55 Years Ago: ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ Creates the Spaghetti Western

With 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, Italian screenwriter and director Sergio Leone brought an entirely new sensibility to the Western, incorporating ideas from other genres within the framework of a tale set in the Old West. In doing so, he not only created a new type of film, the Spaghetti Western, but also launched the film career of its star, Clint Eastwood.

Leone wanted to make a Western because he thought there was a market for them in Europe that wasn’t being satisfied by the films Hollywood was putting out. So he wrote a script, copying the plot of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film Yojimbo, without asking for the rights, and found locations in Spain to shoot.

But he also thought that having an American actor in the lead role might make his movie a hit, so he went after everyone from Henry Fonda to Charles Bronson to James Coburn to Ty Hardin. All of them were either too expensive or not interested. Finally, Leone turned to Eastwood, then the star of a Western TV series, Rawhide, that had peaked in popularity several years before and was beginning to sink in the ratings.

Eastwood, who’d had a few small film credits but unproven as a movie star, agreed to take on the role. He flew to Spain, bringing with him the prop gun he’d used on Rawhide and a box of the cigars that would become his trademark, which he bought on Hollywood Boulevard. Leone stuck him in a serape, and one of the great characters of 20th century cinema was born: The Man With No Name.

The film opens with him riding into the town of San Miguel, purportedly in Mexico. There are some Mexican soldiers wandering around, and at one point someone tries to trade a shipment of gold to some American soldiers, but we’re not in any specific place at all – just in “The West.” As in Leone’s subsequent Westerns, geography and time period are only loosely defined concepts – think, for example, of the masterpiece that ends the trilogy of films Leone and Eastwood made, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), in which the Civil War apparently takes place in Arizona.

San Miguel is under the thrall of two warring families: the Rojos and the Baxters. The Man With No Name comes up with the idea of hiring himself out as a gunslinger, first to one family and then the other, charging them increasingly high fees until he has all of their money. It seems like a great plan and he pulls it off with brio, engaging in some fancy gunplay and many delightful chicaneries, including things like posing the bodies of dead soldiers in a graveyard and pretending they’re only drunk, and hanging a piece of pig iron under his serape so bullets bounce off his chest.

At the end, though, the Man With No Name pushes things too far. The Rojos are driven into a mad bloodlust and set the Baxters’ compound on fire. When the Baxters attempt to surrender, the Rojos murder them all, including the women. It’s a shift into a much more apocalyptic register, and one that anticipates the feel of some of Eastwood’s own later directorial work, notably High Plains Drifter (1973). It also sets the stage for the film’s final epic shootout, in which the Man With No Name must take on the Rojos.

All of this combines to create a unique tone – combining humor, ferocity and operatic grandiosity – that’s maybe the most wonderful element of the movie.

Eastwood is not, as he would become in some later Westerns (including several great ones he directed) a dour or self-serious character. He has a dry sense of humor, which the film plays to the hilt. On his arrival in town, for example, The Man With No Name has to establish himself as worth hiring, so he decides to kill some of the Baxters’ men who’ve been harassing him. He saunters down the street between the Rojos’ and Baxters’ fortress, pausing to tell a coffin-maker – in a direct lift from Yojimbo – to “Get three coffins ready.”

He continues on to the end of the street, where he’s braced by not three but four Baxter boys. He whips out his gun and mows them down, then saunters back up the street, pausing to tell the coffin-maker: “My mistake. Four coffins.”

This self-awareness is complemented by an almost reverential love of the trademarks of the Western – the quick-draws and galloping horses, the Gatling guns and whisky bottles and fallen women – to give the film a pulpy, mythic aura, which is also heightened by Leone’s considerable skills as a director. His famous use of close-ups to build tension is as immediately recognizable as any director’s quirk in cinema, but he also frames shot after shot impeccably, and has a wonderful ability to create idiosyncratic, often dialogue-free sequences that illuminate plot and character.

Finally, there’s the score by Ennio Morricone, one of the giants of the field, filled with his usual sounds of people chanting and whistling, along with short woodwind action cues and a soaring trumpet-driven theme for the finale.

It’s an intoxicating brew. But is it a Western?

On the one hand, it’s filled with men in hats riding around on horses and shooting at each other with 19th century firearms. And if you try to suggest in moviegoing company that it’s not a Western, you’ll be rightfully laughed out of the room.

But A Fistful of Dollars mostly eschews any connections to an American mythos. There’s no clash between civilization and the wilderness — the bedrock on which many American Westerns are built — no debates about the merits of progress on the frontier, no Native Americans to be fought with, no underlying ennui about the value of the violence the gunslinger wields.

Instead, more often than not, the film aligns itself with concerns usually seen in other genres.

In many ways the plot feels more like a crime or heist film than a traditional Western. And the idea of the lone man who’s both after the loot and concerned with some sort of honor – there’s a little boy to be saved here, the son of the fallen woman – is a staple of the samurai genre. Indeed, when Kurosawa saw how closely A Fistful of Dollars imitated Yojimbo, he filed an ultimately successful lawsuit, which is why the film wasn’t released in American theaters until 1967, three years after its Italian release.

And the film’s vision of class and social breakdown – a town mostly abandoned by its peasants, ruled by violent warlords – clearly arises at least in part from the experiences of an Italy still impacted by the annihilation of the Second World War. In this way, it feels closer to the burned-out post-war world often explored by “realist” Italian directors like Roberto Rossellini than it does to most Hollywood Westerns that preceded it.

Finally, the lush, expressionist filmmaking is deeply tied to the Italian giallo genre of crime, thriller and horror movies, in which plot runs second to impact, madness is always close to the surface, and the use of flamboyant techniques like close-ups for effect has a long and storied tradition.

Because A Fistful of Dollars, and the similar films that used an American genre to explore non-American narratives and concerns in a fake American setting that Leone and other European directors — mostly Italian – made in its wake, a new genre had to be coined. In recognition of Leone’s and the others’ heritage, they became known as Spaghetti Westerns.

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