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A Fistful of Dollars

(Sergio Leone, Italy/Spain/West Germany, 1964): “There’s money to be made in a place like this.” So speaks the stranger (Clint Eastwood) of the desert shithole he’s just ridden into on the back of a mule. The town, pretty much two rows of bleached buildings facing a fountain in the middle of a dirt avenue, is home to two equally brutal and corrupt families — the Baxters and Rojos — who hold the cowed citizenry in mute terror. Our man has arrived without a name or a past, but his purpose is clear: he’s going to mess with both sides and make a killing in the middle.

The plot was lifted so baldly from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo that the Japanese director sued successfully for plagiarism, notwithstanding the fact that Kurosawa himself had pinched the basic storyline of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and dropped it into 19th century Japan. There was money to be made. And profit, in the form of cynical opportunism of both the industrial and existential variety, would prove an essential motivating element in the Italian-made western boom this modestly-budgeted and stylishly mounted black joke of a cowboy movie would kick into high gear. The prevailing priorities of the countless strangers who would subsequently ride in would be cash and revenge, and the industry that produced them would exploit the most deeply American of genres as a frontier of its own to be conquered, pillaged and re-purposed for profit. The ‘heroes’ would be overwhelmingly represented by bounty hunters and vengeance seekers, rugged individualism reduced to Darwinian survivalism, and the idea of future implied by the American west mocked by the pervasive aura of scorched earth post-apocalyptic ruin. There had been Italian-made westerns before Fistful — Leone’s father Vincenzo had directed one called La vampire indiana as far back as 1913 — but none would be made after this that didn’t somehow bear the plundered traces of Leone’s act of inspired pop cultural cherry picking. There was money to be made in this town.

His crew was Italian and Spanish, due to the fact Spain was not only the closed thing visually and geographically to the American southwest, but because the countries had already forged a relationship of mutual convenience during the heyday of the sword-and-sandal peplum cycle, when Spain looked more like ancient Rome than Rome did. Leone himself had learned the skills of the trade making these pre-spaghetti knockoffs of Hollywood Biblical costume spectacles, but that cycle was spent, and the ever-opportunistic Italian film industry was now on the commercial ropes and seeking a new form of internationally playable pop genre to exploit. Some production companies had already turned to westerns as a possible way back to the black — it had worked conspicuously well in Germany — and one of them gave Leone a green light when he showed them the script for a low-budget movie about a cynical opportunist who pits two badass family dynasties against each other in a small town. It probably looked cheap and easily produced, and it’s doubtful any of the key businesspeople had seen Yojimbo. ‘The Magnificent Stranger’, as originally titled, looked like a pretty safe gamble.

He found in setting in Almeria in Spain. There was the convenience of using a few sets left over from the briefly bankable cycle of Spanish-made Zorro movies from a few years before, and there was the equally compelling fact that the desert expanses, if carefully shot, could seem to stretch for miles without the visual intrusion of the present day. The lack of almost any foliage was an issue, but when pressed for the need of a tree — like the one the stranger passes when entering the town, a witchy leafless thing with an empty noose for its only fruit — one could simply uproot from somewhere and make off with it.

In keeping with the Italian tradition of using low-heat American stars as leads to attract international distribution — and of changing the names of European actors to more reassuringly American-sounding handles like Bud, Terence, Richard and John — Leone shopped his script around his favourite American movie stars. He knew Henry Fonda was a long shot, but sent it to the actor’s agent anyway. Fonda would later work with Leone, as would two other other names who initially turned him down: James Coburn and Charles Bronson. (The latter of whom called the script “just about the worst I’d ever seen.” At this, considering Bronson’s vast resume of dubious endeavours, the mind boggles.) When Claudia Satori, an employee in the Rome office of the William Morris agency, contacted Leone’s production company to suggest they look at an actor in an American TV series called Rawhide, the director reluctantly agreed. It was episode 91 of the American cowboy show that had already run for six seasons — as much as Leone’s stylistic interventions would drain the classical Hollywood western of its influence, TV was an even more voracious plunderer: the American prime time lineup of the late fifties and early sixties was lousy with cowboys — and the actor Leone was supposed to check out was a lanky young hunk who played a cattle herd ramrod named Rowdy Yates. In episode 91 of Rawhide, Rowdy learns to confront and get over his hatred of sheep and the men who herd them. It was a typically family-friendly lesson in tolerance, and Leone hated it. As for the actor, this Clint Eastwood, Leone was reportedly baffled. As reported in Christopher Frayling’s biography of Leone called Something to Do With Death, the lights went up after the credits and the director turned around to face his producers:”This man, with a vacant look on his face, in an unwatchable film about cows?”

But Eastwood was cheap and available, he looked great on camera, and if you squinted (like he did) and just watched him walk you could almost mistake him for Fonda. He vibed as cool as a snake under a rock, could say more with simple shift of a cheroot from one side of his mouth to the other than some of the other cast could with pages of dialogue, and was for the most part an undeniably charismatic striking compositional element — no matter how close or far the camera was to him, Eastwood yielded maximum optical attraction. He fit the emergent design of the film as snugly as his black shrink-to-fit 501’s fit him. And maybe he could act, but as long as he looked that great it didn’t even matter. The star was like the plot: the content mattered not nearly so much as the form. Style and attitude were what this movie was really going to be about, the western re-imagined simply as the exaggerated sum of its most striking elementary parts. It was about its own style, morbidly fascinated with its own image, a game of dressup cowboy played in front of a mirror and drawing on itself.

Apart from its emphasis on making a killing in a world already strip-mined of hope, the plot didn’t really matter much anyway. The great leap forward here was style and its attendant carrier, attitude. Taking the non-negotiable circumstances of budget, location, genre and multi-national marketability as given, Leone’s inspiration was to bend and stretch the minimalist elements to near cartoon extremes: the 2:35:1 aspect ratio would be used to emphasize emptiness instead of sweep, the post-dubbed sound — necessary for the global market — would be as abstract and strange as a John Cage performance, the music (by Leone’s former schoolmate and Cage devotee Ennio Morricone) a sparse cacophony of whistles, chants, guitars, horns and whipcracks, and the casting, drawn from three countries and too poor for stars, a matter of pure visual attraction. The dynamic contrast of extreme closeups and sparsely composed long shots would make faces the most fertile landscape in Leone’s films, and the protracted suspension of time — especially as action marched toward the generic rituals of showdowns and vengeance taking — would build on the almost classic Soviet montage principles of selected images in dynamic collision: eyes shifting, hands hovering over holsters, sweat popping on brows, mute witnesses looking on like silent choruses.

Compelled to work with the cheapest materials available, Leone made the most of his plastic, in the process pushing the western to a state of terminal endpoint from which it would ultimately never recover: even more than the cycle of so-called ‘revisionist’ American westerns that wept so loudly over historical crimes (past and present) throughout the sixties and seventies, the genre soon to be called spaghetti western drove the form into its own desert grave. With hope of future and empire lost to the west, it became an arena for the endlessly reconfigured, ritual reiteration of oblivion, albeit in the most captivatingly stylized and fetchingly fetishized manner possible. It was the was stripped clean of everything but attitude and gesture, scorched to its essential and left to blow in the wind.

The western itself was ripe for killing by the time Leone got around to making one more or less purely because he needed the work and money, and he calculated that only way the west might win when confronted by the upheavals of postwar reckoning would be by confessing to its own mythical bankruptcy and committing the most spectacular form of suicide possible. As begun by Sergio Leone, the western would enter into a phase of protracted self-annihilation that might just have always been its ultimate destination. It was always a lie, a set of iconographic accessories used a kind of costume dressup for history and reality, and all Leone — although hardly alone in the effort — really did was call it out as pure theatre and spectacle, a denial of reality as opposed to its ideal expression, “Something,” as he has a character say in Once Upon a Time in the West, “to do with death.” (MGM)