Saturday, December 1, 2012

Short Take: A Fistful of Dollars

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The year 1967 was a watershed for movies. It marked the beginning of the Hollywood Renaissance, a period when U. S. filmmakers saw themselves in aesthetic competition with the best filmmakers abroad and the best writers anywhere. It was also characterized by the dominance of the antihero and the rise of actors who most fit that mold. The decade that followed is widely considered the richest in American film. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, which came out in the latter half of the year, are generally credited as the two inaugural films of the period. A Fistful of Dollars, which opened in the U. S. that January, deserves to be considered the third. Although technically an Italian film that was released internationally in 1964--legal problems delayed its North American premiere--its importance to this era of Hollywood history cannot be underestimated. It redefined the Western genre in ways that proved momentous. It also made actor Clint Eastwood a star, and set him on the path to becoming a cultural icon. The director, Sergio Leone, with his co-scenarists Víctor Andrés Catena and Jamie Comas Gil, remove the Western from any thematic relationship to historical stories of pioneer days. This is the Western as noir pulp, heavy on gritty sensationalism, and enamored with aestheticized violent spectacle. The Eastwood protagonist (called Joe in the film, but known to the filmgoers as The Man with No Name) is cut from the same cloth as his forebears in hard-boiled crime fiction. He’s a violent, taciturn thug redeemed only by his loyalty toward friends and his chivalrous treatment of mothers and children. As the film opens, this solitary protagonist wanders into a Mexican border town devastated by a feud between two families. He’s an inhumanly fast and accurate marksman, and seeing the opportunity for money, he decides to work for both clans and play them against each other. The only complication is his concern for the young mother (Marianne Koch) who has been forced to become a family leader’s mistress. Leone’s direction is superb. He creates a desolate, nihilistic atmosphere from the emptiness of the town and surrounding landscape. The almost offhand violence seems innate to the setting, and the scenes couldn’t be better staged or edited. Leone also makes canny use of his star. Eastwood’s acting range is limited, but he moves gracefully, and he plays surliness probably better than any other performer. Leone keeps him very still most of the time, which combines with his hostile affect to give him a striking air of menace. When he does move, his speed and grace make the violence seem a fulfillment of the character. The performance isn’t complex, but it's note-perfect, and it’s little wonder Eastwood came to embody the archetype of the antihero adventurer. The film may be the definitive showcase for his movie persona. The story is derived from the 1961 Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo, which in turn owes a debt to Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest. Ennio Morricone (working under the name Dan Savio) provided the superb score.