Sergio Leone’s self described “Fairytale for grown-ups,” A Fistful of Dollars is an intense look at a different kind of West than classically portrayed. Before the film even starts the viewer gets the idea that it is not like any other of the genre. The opening titles depicting silhouettes in deadly shoot-outs with Ennio Morricone’s ominous score, prepare the viewer for a redevelopment of the idea of the “Wild West” as perilous and violent, com-pared to more the romanticized depictions in classical Hollywood westerns.The title sequence sets the tone for the unromantized tale of savagery in a frontier soci-ety. Leone takes well-established conventions of the genre and turns them on their heads to demonstrate arguably a more realistic picture of the west and its inhabitants. The most obvious reworking of the genres conventions are the characters who are gritty, conniving, evil and constantly involved in power plays, scheming against each other. The lead character, the man with no name (Clint Eastwood,) is the best at this: able to exploit both sides in their struggle against the other, while stacking his money in secret. His anti-hero identity strongly contrasts traditional roles of benevolent protectors from films like Shane and High Noon, where the lead man rids the town of bad guys for moral reasons and asks for nothing in return.In A Fistful of Dollars, the dichotomy of good and evil is absent, both sides are evil and TMWNN eliminates both indiscriminately for one reason only: money.
The main charac-ters reflect the different values of character in Italian culture at the time, and also serve as a commentary on global issues. As Alberto Moravia states in his review on the film, cited in the article “Per Un Pugno Di Dollari,” by Christopher Frayling: “The main charac-ters are everyday delinquents who were in the background of American films but who, in Italian ones, have invaded the foreground to become the protagonists. The qualities which make them attractive, in the eyes of our public, are not generosity and chivalry but guile, street wisdom and ‘ingenuity’.” Leone’s characters are realistic; they are more identified with than the immaculate and virtuous protagonists that previously dominated the genre.
Other distinct differences that play down the romanticization of the west are the visual violence, bloodshed and grime. Leone was not shy about showing brutality between his characters. The amoral position of virtually every character, embodies a code of shoot first and don’t even bother asking questions; TMWNN dispatches four Baxter thugs right in front of their stronghold and when the Sheriff protests, he tells him to get the corpses in the ground. When the Rojo brothers firebomb the Baxter compound later in the film, they shoot every survivor as they come out despite their pleading surrender. One of the most shocking instances of violence is the interrogation of TMWNN by the Rojos. The scene shows Rojo goons beating the living daylights out of TMWNN with close ups on his bloody face and hand, to the delight of Esteban Rojo. The film is packed with these dramatic close ups that show in detail the bloody wounds, and dirty, sweating faces of the characters, these shots are worlds away from the single smudge of dirt and solitary rip in Gary Cooper’s shirt in High Noon. Leone’s characters are dirty from the beginning and become more and more tattered and filthy as the film goes on.
An interesting anecdote about the realistic grime of this film: the poncho the man with no name sports in all three of Leone’s trilogy was never washed throughout shooting of any of the films.
The aspect of the film that pulls everything together into the “fairytale for grown-ups,” is Leone’s heavily stylized aesthetic. Influenced by many classic western directors as well as the films of Akira Kurosawa, namely Yojimbo, which heavily influence the films plot and characters. Leone makes use of the widescreen format, favored by many Holly-wood western directors, not only to convey the enormous landscapes but to layer his mise-en-scène with extreme close ups in the foreground and other action in the back-ground.These shots are subtle but are everywhere in the film; in the hostage trade-off scene especially, every Rojo family member is shot using this technique. The use of these extreme close-ups, often of squinty eyes, supplements or replaces a lot of the film’s dialogue and adds the operatic suspense that became trademark Leone. The ex-treme close-ups convey much more than any dialogue could. Other distinct stylistic points are the quick zooms that bring us in to the extreme close-ups, imposing high and low-angle shots, gun point-of-view shots and parallel shots of different character.
In the final shoot-out between Ramon and TMWNN, Leone compares the two by first photographing each man’s dusty, spurred boots from low angles, then close-ups as each man loads his weapon and finally the extreme close-up on each man’s filthy face in a final stare down before TMWNN subdues Ramon. TMWNN is so fast on the draw the shoot-ing is done more by the gun than him, so shoot-outs are photographed from the gun’s point-of-view. These stylistic considerations give a personality to the film and build authentic suspense throughout.A Fistful of Dollars’ baroque take on the western sparked the massive wave of Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” that revitalized the genre in a dramatic but more realistic fashion. The era of quixotical Hollywood westerns was at an end, with the emergence of the wilder west.
Archive of Leone’s films and other info about the director.
Samples Ennio Morricone’s score.
A fistful of Clint Eastwood.
Frayling, Christopher. "Per un pugno di dollari/ A fistful of dollars." The Cinema of Italy. Ed. Giorgio Bertellini. New York: wallflower, 2004.