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“A Fistful of Dollars” - {Blu-ray}
Daniel Ruwe
Studio: MGM/UA
Release Date:
August 2, 2011
Special Features:

See below


A Fistful Of Dollars is the result of an unlikely blend of Japanese cinema, American crime fiction, and an eighteenth century Italian comedy. It’s a Western shot in Spain by an Italian director starring American actors. Much of the film is dubbed. Director Sergio Leone did not speak English, so all of his instructions to star Clint Eastwood had to be conveyed through a translator. ***

Somehow, the film works. It was one of the first of the so-called spaghetti Westerns to become an American box office success. It’s a taut, violent movie that faithfully follows Western conventions, while simultaneously subtly subverting them. ***

In the TV show Rawhide, Clint Eastwood’s first major role, he played your standard noble cowboy, the kind of person who, in Eastwood’s words, “kisses old ladies and dogs and [is] kind to everybody.” Rawhide wasn’t the best TV Western anyway, but Eastwood was never very convincing as the gallant white hat. ***

In A Fistful of Dollars, he appears as the antihero he was born to play, a sort of precursor to Dirty Harry and William Munny. He plays the Man With No Name, a taciturn, impassive gunfighter who stalks through the West leaving a trail of bloodshed behind him. Eastwood is a limited actor, especially at this stage of his career, but Leone didn’t make him act much. Leone later said that Eastwood’s facial expressions were limited to “the one with that hat, and the other without it.” But if Eastwood’s acting range is narrow, he nails his two expressions. ***

Like most of Leone’s spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars does not spend much time focusing on plot. The Man With No Name finds a town with two gangs fighting for control. On one side are the Rojo’s, the town’s most prominent family, and on the other are the Baxters, the family of the town sheriff. The Stranger sees an opportunity for profit and plays the both the gangs against the other. ***

There’s never much doubt about who will win. Eastwood’s character is essentially invincible. (In one of the first scenes, he takes on four gunmen at once, winning easily). The plot meanders around from one set piece to another; the Stranger wipes out the four gunmen, one of the Rojos machineguns a detachment of soldiers, the Stranger rescues a beautiful hostage, and so on. Since there isn’t much characterization or character development, Leone manages to cram a lot of gunfights into a hundred minute film. ***

Not that that’s a bad thing, because Sergio Leone was really good at filming gunfights. Since he was filming in Europe most of the actors involved couldn’t speak English. Many of them weren’t even actors. This forced Leone to develop his signature visual style, which involved short lines of dialogue, extreme close-ups, and an atmospheric score. ***

Eventually Leone perfected his distinctive directing method with the releases of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time In the West. Here, his touch isn’t quite as deft as it would be become, and the film does drag in places. In others, the relentless violence starts to feel cartoonish. People die at the rate of about one a minute, and by the halfway point attentive viewers will start wondering how many people can possibly be left in town. ***

But the flaws are only really noticeable on a second viewing. The first time I watched it, I was too caught up in the interesting scenery (shot in Spain, the scenery looks almost Western but just a bit bleaker), the score, and the action to care that Clint Eastwood is a little stiff, or that the script could have used some tightening up, or that the dubbing isn’t always convincing. A good director can make you forget about that sort of thing. Leone is a great director. ***

A Fistful of Dollars isn’t Sergio Leone’s finest film. (For my money, that would be The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). It’s not Clint Eastwood’s best role either. (Bill Munny in Unforgiven if you ask me). But it stands as a genuinely brilliant movie, one that still works wonderfully fifty years on. ***

Audio and Video:

The Blu-Ray looks good, for the most part. The colors tend to run paler than might be ideal, and there is a visible grain throughout the movie. The detail is good, and if the colors are a bit pale sometimes they mostly look good. ***

The audio is really good. The Ennio Morricone score really stands out, giving the film it’s distinctive sound. The sound design is done very well. ***

Special Features:

There are a lot of special features included with this release. There’s a commentary by Christopher Frayling, and well as feature showing memorabilia from the film’s release. There are some interviews with members of the cast (Clint Eastwood) and crew (Leone’s friends producer Alberto Grimaldi, screenwriter Sergio Donati, and actor Mickey Knox). ***

An interesting bit of trivia: The Man With No Name is the quintessential antihero, which didn’t sit well with American television’s standards and practices, which led to a prologue that gave the character a more heroic reason for cleaning up the town. It’s pretty bad, and must have clashed with the whole tone of the rest of the film. It’s here, and if it’s not great filmmaking it’s a pretty interesting bit of history. ***

There is also a “then and now” location featurette, a couple of other commentaries, and original radio spots and trailers. ***

Final Words:

A Fistful of Dollars opened my eyes the first time I saw it. It’s different, and idiosyncratic, and generally inspired. It’s essential for anyone who loves Westerns, or Sergio Leone, or Clint Eastwood. For everyone else, it’s not essential; merely very, very important.


Copyright @ Teakwood Productions 2000
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