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A Fistful of Dollars (1964)



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The second adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest, the first being Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, this film was the first teaming of budding star Clint Eastwood and "spaghetti-western" director Sergio Leone. It's first of a trilogy about "The Man With No Name," which is a misnomer; he has a name, though it changes in each of the three films and his name in the third feels more like a nickname applied by a man who doesn't know the real name.

Some critics downplayed the film at the time of its release, first applying the term "spaghetti-western" in a derogatory sense, but ultimately it came to be realized as a groundbreaking entry in the western genre. Unlike those that came before it, this western wasn't about a virtuous hero in idealized times but a man of dubious character, good only in the sense that he's not as bad as the guys around him, in a gritty, grimy, violent world. It played a part in introducing realism into screen depictions of violence, setting the stage for Sam Peckinpah's revolutionary The Wild Bunch.

A Fistful of Dollars isn't as overwhelmingly violent as that, but Eastwood's character (Joe, in this episode) sure goes through the ringer. As the story goes, he happens upon a town dominated by two warring crime families and sets about playing them off each other. In Yojimbo the hero is a wandering samurai and does this to rid the town of bad men; here, the motives of the hero are less clear but more opportunistic than humanitarian. When he is moved to assist others, one senses that self-sacrifice is improvised, not part of the original plan.

The film looks beautiful, in spite of the fact that it's anything but clean. I can't imagine anyone wanting to live in this town unless they don't know there are better places elsewhere. But the cinematography, southwestern architecture, and Ennio Morricone's groundbreaking and now legendary musical score create an atmosphere you can practically taste and smell. I enjoy movies that have a strong sense of place to them, and this is certainly one.

The later episodes in this series would take on an increasingly epic feel to them. Most prefer the third, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but it's a tough call for me: there is an elegance to the way this smaller, tighter story still feels large.

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