Call him what you will, whether it be the don of the genre or the godfather of spaghetti westerns, one can hardly deny the very significant place that Sergio Leone holds in regards to the stylistic, iconic and somewhat implausible expectations for perfection associated with the western. Of course, Leone is not the only name in the world of westerns as previous review have shown, but I would contest that his decidedly auteur style suggests one of the most identifiable ones by a long shot. One can easily pick out a Leone film from a line up for its screen breaking wide shots, and heavy use of close-ups, not to mention a tonality that is both visual and incredibly tonal with what was often the blistering score of Ennio Morricone. At no point in this film could one attempt to find a scene or shot that is ill-conceived or out of place, Leone took to making westerns the way that Hitchcock took to thrillers, always assuring that each moment had a layer relating to its preceding and following moments, while also standing alone as a stellar shot or scene. Yet, when one views a film like A Fistful of Dollars they can find themselves initially put off by its somewhat desultory narrative, one that just seems to ramble and move about with a bit of uncertainty. While this assumption is true, to dismiss the film for such a style is foolish, because in this wandering style, Leone captures a part of the west that is rarely embraced, the real and troubling uncertainty faced by every individual who navigated that space, whether it be the pioneer, the sheriff, or in the case of this film a man whose past seems to precede him, although it is never quite clear what he was or is running from. Much like, Shane, the first film I reviewed this month, A Fistful of Dollars excels at making the stranger a central figure in the west, yet wherein that film seemed to create a distinction between the regular and the strange, the entire world of A Fistful of Dollars, and Leone's larger Man With No Name/Dollars Trilogy. To Sergio Leone the west is a very fascinating and visually appealing place, yet in that sort of awe and intrigue lies something on the verge of falling apart and destroying all that is respectable or held sacred.
A Fistful of Dollars focuses on the experiences of Joe (Clint Eastwood) although his travels through a Mexican border town have earned him the name of "foreigner." Joe makes it rather clear from the onset of the film that he is solely concerned with making money and will do so with a set of unscrupulous morals. Joe, is initially dismissed by the various parties involved, only to to discover that behind the very stoic talk comes a quick firing hand with fatal accuracy, almost instantly resulting in Joe being showered with respect by a group of locals, while becoming a point of threat for the local powers. Of course, Joe realizes that creating friends is far from a productive endeavor and decides to take the powerful tycoons and pit them against the locals, navigating between both sides as he sees fit, again concerning himself with gaining more money. Yet even in his attempts to avoid ethical involvement, Joe does step in during a shootout that runs the risk of harming a small child and realizes that history of a group within the area, thus causing him to undertake the task of freeing a jailed man, an action that leads to him becoming even more despised by the Rojos, who capture Joe and beat him while in their possesssion, hoping to destroy his will, as well as his expert shooting arm. Upon escaping Joe uses tricks and the tension of the moment to pit the Rojos against their rivals, resulting in a bloody shootout where few survive, all while Joe watches from the cover of a nearby covered wagon, taking a trip underground as he plans a counter attack and eventual attack upon the remaining members of the Rojos. During this hiding in a mine shaft, Joe hones his firing skills to perfection, while also fancying himself a bulletproof vest out of an old mine cart, providing him with the skills and protection to return and gun down the remaining members of the Rojos in a near godlike fashion, and when Joe is a near victim to a stealthy sniper attack it is none other than one of the admiring townsfolk that saves his life, allowing Joe to ride of into the sunset as is appropriate.
Joe, as a character, is rarely named, in fact, I am not sure his name is expressly given in the narrative, instead; he is often referred to as either the foreigner, or as the stranger, a very apt title considering that the stranger is a highly important trope within the western. The idea of the stranger, of course, is not unique to this genre, nor to film and finds a common place in a lot of Jewish folklore. Essentially, the stranger moves into a space, often out of nowhere and without a tangible identity. Furthermore, the stranger as trope is usually an individual with some degree of a trouble past that they rarely discuss. These elements are certainly true within the context of A Fistful of Dollars and arguably possesses one of the greatest cinematic examples of the stranger ever realized. Joe is, firstly, a stranger in that his whiteness is othering and while the film is in English, one could assume a language barrier as well. Beyond this, he is a man who is quite limited in what he will say, instead, desiring to prove his point by actions, both violent and helpful. These actions, while, ultimately, reflective of the sole concerns of the stranger, in this case Joe, usually extend beyond their desires and invariably affect the town or city they have entered. It is no stretch to say that Joe's presence irreversibly changes the state of mind of the community, not to mention the population, yet it is, again, all intended to save face for Joe whose financial hopes clearly influence his decision, although he is not void of a sense of moral duty. In fact, in many instances, particularly within the western genre, the stranger's moral beliefs are not incongruous with the townsfolk and when a wrong has been done a large scale they find themselves relating to the community on more than an acquaintance based level, thus spurring into action and saving the town, even receiving praise and adoration in the process. Yet, as is the final element for the stranger, their inability to remain in any degree of stasis results in their movement away from a town with which they have changed, in some ways improving it, while at other times detracting it from its traditions.
Key Scene: The final shootout of course, Leone knows how to build to a explosive crescendo and while this is certainly no The Good, The Bad and The Ugly it is, nonetheless, something to behold.
I watched this on DVD and while it was not terrible, I would suggest just dropping some cash on the bluray release trilogy, it will certainly prove to be money well spent.