Monday, December 17, 2012

Reeling Backward: "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964)

I was not sure if I'd ever actually seen "A Fistful of Dollars." Its place as a pop culture fixture is so thoroughly cemented that it's become one of those movies experienced mostly through references to it in cinema and other mediums. Certainly its plot and the iconography of Clint Eastwood's anti-hero were already etched in my brain. But having written about its Japanese predecessor not too long ago, I got to pondering if I had actually viewed "Fistful" in its entirety, other than a few snippets here and there caught on cable television or whatnot.

I also thought it was about time I cracked open the "Man with No Name Trilogy" blu-ray that had been sitting on my shelf, unwatched, for gosh knows how long. (Between my Netflix queue -- both DVD and streaming -- movies DVR'd off Turner Classic Movies and new discs arriving in the mail, it can be depressing how long it takes to get to some flicks.)

I have many times watched and relished the final film in Eastwood's collaboration with Italian director Sergio Leone, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." But it became clear to me after a few minutes' viewing that "Fistful" was still virgin (or at least virgin-ish) territory for me.

As a result, I've decided to finish out the weekly Reeling Backward column for 2012 with a look at each film of the triad. As regular readers of this column are aware, I tend to focus more on obscure movies, since that's where my ongoing cinematic sojourning takes me. But for next three weeks, we'll focus on these high-profile spaghetti Westerns.

A quick word on that name: according to Eastwood himself, the term originated with the Japanese, who referred to Italian-made Westerns as "meatballs" in order to distinguish them from the American iteration. No doubt the first Yank who adapted the linguistic labeling meant it as an insult, focusing on the low-rent production values (at least initially) of the films, complete with Italians and Spaniards playing Mexicans or American Indians, and dialogue dubbing that didn't even come close to matching the words with the flapping of the lips.

In time, though, these flaws came to be seen as simply aspects of the genre, which by and large had Italian crews and paymasters but were often shot in Spain. Eastwood and Leone didn't speak much of each other's language, but the idea of creating a new kind of cowboy protagonist translated to the big screen just fine.

"Fistful" was released internationally in 1964 but didn't make its way to the States until three years later, when it and its sequel "For a Few Dollars More" were released in quick succession, helping to make Eastwood an instant star.

The story is indeed a virtual carbon copy of "Yojimbo," with the warriors outfitted with six-shooters and Winchester rifles instead of katana swords. Even much of Akira Kurosawa's visual style was emulated by Leone, but with the addition of the Italian's signature shot: the long, lingering extreme close-ups of his actors -- which Leone loved to employ not only for the (ostensible) hero, but also the villains and even minor characters.

Leone seemed fascinated by physical ugliness, and his camera would hover leeringly over a pockmarked cheek or beetlebrowed forehead, the lighting tricked to accentuate the ravages of the flesh. The men populating his films were often glimpsed at their worst, with sweat pouring off their faces or a nasty grimace contorting their visage as they struggled against discomfort and pain.

If John Ford used landscapes as the backdrop for his character-driven stories, then Sergio Leone's primary canvas was the human face -- preferably flawed.

Leone seems to almost relish taking his beautiful leading man and having him beaten into bloody gore by the Rojo brothers -- one half of the two criminal gangs fighting over the dilapidated town of San Miguel, just south of the border. The beating itself is strung out with fetishistic delight, and the makeup to depict Eastwood's pulped face is pretty impressive for such a low-budget (reportedly $200,000) film.

Even after "Joe" -- the only name ever attached to the man who famously lacked one -- has healed up, he's noticeably scarred and scruffier. One gets the distinct sense Leone preferred him that way.

The Baxters, the clan opposing the Rojos, are depicted as being less evil in "Fistful" than the second gang was in "Yojimbo." They're mercenary and quick to use "Joe" for their own purposes, but never go out of their way to harm or kill unless it profits them.

It's an interesting choice, since in the description of innkeeper/conscious of the town Silvanito (José Calvo), the Baxters control the gun trade while the Rojos specialize in liquor. One would think those who corner firearms would have the upper hand, especially given that John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), the titular head of the enterprise really run by his wife (Margarita Lozano), is also the ostensible sheriff of San Miguel. But here booze bests guns, and it's apparent five minutes after Eastwood strolls into town that the Baxters' days are dwindling.

Like Kurosawa's myriad ronin who dedicate themselves to the discipline of the sword, "Joe" is a practitioner of the six-shooter with unparallelled skill. This was often an aspect of the American Western, the gunslinger who could outshoot all his opponents. But starting with the Leone films and continuing onward most everywhere Westerns were made, the abilities of the shootists were uplifted into mythological territory, where they became capable of feats that simply defied any sense of mortal logic or laws of science.

Note that "Joe" never uses the sights along the barrel of his .45 to take aim, simply holding his weapon at slightly above waist level. Somehow, just by the angle of the pistol in his hands, he can do things like shoot through ropes from 40 feet away. A few years later, the Sundance Kid could shoot the gunbelt off a fellow card player from across the room. By the time of "Silverado" in 1985, Scott Glenn could pepper the individual spines off  a cactus plant at 50 yards.

This aspect serves to elevate the idea of the "man with no name," who is defined not by a past or a reputation, but simply the astounding actions he undertakes. By gifting him with virtually supernatural abilities, it adds to the mystery of the lone gunman.

I should note that in "Yojimbo" the samurai appears to at least anguish over committing altruistic deeds instead of using his skills to turn the gangs against each other, profiting most as he flips sides back and forth. Eastwood's drifter seems bent toward good acts almost from the moment he stops on the outskirts of town, his heart touched by the scene of the young boy kept apart from his mother (Marianne Koch), the kept woman of Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonté), the nastiest of the bunch.

I once knew someone with a story like yours, he tells her when she later begs the reason for her family's rescue -- with the clear implication that the gunman was a party to that previous tragedy. I think these nudges toward making the character sympathetic undercut him somewhat, by giving him a motivation for his actions and thereby something of a mission.

It's better when TMWNN simply arrives with the tumbleweeds, as unpredictable as an ornery rattlesnake who strikes whichever way he will, and then skitters along to the next town. Somehow, I would've liked the concept of "A Fistful of Dollars" better knowing he's capable of evil, too.

3.5 stars out of four

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