A gunslinger only known as “the stranger” (Clint Eastwood) walks in a not so quiet town in which to two families are fighting to gain control of: that of the town sheriff, and that of the Rojo Brothers, lead by the terrible Ramón (Gian Maria Volontè) in the first spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone.
The western genre as been quite popular in films since the birth of cinema itself. Might have to do with the fact that, when cinema was born, the time of the old west and the gunslingers were coming to an end. In a sense, the two were always tied together. Many early masterpieces are westerns, John Ford’s The Searchers still being regarded as a genre-defining. But the Americans weren’t the only one making good westerns, a group of Italian filmmakers emerged in the 1960s and made countless great films too, known as “spaghetti westerns” because of their origin. And of those, the Leone ones are certainly the most known.
A Fistful of Dollars did not kick start the genre, but it definitely was the one that popularized it. By combining a signature cinematographic style, great music and, of course, Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone decided the future of the spaghetti westerns. Most of the production took place in the Spanish region of Almeria, which landscapes can easily emulate the frontier between the United States and Mexico. This region became famous because of the genre, and still holds western sets today. Even with an American studio financing his penultimate western, Leone chose to shoot most of its exterior locations in Almeria. The impact of Fistful was huge and help popularize the genre in the USA, eventually leading to spiritual sequels. With each new iteration, Leone had more experience, more money and, most importantly, more creative freedom. And since I talked about cinematic style, let’s analyze that in Fistful, which puts the basics of Leone cinema. I find really interesting to analyze how he introduces his characters.
Leone proved he understood how to tell a story and put it in images and sound.
In Fistful, the stranger mounter on his horse walks into a town and he’s threatened by locals. His horse flees and he meets local town-keeper. He learns more about the folks that he came across before between getting out and facing them. He asks them to go apologize to his horse, to which the of course all laugh, before he shoots them. There, all of Leone’s cinema is demonstrated here. If something happens, he won’t resolve it right away. Instead, he’s going to take his time. This lead to the infamous “stares” between gunslingers about to shoot at each other. It is present here, to some extend, but nothing as quite long as it will be in the next two films. That is also the whole plot of the film, the stranger will go back and forth, playing with both sides of the feud, until his tricks are noticed and Ramón tries to kill him. This resulted in a slow paced film, where the plot is thinner than a slice of ham. No wonder why Henry Fonda refused the leading role. But at least, Leone proved he understood how to tell a story and put it in images and sound.
Unfortunately, that is about it. I find this one difficult to watch today. The story not that interesting to keep the audience engaged all along. The narrative is stuck to a single town with occasional rides across the country and a shooting near a river. Yes, it was produced with a really tight budget, even for its time. Fistful also suffers from the international production; it was filmed silent, so that different versions could be made in post-production. The result is clearly a mixed bag. We feel that the dialogues don’t quite fit the lip sync. And the performances are off most of the times, save of Eastwood’s.