#548: A Fistful of Dollars
Sergio Leone demonstrated the similarities between the Western and jidai-geki — and got sued for it
Initial release: September 12, 1964
Director: Sergio Leone
Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo is an all-time classic of samurai cinema, with its sassy rōnin hero and deceptively complex plot. It would go on to influence similar characters across media over the next several decades, but the biggest and most obvious inspiration it’s had is on Sergio Leone’s 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars. So much so that Akira Kurosawa filed a lawsuit.
Let’s talk about the movie first. A Fistful of Dollars isn’t the first European Western — European-made cowboy flicks had been produced since the silent era. It’s arguably not even the first “Spaghetti Western” — though the animated film West and Soda was released after Leone’s film, it began production earlier; and anyway, there were three Spanish/Italian productions in 1963, including Gunfight at Red Sands which — depending on who you ask — might be the first “Spaghetti Western” ever made. So where does Fistful fit into the Spaghetti canon? Easy — it’s the one that put the genre on the map. From 1964 on, there was an explosion of Italian-made Westerns over the next decade, and it was A Fistful of Dollars that made it happen. Django, Sartana, Trinity — all bow at the feet of The Man With No Name.
If you’ve seen Yojimbo, you know how Fistful plays out. A lone wandering gunslinger, with a poncho and a hat with a couple holes in it, comes across a cute little border town. Unfortunately things aren’t going so great, as the town is currently the site of an ongoing war between two rival families, one smuggling booze, the other smuggling guns. Spotting an opportunity to make some money, our hero — referred to as Joe in this film, though he never uses the name for himself — decides to take it upon himself to solve the town’s problem. Unfortunately it’s the kind of problem that can’t really be solved without a lot of people dying, so “Joe” joins up with the booze smugglers. Using subterfuge he plays the two gangs against each other, ultimately resulting in their near-complete mutual destruction, with “Joe” mopping up the survivors. Many plot elements — such as the hero rescuing someone’s kidnapped wife and framing the other side for it — are lifted wholesale from Yojimbo. It’s a simple plot without much in the way of characterization, but it doesn’t really need it, does it? We know this kind of story. Even leaving aside the double-crossing stuff, we’ve got a hero, some villains, there’s showdowns, lots of shooting, innocent civilians caught in the middle, it all makes for a nice delicious soup.
Clint Eastwood, in his first leading role, is clearly having a ball with this movie. He’s just as sassy as Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro in Kurosawa’s film, with a smirk or a wry joke every other minute. Even his methods of getting rid of his enemies speak to his sense of humor — beaten and tortured and left alone in a storeroom, he still manages to get a big barrel of booze lined up to smash into a couple of goons and make his escape. Though some of the other characters are interesting in their own right — Gian Maria Volonté as Ramón Rojo is somewhat memorable as the film’s ultimate villain, though he’s significantly more restrained than in his role as Indio in For A Few Dollars More — it’s Eastwood who is the main driver of the film.
Obviously we can’t talk about A Fistful of Dollars without talking about the lawsuit. As you’ve probably figured out, Fistful is basically an unauthorized remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Kurosawa described it as “a fine movie, but it was my movie,” and he isn’t wrong. Production company Toho filed a lawsuit, and Leone eventually settled out of court. But on the other hand, Yojimbo draws influence from the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest, and Leone has explicitly cited an 18th century Italian play, Servant of Two Masters, as an influence. And while that may be true, too many of the plot beats are lifted wholesale from the Kurosawa film for it to be a meaningful defense. But what it really does — especially in light of stories being translated from east to west or vice versa, such as Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, or Unforgiven getting a Japanese remake — is illustrate how the Western and the jidai-geki just aren’t that different from each other.
Fistful is a great film, but it’s ultimately something of a prototypical one. Aside from the fact that its plot is lifted wholesale from Yojimbo, it’s not the cleanest or cleverest film. Sergio Leone was still figuring out his style for this film; it was only his third directorial credit, after the peplum films The Last Days of Pompeii and The Colossus of Rhodes, and there’s a somewhat halting, conservative feel to the film that isn’t there in For A Few Dollars More. You can see the basics of what Leone would be famous for, using close-ups and long shots, but at times the photography still feels a tad workmanlike. Even Ennio Morricone’s score feels a bit out of place, being partially composed prior to the film’s production, as opposed to later Leone films in which scenes were often timed according to the score (which is what made it so effective, and has set the standard for how music can dictate what happens on screen.)
Ultimately I think Fistful works better as a landmark, a signpost directing you to better Italo-Westerns, by Leone or otherwise. But it’s a great place to stop for a minute, and look around, and see the potential it represented.