shooting of the film was as bizarre as it’s conception. Since it had a curious mix of American and European actors, each actor spoke in their mother tongue and they were all dubbed in the post production. Leone did not speak any English, while Clint didn’t know much Italian. Reportedly,  they used to communicate with each other through gestures. But all the production problems aside, when the film finally released in Europe, it was an instant success. But it’s American release was stalled when Kurosawa filed a lawsuit against Leone and the film for plagiarizing his film Yojimbo. Kurosawa wrote to Leone saying that Leone has made a very good film, but it is lifted from his film, so he should be compensated for it. Apparently, Leone who was a big fan of Kurosawa, was very thrilled by the letter, as Kurosawa called the film good. Ultimately, the producers agreed to share the revenue with Kurosawa’s producers, clearing the way for it’s American release. It was finally released in US in 1967 , with all three dollars films- For a few dollars more and The Good The bad and the ugly being the other two- being released back to back. All of them became highly successful, thus turning Clint Eastwood into a star in America as well. So Clint’s gamble paid off handsomely. Instead of being exiled from Hollywood, he became an international star , popular both at home and abroad. He would return to Hollywood after finishing The Good The Bad and The Ugly and embark on a successful career, first as a star\actor, and then as an actor, producer and director, which would make him one of the biggest and most beloved American movie stars of all time.


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