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fistful

As a kid, I was raised on a pretty steady diet of movies…I can’t really recall a time when we were at home and not watching something, to be honest. My parents had fairly wide-ranging tastes, although certain things were pretty sacrosanct: Westerns, musicals and crime films always ruled the roost in our little castle. In particular, my parents loved John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films. Growing up, I was never particularly into Wayne: I’d seen almost all of his films by the time I was a teenager, I believe, but very few aside from El Dorado (1966) and North to Alaska (1960) ever stuck out for me. As I get older, I find myself with a little more appreciation for his body of work, although he’ll never be close to my favorite Western star. Eastwood, however…Eastwood was a different story.

To not put too fine a point on it, I absolutely idolized Clint Eastwood growing up. Not just enjoyed his films, mind you, but voraciously devoured them, sometimes watching the same movies over and over again to the point of rote memorization. There was a certain inherent badassness to Eastwood that always hit me right in the primal center of my brain: I didn’t just love his movies…I wanted to be this dude! It didn’t matter what the films were…Westerns, war movies, cop thrillers, chimpanzee road movies…I loved ’em all, man. The Dirty Harry series will always have a special place in my heart but, for my money, Eastwood was the most unstoppable during his classic run of mid-’60s-’70s Westerns. To this day, I can watch any or all of these at the drop of a hat: A Fistful of Dollars (1964); For a Few Dollars More (1965); The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966); Hang ‘Em High (1968); Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970); Joe Kidd (1972); High Plains Drifter (1973); and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). For this decade+ timeframe, beginning with Sergio Leone’s unbeatable Dollars trilogy, Eastwood, as far as I’m concerned, was the single greatest action star in the world. But it all began with a humble little spaghetti Western called A Fistful of Dollars.

The setup for A Fistful of Dollars is almost Shakespearean in its simplicity: a mysterious, nameless man (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a lawless town and ends up in the middle of a seemingly eternal struggle between two feuding families. In this case, the town is San Miguel and the families are the Baxters and Rojos and each one controls a vital aspect of the town – the Baxters run all of the guns and the Rojos take care of the liquor. As The Man With No Name knows, any town with liquor and guns has got money…and he wants in on the action. Soon, the stranger is pulling strings every which way, inching both clans towards a fiery Armageddon that will see him sop up the remains like soup from the bottom of a bowl. Caught between Sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) on one end and the feral Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte) on the other, the stranger is able to find a friend in the enigmatic saloon-keeper, Silvanito (Jose Calvo)…always a good thing when you need someone to watch your back. He even finds a cause, in a way, as the stranger seeks to reunite Ramon’s captive Marisol (Marianne Koch) with her husband and young son. It’s just business as usual in San Miguel, where a man can either get rich…or dead.

Right off the bat, astute viewers will note that the plot of A Fistful of Dollars bears a striking resemblance to Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Yojimbo (1961). While this is pretty obvious, I’ll go a little further out on the branch and suggest another possible influence: the James Bond films, which began with Dr. No (1962). While this may seem a bit odd, think about it for a minute. Consider the highly stylized credit sequence, which features stark red and black silhouettes. Compare The Man with No Name’s offhand, cool demeanor and way with a (subtle) wisecrack to Sean Connery’s portrayal of the British super-spy. Think about the effortless way in which the stranger executes highly complex plans, sort of like Rube Goldberg devices minus the bowling balls. While the James Bond similarities will really come to the forefront in the followup, For a Few Dollars More, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point them out in this one. Truth be told, I’ve been a gonzo fan of both the original Bond films and the Dollars Trilogy for so long, by this point, that I’m a little surprised I didn’t make the connection earlier.

New revelation aside, my biggest takeaway from yet another viewing of A Fistful of Dollars is how really unbeatable the film is. In fact, the only Western that might be better than this is For a Few Dollars More. And, of course, the only one better than that would have to be The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (RIP Mr. Wallach), which looks down on most films from a godly height, Western or otherwise. There isn’t really any aspect of Leone’s classic film that doesn’t work splendidly well, as far as I’m concerned. Eastwood is the perfect hero/anti-hero (although his actions to help Marisol and her family seem to tip him more in the “hero” direction for this outing). The story is streamlined and quick-paced, full of lots of natural wit and some truly funny moments, much of it thanks to Eastwood’s spot-on delivery of some pretty classic quips. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, full of the huge, wide-open vistas that would make The Good, The Bad and The Ugly such an epic film. And that score…yeesh, who could ever forget about Ennio Morricone? Although he’ll always be best known for the iconic score for the final Dollars film (wah wah….wa wa waaaah…), the threads are here and they’re pretty damn glorious.

When all of the elements come together (that amazingly vibrant cinematography, the stirring score, the sight of Clint squinting, cheroot in mouth, finger itching to pull the trigger), they create a sensation that I can best describe as a purely cinematic experience. My adrenaline starts to pump, I mutter things at the screen and, before long, I’m throwing my fists in the air like it was an Iron Maiden concert: I’ve had the same, basic experience when watching these films for the best 30 or so years, without fail. Unlike other beloved films from my childhood that currently have as much relevance as month-old milk (I’m thinking specifically of Clerks (1994), which I can’t even sit through nowadays), my opinion on A Fistful of Dollars (and the Trilogy, in general) has never changed. I loved the film back then and I still love it now. Although I’m able to articulate my feelings a little more eloquently these days (“Clint Eastwood kicks ass!” has been replaced by examinations of the cinematography, dialogue and musical score), I still arrive at the same conclusion: this film kicks ass.

While it’s impossible to completely quantify what works so well about A Fistful of Dollars, I’ll close with one of my favorite moments in the film. Towards the end, as we near the final shootout, Silvanito has been taken hostage by the Rojos and severely beaten. There’s little hope of rescue for him: after all, it’s not like him and the stranger are comrades…they’re just a couple of guys who don’t have any reason to kill each other. Silvanito has no reason to believe the stranger will come to save him, even though he’s kept his mouth shut and given the Rojos nothing regarding the Man with No Name. Suddenly, the stranger appears in the street, stepping from behind a plume of dynamite smoke. Eastwood stands there, wearing that classic serape and hat, a cheroot between his teeth and steel flint in his eyes. Silvanito looks up, just then, squinting to see through swollen eyes. He sees Eastwood and a small smile creases his weary face: help has arrived after all…all hope is not lost. As Eastwood strides forward, my heart soars, like it always does. There is about to be a stomping and it’s going to be an especially righteous one.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what movies are all about. You could argue, of course, but you would be wrong. So very, very wrong.

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