(Trailer.) Per un pugno di dollari—better known to the less linguistically inclined as A Fistful of Dollars—is the second credited directorial credit of the then 34-year-old Sergio Leone, a man who became known as the Godfather of Spaghetti Westerns. His first solo credit was the mildly entertaining "sandal film" Il colosso di Rodi / The Colossus of Rhodes (trailer) staring Rory Calhoun, a 1961 film which was described by one IMDB commenter as a film "rife with scantily clad men whose rippling muscles and impeccable abs are fully exposed while they wrestle with each other or undergo whippings, torture, and bondage."
Whatever The Colossus of Rhodes may be, it is hardly a genre highlight and gives little indication what Leone would achieve a few years later with this western—namely, launch the lasting and noteworthy careers of a formerly relatively unknown composer (Ennio Morricone), a second-tier television actor (Clint Eastwood) and an unknown movie director (himself) as well as reinvigorate (if not set the standard for) the modern Western. Not that everyone was of that opinion when the film came out. Time magazine, for example, forever in touch with the heartbeat of America, dismissed the film with the following: "Like the villains, the picture was shot in Spain. Pity it wasn't buried there."
A Fistful of Dollars is often credited as the first Spaghetti Western, but for all the things the film is, that it is not. Untold Westerns had been being made in Italy (or as Italian productions and/or co-productions) for years, but most had followed the tried and true formulas of the classic American Western. Some, like Harold Reinl’s Karl May adaptations such as Der Schatz im Silbersee / Treasure of Silver Lake (1961/trailer) or Winnetou Teil 1 / Apache Gold (1963), were more child-friendly and traditional, while others, such as Sergio Corbucci's Massacro al Grande Canyon / Massacre at Grand Canyon (1964) were more stylistically searching, but none of them were something to write home about. With A Fistful of Dollars, however, the European Spaghetti Western finally rediscovered the genre and made something new—not that this is obvious now, some 40-plus years later, when every innovative aspect introduced in A Fistful of Dollars (and so many other equally noteworthy Euro-Westerns that followed) has long since been re-appropriated back into the American Western.
(A small aside about the term "Spaghetti Western": while universally acknowledged and recognized, most Italian Westerns were actually international productions that pulled in talent and money from around Europe and, often, tossed in an American “star” or two for the US audience. They were as likely to be filmed in Yugoslavia as Spain or Italy, with a director from any given Western European land. For all the Italians involved in A Fistful of Dollars, for example, the cast also included Germans (Marianne Koch as Marisol, Wolfgang Lukschy as John Baxter), Austrians (Sieghardt Rupp as Esteban Rojo and Joseph Egger as Piripero) and Spaniards (José Calvo as Silvanito and Margarita Lozano as Consuelo Baxter). Furthermore, the film was a coproduction of Constatin-Film, a German production firm that is still highly (and internationally) active today. In that sense, Euro-western would probably be a more exact description, although it sorely lacks the unforgettable punch of the originally derogatory term "Spaghetti Western". Be what it may, with A Fistful of Dollars, the "Spaghetti Western" finally took on the shape and form for which the genre is known.)
The seed for A Fistful of Dollars first germinated at the 1961 Biennale in Venice where Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo (trailer) won the Volpi Cup. Yojimbo, an international critical success, told the story of a wandering samurai of questionable morality that comes into a town ruled by two equally evil rival clans and proceeds to play the clans against each other until only one man is left standing: Yojimbo. Seduced by the simplicity and effectiveness of the story, Leone simply transplanted the plot into a Western setting (for a film originally entitled Texas-Joe, il magnifico straniero), an action for which he was later taken to court for plagiarism. (The settlement saw the makers of the Japanese film getting both credit and residuals from the western—rumor has it that in the long run they have actually earned more from A Fistful of Dollars than Yojimbo. Indeed, do you anyone who has ever seen Yojimbo?)
It is almost ironic that Leone got problems for plagiarizing the story, seeing that the Japanese film itself lifts its plot completely from Red Harvest, one of Dashiell Hammett's early and most violently uncompromising (and unjustly overlooked) novels, a tale about a "Continental Operative" who arrives in a small mining town ruled by rival gangs and then proceeds to set the one against the other (and who, at one point in the story, no longer knows for sure whether or not he might also have possible committed murder).
And the story of A Fistful of Dollars really isn’t all that different. Shortly after the American Civil War, an unnamed stranger (Clint Eastwood) arrives at the border town of San Miquel, a town ruled by two feuding clans, the Roccos and the Baxters, where only the undertaker seems to earn an honest living. (Called "Joe" by the undertaker Piripero, the unnamed stranger never does offer anyone his real name, and thus the legendary character of "The Man with No Name" is born.) His nebulous character is quickly established in an opening scene during which he does nothing when a drunken gunman takes potshots at a child—a scene (one of many) far removed from any seen in the romanticized US Westerns. Following an unwelcoming reception from some of the Baxter's men, he learns the situation of the terrorized and torn town from Silvantino (José Calvo), the owner of the town’s deserted saloon. "Joe" quickly realizes that with the Baxters over there, the Rojos there, and him "right smack in the middle […] there's money to be made in these parts." Establishing his credentials, so to say, by putting the four men who gave him the unfriendly welcome under the ground, Joe begins to cleverly play the warring and equally evil factions against each other as he fills his pocket with blood money. That he himself is not a man totally lacking in positive aspects he reveals at the turning point of the film when he helps Marisol escape from the imprisonment of the Roccos and returns her to her husband and son so they can flee together across the border. His duplicity discovered by Ramone Rocco (Gian Maria Volontè), he is beaten almost to death but manages, with the help of the undertaker, to escape town even as the Roccos, who assume he has taken sanctuary with the rival family, obliterate the Baxters. Recuperating in a nearby deserted mine, he finally confronts the Roccos for a last showdown when they capture and torture Sivantino...
A Fistful of Dollars is the first but not necessarily best of what was to become known as Leone's Dollars Trilogy, the series of three films he made with Clint Eastwood which includes the later films Per qualche dollaro in più / For A Few Dollars More (1965/trailer) and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo / The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966/trailer). But even if A Fistful of Dollars is not the best of Leone’s Westerns, it is nonetheless a masterpiece of the genre and as such essential viewing for (not just) Western fans. Leone takes full advantage of all the possibilities offered widescreen both in long shots and close-ups, and as a result the film (like all his films) is sorely emasculated by the pan and scan transfer used to make films fit the traditional television screen. His staging and blocking of scenes may be common now, but in 1964 they were both radical and iconoclastic, as was his for the time relative lack of qualms regarding violent situations and blood (much of which is cut from the prints that sometime turn up on television). In 1975, when the film was first screened on US television, ABC pulled in cult director Monte Hellman to shoot an uncredited and pointless prologue to establish some background to the Clint Eastwood character, but the prologue is totally irrelevant and unnecessary, and had it not been directed by Monte Hellman it would probably be forgotten today.
Without a doubt, A Fistful of Dollars should be watched in the form in which it was originally made; anything else is a visual crime.... but even in a criminal version, the film still packs a punch and beats any US Western of the time.