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June 5, 2007

5

DVD of the Week – Review of A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

by JAMES BRIGHAM

As Helen stated in last week’s DVD pick of Rio Grande, occasionally the writers here on Commentary Track will be compelled to select older fare when faced with the notion of writing about films that none of us have seen and/or feel uncomfortable in promoting. This happened to be the case with the new releases for June 5th: the Pang Brothers’ supernatural thriller, The Messengers, and the Eddie Murphy comedy Norbit (a.k.a. Eddie Murphy in a Fat Suit – Again).

Instead, allow me the opportunity to write in glowing terms about the classic spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Featuring the genius of Sergio Leone’s direction, the gritty coolness of Clint Eastwood’s acting, and the inspired score of Ennio Morricone, this gritty, windswept tale of an amoral gunslinger playing rival crime families against each other remains one of my favorite films from the genre.

A scene in which Eastwood’s Man With No Name takes offense to a supposed insult of his mule is still quoted to this day between an old high school friend and myself. That short sequence is a screaming reminder of how brilliantly the aforementioned trio worked together. Eastwood’s acting is pitch perfect; at first, the MwNN’s reaction comes off as being a deadpan joke to the laughing hecklers responsible for frightening his riding animal. Slowly it dawns on them that the mysterious stranger is forbiddingly serious about the affront as Leone has the camera cut back and forth between Eastwood’s squinty eyed stare and their dying guffaws.

Tension is ratcheted up to nail-biting levels as the gang of ruffians ease off their fence perches to face off with the stranger, whose hand hovers unflinchingly over the pistol at his belt. Just when it seems like time has stopped and every single drop of nervous anticipation has oozed out of the viewers’ pores, the screen suddenly explodes with violent gunplay that quickly leaves no doubt as to whom the victor is. Morricone’s oddball assembly of classic instrumentation and off-kilter sound effects frequently punctuates these highlights.

This is the film that launched Clint Eastwood into international stardom as a leading man of the silver screen and deservedly so. The groundwork for the actor’s further high-quality exploration of the anti-hero western archetype was laid in this film. Eastwood would go on to collaborate again with Leone on two more spaghetti westerns: For a Few Dollars More and the epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which some fans have dubbed the “Dollars Trilogy”). Should you pick up and enjoy A Fistful of Dollars, I highly encourage you to seek out these subsequent releases so that you might continue your indoctrination in the code of the new west.

Film historians and the casually inquisitive might also have their interest perked by the established connection between this Leone western and Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai tale Yojimbo. A Fistful of Dollars is widely considered to be a remake of Yojimbo, although opinions seem to differ as to what level Leone knowingly used Kurosawa’s film as the model. Nevertheless, Fistful was embroiled in a long lasting court case that delayed its release and eventually ended up awarding hefty royalties to Kurosawa.

Ironically, there’s heavy influence in Yojimbo’s plot from the work of American hard-boiled detective novelist Dashiell Hammet, particularly in regards to his novel Red Harvest, in which a mysterious visitor plays 1920s era boomtown gangsters against each other. The complex history of this story is further complicated by more recent movies like Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing and the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, which restore the core tale to its original era and pulp fiction trappings but separately acknowledge different sources as influences. Whew!

Along with the predicted inclusion of radio spots, commercials, and trailers, this version of the film comes packed with fascinating extras. There’s a featurette called “A New Kind of Hero” that likely details the rise of the amoral gunman as a contrast to the white hat wearing heroes of yesteryear westerns. “A Few Weeks in Spain” offers Clint Eastwood’s take on the experience of making the film. “Cinque Voci” allows five friends of director Sergio Leone the chance to fondly recall their deceased pal. Finally, there’s the prologue with Harry Dean Stanton that was shot exclusively for ABC’s TV airing in the 1970’s. Intercut with stock footage of Eastwood, this curious gem attempts to add a moral legitimacy to the Man with No Name’s actions by presenting him as a man on a mission as opposed to being solely out for monetary gain. A dissection of this clip by Monte Hellman should prove illuminating.

This DVD is available as a separate two-disc collector’s edition as well as part of the massive Sergio Leone Anthology which has similarly remastered and feature packed versions of For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Duck, You Sucker! (a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite).

New releases this week: The Messengers, Norbit


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ben
    Jun 6 2007

    This is a true classic!

  2. Helen
    Jun 8 2007

    I need to re-watch A Fistful of Dollars. I’ve never seen it properly (only on commercial TV in pan and scan, which hardly even counts as having seen it). The Good, The Bad and The Ugly I was fortunate to see in a revival screening and it is a phenomenal movie. It’s good to see important, neglected films like these getting top quality dvd releases.

  3. Miriam
    Jun 23 2007

    Once upon a time these movies were considered cheap oddities in a tired genre. Today they get deluxe treatment in DVD release, Leone is recognized as an artist, and museums create exhibits of the artifacts of filmmaking (Eastwood’s poncho, Bronson’s harmonica, etc. given loving display treatment). If they weren’t such terrific movies I’d have to laugh. What we need now are more movie festivals so we can see real big-screen movies in the theater.

  4. Daniel L Brigham
    Aug 25 2007

    Can you get me a listing of mary pickford films.

  5. Adam Holt
    Oct 14 2008

    A Fistful of Dollars is nearly a shot-by-shot remake of Yojimbo. Many scenes are even shot from the same angles. Yet this film is credited with creating the “spaghetti western” genre. Fortunately, Kurosawa successfully sued Leone. Leone is a hack, unfit to hold Kurosawa’s camera bag.

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