A Fistful of Dollars ★★★★★

Cinema Eclectica is having a week off this week, but you can still listen to the last episode, with Rob and Aidan reviewing A Fistful of Dollars. I'd seen it before, of course, but I held off rewatching it so I could see it on the big screen later in the week. I'm glad I did. There's nothing better to fill your field of vision than a screen composed by Sergio Leone. For all A Fistful of Dollars is a scrappy, low-budget work compared to his later films, his image-making skill consistently transcends the limits of the production. The early scene where Eastwood is led out onto a balcony and watches soldiers ride through the town centre is a masterclass in orchestrating action on different planes, all captured in luscious deep focus.

It's not surprising that Leone could marshall this kind of spectacle so early. His first solo film as director was a sword-and-sandal epic - The Colossus of Rhodes - which is the kind of learning curve that makes the career of Colin Trevorrow look like a slow-burner. I haven't seen The Colossus of Rhodes but by all accounts it's an inessential, derivative film with only brief flashes of Leone's later genius. If that's true, what is most surprising about A Fistful of Dollars is not its technical skill but its confidence in its own ideas. Leone's second film is a Western unlike any that had ever been made, and he got his cast and crew to go along with him in these radical ideas.

You can see the seeds of it in some Hollywood Westerns of the '50s. The archetype of the cowboy as a drifting, rootless hero is essentially a trickster figure, yet early Westerns like The Iron Horse are all about the imposition of order. By the 1950s, films like Shane and The Searchers were testing this contradiction a bit, showing heroes who accepted that their lot was to remain outside the social order they defended. The Man With No Name is different. He doesn't want to be part of a society, or even to defend a society. He's not heartless - you sympathise with him simply because every person he meets is much nastier than him - but he doesn't have any obligations to anyone other than himself.

I said on the show, based on my memory of the film, that you enjoy watching him because he's tough and no-nonsense, but on rewatching the film that's part of it. He's crafty as well, a real trickster, fooling a soldier into letting his guard down by pretending he's noticed something wrong with his horse. But the idea of a Western hero motivated by money rather than altruism was such a radical idea that, when the film was first aired on American TV, they added a new opening scene to make The Man With No Name more sympathetic. Cobbled together from outtakes of Eastwood and specially shot material, it showed a law enforcement official ordering The Man With No Name to clean up the town of San Miguel.

The punchline? The law enforcement official was played by Harry Dean Stanton, and the new material was shot by Monte Hellman. A Fistful of Dollars is so good that even the people who were employed to ruin it wanted to make sure they did a good job.

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