Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review – A Fistful of Dollars

November 17, 2011

A Fistful of Dollars – Italy, 1964

It seems a bit odd that The Man with No Name Trilogy began with a remake, and yet the character of the masterless ronin in Akira Kurosawa’s legendary film Yojimbo seems rather appropriate for the drifter gunslinger that rides into a town with competing bosses. A masterless ronin often relied on people whom he once considered below him for employment, and the drifter in westerns may find himself working for people he despises just to survive. In truth, neither character has any qualms about making a living through violence; it’s just that their quests for monetary reward are more likely to be sidetracked by the plights of those who are caught in the iron grip of a tyrant. So it was in Yojimbo, and so it is in Sergio Leone’s excellent A Fistful of Dollars.

Towards the end of the film, the Man with No Name begins to be called “Joe,” and so that is what I’ll call the character from here on. I know it’s not really his name, but it’ll do. The town that Joe walks into is called San Miguel, and it is run by two competing families: the Baxters and the Rojos. One, we’re told, controls the guns, the other the liquor. They both make a killing hawking their wares to Native Americans, which I’m pretty sure Uncle Sam would not look too fondly upon if he ever found out. As proof of the lucrative nature of this business, a local tells Joe that one of two fates awaits him in this town: He’ll either become rich, or he’ll end up in a coffin. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the former.

In the beginning of the film, a group of men from the Baxter party make the mistake of shooting at Joe’s horse in an attempt to get the horse and its rider to pass through the town as expediently as possible. Not a smart move. In one of the film’s most famous lines, Joe tells the only man whose business is still profitable, Better get three coffins ready. A moment later, he returns with music to the elderly entrepreneur’s ears: Better make it four. Soon, Joe pays a visit to the Rojos and offers them his services. They in turn pay him $100 for the favor he’s already done them and gladly accepts him into their ranks. Well, perhaps gladly isn’t the right word, for the moment the Rojos think that Joe is out of earshot, they’re already plotting to eliminate him and take back their money. The problem - for them at least - is that Joe hears their little conversation and adjusts accordingly.

What follows is perhaps one of the greatest displays of cinematic improvisation on the part of a lead character, as Joe begins playing the Baxters and Rojos against each other and making quite a nice profit in the process. His most ingenious play involves him making two corpses appear to be alive and convincing both sides that it is in their best interest to get to them first. The ruse nets him $500 from each family and results in a firefight that scuttles the Rojos’ chances of keeping a truce with the Baxters, which is no great loss seeing as how the truce had not been offered in good faith anyway.

Joe’s one ally is the local innkeeper Silvanito (Jose Calvo), who has seen more than his share of death. He can hardly be considered a comic character, for Silvanito’s witty asides and caustic banter often revolve around Joe’s eventual demise, and whenever people joke about a thing like that, it usually means they care more about someone than they are letting on. We are also introduced to a woman named Marisol (Marianne Koch). Marisol is the object of Roman Rojo’s affection. Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte) is not only the most dangerous member of the Rojo family, but it is clear that he is also Joe’s most deadly adversary, and it can only be a matter of time before these two square off in a duel to the death.

In a more formulaic film, Marisol and Joe would end up together. However, A Fistful of Dollars is smarter than that, and there are hints throughout the film that Ramon’s interest in Marisol has caused her great misery. In one particularly impressive scene, we learn just what price she has had to pay, and if you look closely enough, you can see the wheels going around in Joe’s head as he begins to reassess and strategize anew. Marisol’s plight culminates in the only explanation we’re likely ever to get from Joe concerning his actions. His explanation is one sentence in length and yet, he couldn’t have been said it any better. I suppose there is something to be said for brevity after all.

If there is a crack in A Fistful of Dollars, it is that it never truly makes a case against the Baxters. Other than the unwise actions of a small group of Baxters in the beginning of the film, there’s very little to explain what puts them on par with the Rojos. While we see the Rojos ambushing soldiers and plotting to wipe out the Baxters, the Baxters are given remarkably little screen time to make the case that they are an equally despicable bunch. They don’t even go after Joe for killing four of their men. In fact, the film is rather non-committal when it comes to them. Are they simply business people in a difficult situation, or are they just as violent as the Rojos? The film seems to want them to be unsympathetic characters, yet it never fully commits to this idea, and by the end of the film, I was still not sure what to make of their fates.

There is also the little matter of some of the acting in the film. Much of the film is dubbed in English, and some of the voices used for the Rojo clan may strike some as particularly stereotypical and rather exaggerated. In contrast, the Baxters come off sounding rather normal. And for some reason, whenever a character is shot and killed, he displays the same physical mannerisms: First, he is hit by a bullet. This often causes him to throw his hands up and momentarily freeze in place, as if the bullet has been shot from a phaser set on stun. At the same time, the character has to let out a sound to let us know that he has indeed been shot, something like “Ahh!!!” Then the character must fall to the ground in a way that defies logic and occasionally physics as well. It’s almost comical.

That said, A Fistful of Dollars remains a highly entertaining and well made film. It’s clear why these early films made Eastwood the star that he was then and continues to be today. In addition, the film has a pace that even many of the best films would envy, and it is visually stunning. In one particular scene, Eastwood walks out in a cloud of smoke and stands before a group of the Rojos' men ready for a confrontation. They appear to be as shocked as the audience is probably in awe. It may be strange to say it, but a single source created what may be two of the most memorable characters in film history, Yojimbo’s roaming samurai and A Fistful of Dollars’ Man with No Name. Now how often can you say that? (on DVD and Blu-ray)

4 stars

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