A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Sergio Leone's first entry in his "The Man with No Name" trilogy is characterized by long panning shots of dusty hardpan and Clint Eastwood's steely blue gunslinger glare. It's easy to believe that Leone only had a paltry budget of around $200,000 for this production; if you had to choose one word to describe A Fistful of Dollars it would have to be rough. The set design is more or less limited to a half dozen sun-bleached stucco hovels and a saloon, the gunshots come with the same tinny twang every time someone fires a pistol, and thank god they only used the fake blood twice, cause I'm pretty sure blood isn't supposed to be that shade of luminescent orange. But here's the thing: that raw unvarnished feeling only serves to reflect and amplify those same qualities in the setting and characters of this world. "Joe" is a rough man - the kind of guy that only starts to appreciate peace when he's got money in his pocket - in a world unto itself that is just as jagged as he is.

The story here is simple enough. Clint Eastwood stars as "The Man with No Name" or "Joe" in his virgin role as a Western hero, a man who rolls into town with no clear past and certainly no set future. He sums up the situation for us neatly early in the tale when he says: "Baxter's over there, Rojo's there, me right smack in the middle." Then he proceeds to ask the question that tells you all you need to know about our hero: "Which of the two is stronger?" It introduces the dead simple morality of the West to the viewer - strength is all that matters, and fuck you if you don't believe it.

The real question of the movie is which of the three is strongest: The Rojo's, The Baxter's, or The Man with No Name (spoiler alert, it's our man Clint). This is the philosophy of The West as Joe seems to present it, and if that's true, it makes him a hypocrite. The film's fundamental humanity doesn't come out until the very end; Joe stays to watch Ramone burn the Baxter house and its inhabitants without mercy and then decides to come back, not seeking revenge, but justice. And oh boy, does he get revenge. The last time I saw this movie was with my dad when I was 8, so I don't remember much of that viewing - but I do remember the look of utter hopelessness on Ramone's face as he fired round after round from his precious Winchester into Joe's chest. It's one of the many aggressively tense close-ups that always manage to ratchet up the intensity in this film - always accompanied by Ennio Morricone's epic score that would have fit just as well in a Tolkienesque fantasy epic.

It's not perfect: there are dozens of plot holes, the editing feels - at best - intermittently smooth, and, as with any dubbed movie, it takes practice not to be bothered by the mismatch between the voices of the characters and their lips. However, there is a certain magic that comes with A Fistful of Dollars being unapologetically badass and sticking to its consistently gritty and dark fundamentals.

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