The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Fistful of Dollars

By 1964, the spaghetti western genre -- westerns typically made in Italy and Spain with Italian backing -- was alive and well, but not quite what people think of now. The genre was still in its infancy, light, even family-oriented westerns that were cheap knockoffs of American westerns. That changed in 1964, one movie kicking in the door and changing the genre and westerns as a whole in a huge way. The movie? 1964's A Fistful of Dollars.

In the small, south of the border town of San Miguel, a nameless gunfighter (Clint Eastwood) rides into town and promptly catches the attention of three gunfighters. He callously shoots them down in the street and heads to the saloon. There he meets the saloon owner, Silvanito (Jose Calvo), who fills him in on the town and its background. Things are run by two warring families, the Rojos, three brothers led by the maniacal, Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), and the Baxters, led by the town sheriff, John (Wolfgang Lukschy). The two families are always going at it, and the mysterious gunfighter sits directly in the middle. Seeing a chance to make some serious money, the gunman pits the two families against each other, his job made that much easier when a troop of Mexican cavalry rides into San Miguel transporting a gold shipment headed for the U.S.

Wow, what a movie from director Sergio Leone as he kicks off his Dollars trilogy. A director with a handful of films to his name -- some credited, some not -- Leone put his name on the map with this western. This is unlike just about any western that came before it. Leave it to an Italian director working in Spain with an international cast and crew to rewrite the most American of genres. Tweaking Akira Kurosaw's Yojimbo, this is dark, dirty, brutally sadistic and cynical from the characters to the story and everything in between. There aren't so much good guys and bad guys, just less bad guys. No one is safe. The violence is aggressive, stylish and in your face. 'Fistful' helped propel the western into a new age, Leone's For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly hitting theaters in the two years following. It all started here, and it starts in a big way.

A recognizable face from TV's Rawhide, Clint Eastwood was far from a star in 1964. He was a definite TV star and had some supporting parts in films, but in 1964, he signed on to star in this Euro-western with a director he knew little about. What a wise decision it was, Eastwood propelling to international stardom thanks in great part to the Leone westerns. This is the definition of a western anti-hero. He isn't typically interested in what's right or living up to his word. He's looking to survive, make some money and move on. He earned the nickname the Man with No Name -- he's called Joe here, Manco and Blondie in the other Dollars movies -- for these movies, a gunfighter and drifter who moves from job to job. For the most part, he's a man of few words, typically letting his six-shooter do his talking. He squints and stares, sometimes revealing that "I'm up to something" smirk.

Much of the character is in the visual. Eastwood's Man with No Name wears a hat pulled down tight on his head, a long poncho over his frame, a calfskin vest and denim shirt, tight blue jeans, and plain boots with his gunbelt worn low on his hip. His face is covered in a short beard, almost a five-o'clock shadow. Talk about doing a 180 from the typical white hat-wearing western hero. That's a big part of the spaghettis appeal, credit going to Leone in general. The west was hot, dirty and sweaty, and it reflects in the look of the movie. The Almeria locations, the wardrobes, the town sets, all these little things add up to the success of the movie. Oh, and there's that composer, Ennio Morricone, turning in a memorable score that he would top with the next two movies. A good score, but he would set the bar high with each passing movie. Listen to an extended sample HERE. It's all those little things that add up from the look to the style to soundtrack to the stylish opening credits, and they all add up here nicely.

Working again with Leone a year later as the villain in For a Few Dollars More, Volonte became one of the all-time great western villains as the psychotic, pot-smoking Indio. It took that crazy performance to keep this performance in the background. Volonte delivers a gem of a part as Ramon Rojo, the fiery leader of the Rojo family. He's a brutal, calculating killer who's a dead-shot with a rifle. In Eastwood's Joe, he sees an expert gunman who can cause problems. Snake-like, sinister and creepy, a great lead performance. His brothers include Sieghardt Rupp and Antonio Prieto Puerto, his gang including spaghetti regulars Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell and Mario Brega. Along with Lukschy as the Baxter patriarch, look for Margarita Lozano as his wife and Bruno Carotenuto as their oldest son, Antonio.

In a lot of ways, 'Fistful' feels like a dry run for what's to come. The cynicism, the style, the characters, the shootouts, Leone would improve on it all over the next two movies. The gunfights are quick and harsh, and the finale as Joe stands down Ramon, his brothers and their gang shows that style that would become iconic in 'FAFDM' and 'GBU.' The close-ups, sometimes extreme close-ups of faces and eyes, the violent fanning of the gun for rapid fire effect. It's all there. Is it a great movie? No, but it's really good. A modern comparison is easy, Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Batman Begins is a really good movie, but the next two movies are simply better. That said, the first one had to lay out the groundwork for what was to come. An excellent movie, a huge turning point for where westerns would go in the mid to late 1960s.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964): ***/****

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