Sunday, November 16, 2008


Sergio Leone’s “Per un pugno di dollari” (***1/2 out of ****) ranks not only as a landmark horse opera in the history of the western but also in evolution of the spaghetti western. Hollywood had been churning out westerns since “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903, and the Italians had been cloning those westerns before Leone revolutionized them with this Clint Eastwood epic. Indeed, mainly on the plains of Spain, Leone would reinvent the western and make it more violent than it had been until Sam Peckinpah broke new ground with his controversial 1969 western “The Wild Bunch.” “Per un pugno di dollari” altered everything and forged a new hero who was for all practical purposes an anti-hero. Joe (Clint Eastwood) shoots first in a duel, wears stubble on his jaws, and seems motivated largely by money. At one point, he behaves like a guardian angel, but for the most part, he is in it for what he can get out of it. Leone had to pare this sagebrusher down to its quintessential components because of a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, despite its financial shortcomings, this Italian-German-Spanish co-production looks fantastic in its 2.35.1 letterbox format and the Spanish and Roman locale double more or less invisibly to the simple but exciting plot. Most die-hand “Dollar” fans know that Leone and producers Arrigo Colombo and Giorgio Papi had to settle a copyright infringement suit with Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” before they could release the film outside of Italy. Leone maintained that eighteenth Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s play “A Servant with Two Masters” inspired “Per un pugno di dollari,” but the courts ruled in Kurosawa’s favor.

The action unfolds as our anti-heroic protagonist rides up to a well located near two white-washed, single-storied dwellings in the middle of a parched desert. While he quenches his thirst, Joe watches as an ugly, gigantic Mexican gunman, Chico (Mario Brega of “Death Rides A Horse”), bangs off shots at the heels of a tiny boy, Jesus (Nino Del Arco), and chases him between the two houses. When Chico reaches the other house, he brutalizes the father, Julián (Daniel Martin of “The Last Tomahawk”), for letting the lad run loose. Little Jesus was only trying to see his mother, Marisol (Marianne Koch of “Clint, the Nevada's Loner”), who has been abducted by the gunmen for their boss. This unforgettable opening scene represents the first instance that we’re watching a different kind of western. Spaghetti westerns were notoriously violent yet seldom as sanguine as Sam Peckinpah’s oaters. The chief reason “A Fistful of Dollars” is not three times as bloody is that Leone was working on a low-budget and couldn’t afford such luxuries. Joe watches all of this transpire with mild curiosity. Unlike an American western hero, he doesn’t intervene, at least until later.

Joe rides into the arid hamlet of San Miguel near the Mexican border on his mule and a corpse astride a horse with the sign ‘Adios, Amigo’ passes him. No sooner has Joe gotten into town than four trigger-happy cowboys spook his mule with their gunfire. Joe grabs an overhanging pole and swings crucifixion style on it as Silvanito (José Calvo of “Twice a Judas”) steps out of his tavern to watch. Silvanito prepares food and drink for him and talks about San Miguel and its reputation for death. "Never saw a town as dead as this one," Joe observes. He explains that the town has two bosses, the Rojos and the Baxters. Joe surveys San Miguel from the second-story balcony. Silvanito explains the presence of all the gunmen in town. "They've enlisted all the scum that hangs around both sides of the frontier and they pay in dollars." Joe concocts a plan after Silvanito tells him that the Rojos are stronger than the Baxters. He ambles back down the street and kills all four of them. What differs here is that Joe draws first and faster and kills them all. The entire shoot-out is captured in a long shot with Joe fanning his revolver in the foreground.
Afterward, Joe plays both ends against the middle. The Rojos, lead by Gian Maria Volontè as Ramón Rojo, sell liquor to the Indians, while with the Baxters, led by Consuelo Baxter (Margarita Lozano), are "big gun merchants." Their respective houses face each other at either end of the street. Ramón wields a Winchester repeating rifle with devastating accuracy and always shoots for the heart. He boasts that “When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with the rifle wins.” Initially, Ramón is not in town when Joe goes to work for his older brother Don Miguel Rojo (Antonio Prieto of “The Sword of Zorro”) and moves in with their gunmen until he hears Ramón’s murderous younger brother Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp of “The Killer Likes Candy”) talk about killing him and retrieving the money. Meanwhile, a Mexican calvary escort passes through San Miguel with a mysterious wagon. Joe tries to peek into the stagecoach and finds a six-shooter pointed at his face.

Joe and Silvanito follow the Mexican cavalry to the river. "It's like playing cowboys and Indians," the tavern owner remarks. The Mexican Army escort arrives at their rendezvous with the U.S. Calvary at the Rio Bravo. The Mexicans have brought gold to pay for guns. They are in for a rude awakening. The Americans have been killed, and coyote-faced Ramón and his men are impersonating them. Ramón wipes out the Mexican soldiers to the last man with a machine gun. The machine gun is all wrong for the time period as well as the fact that it houses no ammunition drum on it to feed it bullets. Ramón displays his accuracy with a Winchester when one lone Mexican tries to escape on horseback and he knocks him out of the saddle with one shot. When Ramón returns from the massacre, he meets Joe. Curiously, Joe decides to hand back what is left of the money that Don Miguel gave him. "I don't like to take money unless I feel I've earned it," Joe explains. This is unusual for a Spaghetti western where refunds weren't standard. Ramón scares Joe off because he wants to call a truce with the Baxters. When Ramón asks Joe if he doesn't prefer peace to violence, Joe shrugs and replies that he has little knowledge of peace. After Joe leaves, Don Miguel reiterates his respect for the American. "At shooting a pistol no one can touch him." Ramón remains suspicious about Joe: "When someone with that face works with his gun, you may counton two things. He's fast on the trigger, but he's also intelligent."

Later, Joe returns to the scene of the massacre and appropriates two Mexican bodies and deposits them in the local graveyard. He earns $500 from each the Rojos and the Baxters when he tells them about the surviving soldiers. While the two clans are shooting at each in the graveyard, Joe finds Ramón’s gold and runs into Marisol. He punches her in the face quite by accident and then hands her over to the Baxters who engineer a trade for their son.

Sergio Leone displays a splendid flair for visuals as well as storytelling in “A Fistful of Dollars.” Ramón qualifies as the best kind of villain because he is dangerous, but Ramón’s pride at “aiming for the heart” is what leads to his destruction. Ennio Morricone’s distinctive music sets “A Fistful of Dollars” apart from all Spaghetti westerns and established new conventions for the genre. Clint Eastwood plays the anti-heroic Joe with glacial calm and Gian Maria Volontè is simply brilliant as Ramón. A number of people collaborated on the screenplay, among them Sergio Leone, Fernando Di Leo of “Wipe Out!,” Duccio Tessari of “A Pistol for Ringo,” Víctor Andrés Catena of “Three Sergeants of Bengal,” Jaime Comas Gil of “Danger! Death Ray," and even Clint Eastwood. Despite all these scribes, “A Fistful of Dollars” boasts several memorable lines.

"A Fistful of Dollars" is not without flaws. Of course,Ramón should have put a bullet in Joe's head instead of repeatedly shooting him in the heart in the final duel. Clearly, however, the villain must have his own flaws and Ramón's incredulity at his failure to kill Joe with his first shots undermined him. Chico should have smashed up Joe's right hand--his gun hand--instead of stomping on his left hand. Curiously, nobody ever gets the gold that Ramón stole from the Mexicans and concealed in his warehouse. Did the Baxters have to pour out of the front door of their headquarters during the massacre? Couldn't they have exited by the back doors. Presumably, the low budget prevented this alternative from being staged. Esteban could have shot Joe down from ambush when Joe empties his gun before the final duel with Ramón.

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