It doesn’t take much to invoke images of Clint Eastwood’s stoic, crafty, cigar gnawing anti-hero, The Man With No Name, but a quick blast of Ennio Morricone’s familiar whistle based fanfare that opens A Fistful Of Dollars is more than enough to cause vision of dusty ponchos, wry one liners and endless close ups of very determined eyeballs. This kind of thing doesn’t happen merely by chance as Sergio Leone’s trilogy of Spagetti Westerns are as iconic as westerns come and changed the very face of the entire genre overnight, but over the decades, Eastwood’s arguably most famous, nameless character (who actually does carry three separate monikers for each movie in his trilogy) has become the go-to image for not only an entire genre, but an entire spin off of similar archetypes that still pop up to this day – what, you think we’d have The Mandalorian, Mad Max or Snake Plissken if Eastwood hadn’t crushed it all those years ago?
Not a bad legacy for what is essentially a brazen rip off of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
Into the near-deserted town of San Miguel rides an enigmatic slice of chaotic good the movie unreliably dubs “Joe” who is looking for a way to bleed his unsurpassed gunfighting skills into a way to make himself some dishonest scratch. Not long after his arrival he’s bullied by men from one of two gangs of smugglers who hold the entire town in the vice like grip of their tenuous stand off and the drifter later learns from the local innkeeper that on one side of the street lives the Baxter family, led by town Sheriff John Baxter and his son, but actually ran by his take no shit wife. On the other side of town exists the Rojo brothers, made up of the egotistical Esteban, the talkative Miguel and the cold blooded Ramón, who is a surgeon with a rifle and the Stranger realises that there could be quite the chunk of change in it for him if he can successfully play these two families off against each other.
He starts by out-shooting the four men I mentioned earlier who gave him shit which immediately puts the Baxters at a disadvantage and then goes and gets himself hired by the Rojos to further weaken the Sheriff and his family. From there, “Joe” starts to leak intel back and forth, revealing Ramón’s recent, murderous theft of a chest of gold after the massacre of a detachment of soldiers and spreading dissent between the two unsuspecting groups.
However, “Joe’s” untuned heart strings get a good plucking when he hears of the plight of Marisol, a married mother who has gotten herself caught up in this feud thanks to the fact that Ramón lusts after her and claimed her after rigging a card game. Altering his plan to return this woman to her husband and constantly wailing son could prove disastrous, but “Joe” desides to lay it all on the line to randomly integrate doing the right thing in with his epically complex con job – but if it all goes wrong, Ramón’s rage could bring everything everyone’s worked so hard for to its knees in a single night…
An unchallenged game changer for the Western, A Fistful Of Dollars sees Eastwood, Leone and Morricone at the height of their powers as all three roll their sleeves up and give birth to a six-shooting extravaganza that changed the game from the colourful, openly honorable type of oaters that the likes of John Wayne was putting out at the time. Due to a low budget (Eastwood reportedly put together his character’s look for himself), Dollars has a far more edgy feel than the black and white morals of movies past and you can see that Clint – fresh from playing a notorious white hat on TV’s Rawhide – was particularly relishing playing someone who utilised wit and guile over simply winning because he’s the good guy. Aligned with Leone’s operatic shooting style, “Joe’s” lithe dodging of the rules leads to some of the most satisfyingly cool moments of cinema in general – just drink in the simple majesty of “Joe” luring four bullies into a shootout they’ve already lost by first patronising them about scaring his mule and then switching into full bastard mode after allowing the thugs get too cocky – in fact, the “I don’t think it’s nice you laughing” speech may be just as iconic a character beat for the actor as his soliloquy about the 44 Magnum in Dirty Harry and it even has a beautifully glib punchline as “Joe” nonchalantly utters “My mistake, make that four coffins.” to the undertaker as he saunters back.
As with any other Sergio Leone western, the cast he builds around his charisma exuding lead all look worryingly like the real deal, all lined and ravaged by a harsh life in the sun around the Mexican border and the even harsher dubbing gives everything a sense of stylized reality much in the same way the early Bond movies created a world that could believably contain such a devious, yet honest ass hat. In fact, Leone’s West is so well crafted that, by the end of the film, when The Stranger has gone from shifty opportunist to full fledged avenging angel, it feels completely organic and not like some left-field cop out other, lesser movies tend to fumble with. In fact, The Man With No name may in fact be ine of the greatest anti-hero movies ever made as Eastwood’s ponchoed avatar employs quite a bit of “bad guy” tactics to make it though to the end credits be it goading men into gun fights so he can slip away for his next bout of skullduggery or even going so far as wearing freaking body armour to a climactic duel in order to make the villain (Gian Maria Volonté’s nicely volatile Ramón) use up his ammo.
Even from the Saul Bass style silhouettes that compliment Ennio Morricone’s off beat, yet utterly enrapturing theme, you can still tell that A Fistful Of Dollars was a fizzing stick of youthful change hurled like dynamite into a genre that, at that time, was starting to grow stale and the resulting explosion of Leone’s more European sensibilities rejuvenated the entire game with each thundering gun shot and every measured utterance.
Of course, this was only the beginning, with two, equally seismic instances of spaghetti western-ing following with For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly which Leone managed to wrap up and whip out and only a couple of years – I guess you could say that in his own way, the director is as quick on the draw as his lightning handed creation – but while the subsequent films explored how to present this fully formed character in new and interesting ways (either a vastly over qualified sidekick or a smaller cog in larger machine), it’s the original movie that presents the western’s greatest figure in his purest appearance – and that’s a fistful of dollars you can take to the bank….