Written by: Adriano Bolzoni, Mark Lowell, Víctor Andrés Catena, Sergio Leone
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Josef Egger, Wolfgang Lukschy, John Wells
Some stories have a level of staggering quality that others just have to try and remake them, which can be said for many of Kurosawa’s films. He emanates greatness in almost everything he made with Yojimbo being the direct influence for A Fistful of Dollars. Exchanging the samurai world for a western, this feature translates the story well and strongly differentiates itself as its own beast.
Arriving at a town situated on the Mexico-United States border is a man with no name (Clint Eastwood) where he notices the town run by two warring sides. He decides it would be a good idea to work both sides in order to make a profit out of the rivalry, which makes things complicated when actions and threats turn into violence.
Even with this being an unofficial remake of one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, the influence cannot be denied seeing as it follows one nameless man and a very similar plot. Instead in this one, it does not have the screen presence of Toshio Mifune, a feat Clint Eastwood could never dream of reaching. It takes an idea born from Japan and gets installed into the Spaghetti Western genre to make a film with enough to stand on its own due to the film’s setting providing a fresh perspective.
In these small towns of this era, the rule of law does not necessarily mean much as shown in the events taking place in San Miguel. When you have the man with no name gunning down four men in the middle of the day and in front of everyone, you just know things can pop off at any moment, which proves to be true. Violence can occur at any moment and any sort of established truce can be broken and make the relations worse. The two warring sides get represented by the Rojo brothers and town sheriff John Baxter. Law enforcement is certainly present but does not have nearly the amount of force in order to intimidate the Rojos. The tension boiling in this town makes it optimal for the man with no name to take advantage and he does by playing at their hatred the two sides have.
After a while, it simply becomes comedic to watch him work both sides and prove his value by screwing over one faction only to repair the trust to take more of their money. It becomes a long con similar to the old television trope of taking two dates to the prom hoping they will not find out the lead is two-timing them. Instead, the end result will not be broken hearts but rather bullets flying, which makes this film so entertaining to watch. It certainly helps Clint Eastwood portrays this character after an arduous casting process to find the leading man for the role. He has enough of a gruff exterior to sell the toughness required for this role while also having a duplicitous trait to make things work in his favor.
The environmental factors of this town play a major part as to where the desperate nature of these characters come from. Not everything comes easily to everyone here which is just asking for someone to try and take over the situation by force. Add in the lack of real law enforcement and you have yourself an all-out brawl for the control of the situation. Cavalier behavior almost gets encouraged at times and while the protagonist does not demonstrate a by-product of it overall, he also does not represent a straightforward hero. The man with no name could have easily been a character in the 40s and 50s westerns where he would walk in and help law enforcement clean up the streets. Instead, he decides to work for his own self-interests, which does not play into the nobility factor many heroes in this genre shined in portraying. The only tangible reason to root for him comes from seeing how the two warring sides act. If anything the true heroes are the town’s innkeeper Silvanto (Jose Calvo) and the trusty coffin maker, Piripero (Joe Edgar) but even he can admit business boomed with all of the deaths.
A Fistful of Dollars serves as Sergio Leone’s first big hit and kickstarted the Dollars trilogy and while this particular feature sits as the weakest of them all, he does great work here. His inspirations remain very clear but he begins to develop his own specific directorial style in the way he creates his own variation of the western genre. An extremely respectable job here in how he captures the surrounding area and maintains a sense of danger for the man with no name even with the audience knowing there’s no way he will die.
An overall great start to a trilogy of films that will only get better as they go along. It works as a piece of broad entertainment while also showing the dangers of pride between these two sides. Someone with enough skill and duplicity can easily join in on the fun and wreak havoc on their own just as the man with no name does in this feature. The beginning of something new and a welcomed addition to its particular genre.