A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars ★★★½

As part of unintentionally defining the bones of what would become known as spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone effortlessly laid out the subgenre's themes and priorities in the title sequence of A Fistful of Dollars, crafted by Igino Lardani. There are no faces here, no dusty streets, no scenic vistas laid out before us. Instead, we get pure iconography: horses and riders, yes, but is silhouette, in three simple colors. No personalities, no friendships, no sheriffs' stars to teach us our allegiances — instead, we get the symbols of the genre at their most basic level. And, about halfway through the sequence, the shooting starts. Men in silhouette crumple to the ground; are spun by the impact of bullets; clutch their chests in pain when they're hit. There is no good or bad — no white hat, no black hat. There is no differentiation among the men we see because everyone is dangerous, and everyone is a victim. And there, in a nutshell, we have the spaghetti western.

The people in San Miguel are the ones who would survive in the west created by American cinema. They're not purists with principles, or honest men who survive because people respect them. No, they're violent and cruel, and they survive by the combination of their wits and the speed of their guns. No one in this town is good — they're all opportunists of varying degrees. Even the coffin maker, one of the men we come to know best, is there because it's to his financial advantage. He doesn't care who dies, as long as someone pays him for the vessel that bears the departed into their grave.

The two families who are at war over the town — the Rojos and the Baxters — have shut it down entirely, bending it to their collective, violent will. Those who are left alive simply wait for the feud to be resolved, so that life can continue on the other side. While there are clear differences between the families (the rationality of the Baxters quickly becomes their weakness), they're both profit driven above all else, two ravenous representatives of pure capitalism.

Not unlike the families already in town, when The Stranger (Clint Eastwood) rides into San Miguel, he smells money, not danger. Unlike future films in the subgenre that will focus on revenge as motive, what The Stranger seeks is profit, pure and simple — his killing of four members of the Baxter clan serves as an advertisement of his usefulness to the Rojos. Over the course of the movie, The Stranger walks the town from end to end repeatedly, pocketing payments from both families with no sign of allegiance or remorse. He personifies the venal nature of spaghetti westerns, a genre in which a heart is a weakness, and morality a burden.

Though The Stranger shares many qualities with the spaghetti western antiheroes yet to come, one way in which he differs from his successors is in his humor. On several occasions, he responds to comments and situations with spontaneous, sincere smiles, a reaction so out of place in the subgenre that would emerge in the wake of A Fistfull of Dollars that it's almost unsettling. Soon, though, that humor and spontaneity would go away, replaced by stillness and tension, as personified by figures like Django, and Death Rides a Horse's Bill and Ryan.  

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