A Fistful of Dollars ★★★½

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

This review may contain spoilers.

As of this month, I've officially been reviewing movies on Letterboxd for one year. In terms of my appreciation for cinema and knowledge of film in general, I've come a long way in just a year and I'm really proud of where I am and everyone that reads my reviews. However, one area I've sorely neglected throughout my life is classic cinema, and the longer I've been on Letterboxd the more I've been aware of that fact. So, starting with the beginning of the classic Clint Eastwood Western trilogy, I'm gonna go back and catch up on all the huge titles I've missed out on. Leone, Hitchcock, Ford, Welles, Kubrick, and any other essential film that I've missed out on due to my more modernly acclimated movie taste. I have a good slate of classic films to catch up on, but if you have any suggestions, please feel free to let me know as I'd greatly appreciate it!

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Growing up, my grandfathers were both humongous western fans. John Wayne was on the television frequently, to the point that as a kid, I grew a distaste for it. I was more interested in Cartoon Network or Toonami. My love for modern animation and fantasy worlds like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings kept me at a distance from old western cinema. As such, it became a world I was entirely familiar with and yet had no real knowledge. I never paid attention or actually sat down and watched a western. I always had a Gameboy firmly in front of my face whenever they were on, and my lack of attention to detail caused me to deem them all the same.

My grandfathers will be proud to know that all of that has changed now.

At twenty years old, despite the fact I've been in front of a western dozens of times, I've never actually sat down and watched one in its entirety of my own volition. In that, A Fistful of Dollars is a strange first for me. These images, these faces, and this music I know like an old friend, and yet the film itself couldn't be anymore unfamiliar to me. I used to think westerns were boring and yet an entire childhood of feelings has now been undone by one film. A film I'm convinced that the runtime of is at least 50% comprised of shots of sweaty tan men staring at other sweaty tan men.

The portion of the film that isn't close ups of men in various cowboy hats however is a lot more thoughtful than I ever would've imagined. Clint Eastwood's iconic Man With No Name wanders into a town that's little more than outlaws and crime lords. Here, outside of a barkeep, a bell ringer, and a coroner, there are only two things for a man to do: kill or die. Large scale, violent shootouts are the slightest conflict away and trust is constantly being betrayed. All of this in the name of the US dollar. As the movie advances, and more betrayals continue to stack as allegiance is realigned, the towns residents gangs spiral more and more into madness. As the violence escalates, Leone's focus on the faces of those involved becomes increasingly disturbing as the reasoning for their madness becomes more and more unclear. By the end, it's obvious that this mad world filled with killing for the sake of wealth is not one that anyone can survive.

For all of its thematic greatness though, A Fistful of Dollars does find a way to wear even a short hour and forty minute run time thin. As the film goes on the repeated betrayals and realliances get a bit convoluted and muddle the movie's pacing. It seems as if Leone gets a bit lost in trying to create a narrative with lots of twist and turns and loses the point of his narrative in the first place. As the film nears its climax, the luster it had at the beginning wears thin as different plot elements start to feel redundant. The film does save itself with a phenomenally built final showdown and some of the film's best moments also come during the house burning scene. The film's second act is definitely its weakest though.

With the film's technical aspects, there's elements that have aged tremendously and some that were less than stellar as well. Eastwood's performance is definitely one of the greatest "tough guy" performances I've ever seen, and I really can't wait to see more of him through the rest of this trilogy. This is an essential character building example of creating character through action rather than dialogue. He opens mysteriously, and though you still know next to nothing about what his story is by the end, you definitely know who he is. The soundtrack here bolsters the main performance as well. The music here is some of the most iconic western tracks ever, and combining that with the way the camera captures the town and the western frontier as a deserted wasteland is entrancing. That being said, some editing choices are hard not to laugh at even with the time this was made in mind. The scene where Ramon shoots down soldiers with a turret and the child's lines are both hard not to find out of place and corny in an otherwise cool as hell movie.

Even though it's far from the best film I've seen, A Fistful of Dollars is an excellent starting point and has left me wanting more from this genre. It's also very exciting to know that this trilogy only grows in quality as it goes on, it took a lot of self control not to start with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's also a reminder that as much as classic cinema is idolized, it's far from perfect. Nevertheless, there's so much to be admired from this period of film making and I can't wait to experience more of it.