Being long-time fans of Sergio Leone’s work, and with a new remaster hitting cinemas, we at ORWAV thought it would be timely to look at how the director made A Fistful of Dollars. His first Western is widely credited with jump-starting the Spaghetti Western trend back in 1964, and has since been enshrined as a classic of both the genre and cinema as a whole. With its dynamite combination of Leone, Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood, Fistful of Dollars revitalised the Western and inspired decades of imitators, spoofs, deconstructions and reconstructions. It is an excellent film, as well as a total ripoff of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and the result of several talented people getting very lucky.
Leone’s Fistful of Dollars began life as Bob Robertson’s The Magnificent Stranger. Italian audiences had been bombarded with US Westerns since the post-war occupation – as had Japanese moviegoers, which will become relevant shortly. European producers, keen for their movies to seem like the real deal, often made film crews adopt “American” aliases, so Leone became Robertson. The script’s title goes for more American bona fides by explicitly echoing The Magnificent Seven, a US Western that had successfully copied Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai a few years earlier.
The Magnificent Stranger cut out this American middleman by lifting its plot straight from Yojimbo. Leone would later defend Fistful of Dollars from critics (and lawsuits) by claiming Kurosawa’s 1961 film was just one of many sources, among them Shane, the novels of Dashiell Hammett, and the 1746 play The Servant of Two Masters. That last one doesn’t check out, but the others are certainly there – as they are in Yojimbo. Comparing the two side-by-side, Fistful of Dollars is almost a scene-by-scene remake of Yojimbo with a Western theme and a handful of major differences.
“Signor Leone – I have just had the chance to see your film. It is a very fine film, but it is my film [and] you must pay me.” —Akira Kurosawa (allegedly)
Kurosawa had Leone’s number. Copyright infringement doesn’t seem to have been the foremost concern of Leone’s producers, and the director himself was besotted with Kurosawa’s cynical, violent chambara. Yojimbo electrified Leone and his peers, and began a race to create a Yojimbo-esque Western between Leone and Sergio Corbucci.1 In the end, it’s a pretty compelling case for originality being overrated. Leone’s predecessors made fake US Westerns by copying real, bland US Westerns. Leone outdid them by copying a brilliant Japanese samurai movie.
To fake an American Western, it was generally accepted that you had to dig up an actual American to star in it and put his name on the poster. The pool of US actors willing to fly to Rome and work for cheap was understandably shallow, so this didn’t always result in a great lead performance. Leone initially set his sights high, aiming to bag Henry Fonda for the part of Joe,2 but soon found himself combing the reject pile. Fortunately, by way of some coincidence (reports vary), one Clint Eastwood was eventually recommended for the part.
Eastwood was already known in the US as “Rowdy” Yates on TV’s Rawhide. Looking for a grittier role, he couldn’t have done better than put on Joe’s iconic poncho. As in Yojimbo, our hero is an anti-hero: a loner who’s in it for the money and only counts as a “good guy” by being less bad than the “bad guys”. Eastwood has never had the raw charisma of Toshiro Mifune, but he’s perfect in this version of the role. Not yet the invincible Eastwood of later Westerns, Joe has the odd glimmer of amusement or sympathy beneath the iconic squint.
Other than originating one of the most recognisable characters in film history, Eastwood’s major contribution to Fistful of Dollars was cutting most of his own lines. The original Magnificent Stranger script ran to the equivalent of six hours – Fistful of Dollars as we have it is about 90 minutes. Leone was not a director who focused on dialogue, and reportedly spoke little English at the time. Eastwood had the sense to whittle down his half-page speeches to a few words, and as long as everything looked good, Leone didn’t mind. Thus the laconic gunslinger was born.
Though Eastwood’s anti-hero is excellent, the film belongs to its villain: Gian Maria Volontè as Ramon Rojo, the maniacal crime lord who believes he can outshoot Joe with his Winchester rifle. Though Ramon has precedent in Yojimbo – Onosuke, the only man in town with a gun – he is the most radical departure from the source. Where Onosuke is precise, Ramon is hot-headed, a wild man. In Yojimbo, visiting government inspectors briefly force the criminals into a truce. In Fistful of Dollars, Ramon guns down the government cavalry with a smile on his face.
Volontè is an absolutely terrific presence in this film, only matched by Morricone’s thundering score. He stands proud of the competent supporting cast by bringing a tremendous physicality to every scene. Whether he’s staring down Eastwood, commanding his men, or slapping a horse’s arse, he’s energetically there in a way that’s riveting to watch. He even sweats with gusto! Fistful of Dollars was Volontè’s big break, and he repaid Leone with explosively good performances here and a year later in the even-better For a Few Dollars More.
The major elements that would carry over to that sequel, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and ultimately the global pop-culture consciousness, are all on fine form here. Leone fills the screen with landscapes, close-ups, and unbearable tension. Morricone’s score elevates the whole thing to an operatic stratosphere. Eastwood exudes cool and plays foil to more colourful characters, as he would with Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach. You could argue that this-or-that is improved in later films, but Fistful of Dollars remains a pitch-perfect, genre-defining hour and a half of concentrated Spaghetti Western.
- Corbucci’s effort, Minnesota Clay, was stalled by financial difficulties, lost its designer to Leone, and wasn’t very good. Fortunately, Corbucci bounced back in time to make the grim-n-gritty classic Django a year later.
- ”The Man with No Name” has a name in all three of his movies – the famous moniker was cooked up by an American marketing team to promote For a Few Dollars More. Fonda, of course, ended up playing magnificently against type in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
Sources: I have drawn from Christopher Frayling’s Sergio Leone and Alex Cox’s 10,000 Ways to Die throughout this article.