Bottom Line: A heavily influential, landmark “spaghetti Western”.
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Starring: Antonio Prieto, Carol Brown, Clint Eastwood, Joe Edger, Johnny Wels, Jose Calvo, Marianne Koch, Richard Stuyvesant, S. Rupp, W. Lukschy
Despite having been long since established as its own, official genre, the Western genre always strikes me as something with more distinct, specific qualities than a drama or a thriller. Like superhero and spy films, the genre typically keeps itself within the same constraints, as far as themes, settings, and characters. Per un pugno di dollari, known in the US as A Fistful of Dollars, is perhaps the very most important Italian film of the 1960s. It’s difficult to compare it to any other similar film, but there are several non-Westerns that created a similar legacy. Take America’s late-’70s horror film Halloween, for instance. That film single-handledly invented the “slasher” genre, made a star out of actress Jamie Lee Curtis, and had filmmakers charging frenetically to clone it. Similarly, Per un pugno di dolllari was the one film to devise the “spaghetti Western”, made Clint Eastwood a widely recognizable name, and had practically every filmmaker in Italy rushing to make a film just as laudable.
Per un pugno, though played out at a slow pace, is an intriguing tale to watch. We are immersed into the story so easily, alongside fine direction from Sergio Leone and a superb performance by Clint Eastwood, there isn’t much time to actually think about how much of a Western archetype the thematic outline is. Although an unofficial remake of Japanese actioner Yojimbo, released three years earlier, much of the film was written in the mode of a stereotypical Western. Especially since the leading protagonist is widely considered one of the greatest characters ever brought to the silver screen, this layout isn’t particularly a bad quality. The film opens with a stranger (Clint Eastwood) arriving into a petite Mexican border town called San Miguel. The man’s name is said to be Joe, but this is rarely mentioned in the film, and he uses a different name in each of the two sequels; by film aficionados, he has been dubbed the “Man with No Name”. The town has been torn apart by greed, revenge, and pride. During the time of the stranger’s arrival, all of this has led into an apparent war between two families, the Rojos and the Baxters. Most would flee such a wretched town almost immediately, but being the fearless gunfighter that he is, the foreigner stays. Using his proficiently cunning skill, he deviously plays the two groups against each other, in a violent plot to earn…a fistful of dollars.
The ongoing praise that has been aimed at Per un pugno is almost entirely agreeable. The picture is nearly half a century in age, but it still holds up as one of the most intriguing escapades ever produced; it’s a close second to Die Hard on my fictional mental list, “The Greatest (Albeit Slightly Illogical) Escapist Films Ever Conceived”. Those who could overlook the illogical factors of that late ’80s flick, however, aren’t terribly likely to notice those hidden in this 1964 film. There is a factor, unfortunately, that makes a noticeable impact upon Per un pugno. Producers Arrigo Colombo and Giorgio Papi budgeted the film at a low $200,000 (less than $1.5 million, when adjusted for inflation), and it shows from the very beginning. The opening title sequence, designed by Iginio Lardani, would have worked well, had it not been a poorly sketched cartoon with hokey sound effects and lettering. The cinematography, though usually acceptable, also fails when attempting to abruptly change from a landscape shot to a close up; the zoom effect is a bit cheesy. On the other hand, there is one magnificently honorable success in the film’s technical realm. Overlooked Italian composer Ennio Morricone, credited under the pseudonym “Dan Savio”, composed an unforgettable score for the film–the kind of score such films would fail without. After it had been suggested by the director, Morricone fabricated the film’s two key, innovative themes in the likeness of Tiomkin’s compositions for Un dollaro d’onore (English title: Rio Bravo) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, two late-’50s Westerns. It’s the one technical element that progresses throughout the film as a background supporter, builds up suspense when necessary, and leads up to an unexpected conclusion.
With such stylish, well-acted, engaging, and exciting adventure, it’s no wonder Per un pugno di dollari is venerated as one of the greatest films ever made. Again, much of the technical work does fall under the burden of the production’s low budget; but if there has ever been a Western more prosperously innovative to the genre’s stereotypes, some of which tend to act rather subliminally, I’d be genuinely impressed. In several ways, this dynamic production of celluloid is grandly influential; its legacy, at this point, is worth significantly more than a fistful of dollars.
Postscript: The film was originally filmed in the Italian language. This review regards the English dubbing, which surprisingly is no problem whatsoever. I would go as far to say that several of the characters’ mouths appear to move with the English language track, which is quite unusual.