The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

A Fistful of Dollars aka Per un pugno di dollari (UA, 1966)

Many of them were only made for a fistful of dollars

But Leone loved the Western

Since 2010 when this blog
started I have often referred to spaghetti westerns but because I am not a fan
I have not yet got round to reviewing many. I thought I ought to put that right
so as a start, over the next three days I’ll review the Dollars trilogy.

These films have their fans
and defenders, and this very likely won’t make enjoyable reading for them. I
advise them to stop here…

But true Western fans will,
I hope, read and enjoy.
Suitable 50s trash-art poster, rather good
Probably the most famous
‘spaghetti westerns’ are the ‘Dollars’ Trilogy, of which Per un pugno di dollari is the first. On the screen, the title says
Fistful of Dollars but it has usually
been referred to as A Fistful… or For a Fistful… Whatever.
There is a huge
amount to say about the genre and no space to do it here but the most famous
book on the subject is the dense film-crit tome Spaghetti Westerns:
Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone
Christopher Frayling. As a true Western fan, I do not watch spaghettis much. As
Frayling himself says, in some ways they are not Westerns at all, they are about Westerns. Another way of looking
at it is Alberto Moravia’s view that while Hollywood Westerns are based on
myth, spaghetti westerns are a myth of the myth.
He’s actually called Joe
Anyway, this one is a typical
example, in fact an archetype. The story was a very well-worked one. Dashiell
Hammett had done it in Red Harvest,
Kurosawa did it in Yojimbo and it was later to come full circle and be reworked as a gangster
movie (but a Western really) by Walter Hill in Last Man Standing. Leone even
argued that it was based on Goldoni’s A
Servant of Two Masters
. No fewer than seven people, including Leone, worked
on the writing – nine if you count the two Japanese credited with the Yojimbo

In most countries it was rated
as suitable only for adults when it came out because of the brutality, and the
beatings and murders are still quite shocking today. The violence is stylized
and in the showdowns the celebrants perform a ritual.

The credit titles at the
start are James Bondish (Bond films and their Italian rip-off copies were hugely
popular in Italy) and the idea was to produce Westerns (then declining
seriously in the US) which would appeal to 007 (or Italian 006) audiences.
They loved those wide-screen close-ups of squinty eyes
Many of the actors had
American names, perhaps because they thought it was cool, perhaps because they
thought it would be more commercially successful. For example, the main bad guy
is billed as John Wells, better known to us as Gian Maria Volontè.

Like all spaghetti westerns,
this one has the dialogue and sound dubbed-in afterwards (I have always
disliked dubbed films and in these everything is dubbed) and all the sounds are
overdone. Leone especially liked this.
Horses’ hooves and men’s boots were another obsession
It was made on a very low
budget (Clint was only in it because he was the cheapest Yankee star available,
at $15,000 all in; it was first offered to James Coburn, who was too expensive,
then Charles Bronson turned it down as the “worst script I have ever seen”).
It has the European gray/olive color of its Spanish settings rather than
the yellow/pink New Mexico deserts or rich Arizona reds or high Colorado greens
we had come to expect.

Characters and sets are
dirty and beat-up, which is quite good. There are the famous very close
close-ups of faces and, for some odd reason, men’s boots and horses’ hooves
(they had to have that).
Effective use of widescreen to emphasize the lone-ness
Ennio Morricone’s ‘music’
is unpleasantly jangly. Leone wanted a Rio Bravo-type deguello on the trumpet
and Morricone came up with some trumpet stuff. The soundtracks of these films
were also cheaply done and tended to avoid orchestral arrangements of original
scores because of the cost. Many people think that Morricone is a genius. They are, however, wrong.

The only really good bit is
when Joe invites the bad guys (or should I say worse guys) to apologize to his
‘John Wells’
The ‘hero’ is morally
neutral, just an impartial observer, in it for what he could get. He even
watches a child being mistreated without intervening in the first reel,
unthinkable in an American Western. At one point, a character says, when
looking down on a scene just before a massacre, “It’s just like playing cowboys
and Indians.”
It’s alright if you like comics but it is actually quite curious
how these movies became all the rage, especially in Italy but then all over the
world, even in America. Audiences seemed to revel in their very trashiness. Perhaps they smiled
with knowing, ironic amusement at the evident cheap rip-off nature of these
commercially churned out pictures. Or perhaps they really thought they were
good. Or art.

It is said that spaghetti
westerns brought new audiences to the six-gun movie – younger people and those
who had grown tired of the old, 1950s black & white B-Westerns they
remembered, and wanted to move on in the 1960s. These films were anyway new, brash,
noisy and in color. In any case, at the very least we had movie theaters full
of audiences watching Westerns again, no mean feat.

And in a process of
reverse-engineering, some aspects of the spaghetti fed back into mainstream
American Westerns in an interesting way.

A Fistful of Dollars was followed the year after by a sequel, For A Few Dollars More, which we’ll look
at tomorrow.

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