Wow. What else can I say? This is, simply put, a fantastic film. Is it the greatest film I've ever seen? No. It is also likely that age has somewhat diminished its impact, but there is no denying how utterly entertaining it is. I am sure I have seen it before, but I cannot quite put my finger on when; while I recognized parts of it, this is the first time I have truly seen it. I have now seen it a couple of times and each time reveals new information. It is a movie that keeps on giving.
Growing up I did not have much guidance in finding my hobbies. Everything I tried, abandoned, and tried again was found on my own. My family wanted me to find things that interested me, but without a lot of their influence it took me longer than most to find them. Movies are something that I came to really late, therefore I have missed a lot of time that could have been used to discover the classics and cultivate my taste. So, when I see movies like A Fistful of Dollars or Double Indemnity it is like having my eyes opened.
A Fistful of Dollars is the first collaboration between director Sergio Leone, star Clint Eastwood, and composer Ennio Morricone. To think that it almost did not happen. To read some of the production history you will find that there were many actors ahead of Eastwood, led by Henry Fonda, who had to pass before it came to him, not to mention those who did not feel the virtually unknown Morricone was right for the score. Now, it is hard to imagine anyone else filling the role. All three of these men have put their stamp on this film and, as time tells us, history.
This western, made in 1964 and released stateside in 1967, does not tell a terribly complex or original story, but it is told in a way that makes it timeless. The film mirrors Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo so closely that Leone was sued over it. A deal was eventually made which gave Kurosawa distribution rights in Japan where it was retitled The Return of Yojimbo.
Clint Eastwood plays the Man with No Name, aka Joe, a gun for hire whose morality seems to be dictated by whoever happens to be paying him. He comes to the small Mexican town of San Miguel and finds two rival crime families vying for control. Joe, as he is called by the undertaker, sets out to escalate tensions between the two while making himself a profit. Things take a turn when he decides to help a woman and her son escape. This leads to repercussions that escalate to a climactic shootout.
The movie has been called the first spaghetti western, despite the existence of a number of Italian-produced westerns at the time. It was the first to get a proper release in the US, which likely led to the thought of it being first. Leone's approach is very different from that of American westerns. Leone brought a gritty feel, a heightened realism, and a rather unique take to the distinctly American genre.
Extreme close-ups, unique framing, extreme violence (well, for the time), moments of humor, violence against women and children, moral ambiguity, and more make it a unique release. Sergio Leone takes the simple tale of a drifter taking on a pair of crime families and makes it something more, something involving, something special, and something that you can watch over and over again.
Besides Leone's inimitable style and Morricone's unique score, there is a third element that helps make this as good as it is. You know who I'm talking about. That's right, Clint Eastwood. Simply put, he is a classic bad ass. The combination of the trademark squint, short black cigars (not that I endorse smoking), the hat, and the way he carries himself speaks volumes. There may have been a long line of others ahead of him before he got the role, but there is no doubt that he makes it. Can you imagine anyone else bringing what he brought to the character? I think not.
Audio/Video. The movie is showing its age, although I cannot say that I am disappointed with how it looks. The is a noticeable grain throughout and the colors tend towards the pale side of the coin. On one hand I like the grain, it gives the movie texture and makes it look more like watching a film print. There is something about film that makes it tangible, it affects the impact of the film and a movie like this only benefits from it. As for the colors, sure, they tend towards the pale, but they are not bad by any stretch. I even saw some screen captures compared to the European Blu-ray and while those colors were a bit more full-bodied, I liked the detail in the US release. The close-ups on the faces have a bit more intensity, the detail is a bit more real, and the paler colors seem truer to the source.
Audio is also quite good. There is a sharp quality to it that makes it feel a bit harsh when compared to modern audio mixes, but it goes very well with the film presentation. The score stands out, almost becoming a character of its own. The highlighting some very good sound design, listen to the boots crunch down on the dirt, wind blow ominously, and revolver blasts that sound like powerful rifle shots. We get a decent DTS-HD 5.1 track which does a good job adding some directionality to elements like approaching horses. We also get the original mono English track, which I actually prefer.
Extras. It does not say anything on the box, but there is a veritable boatload of extras and this is just one part of the Man With No Name Trilogy set that this is a part of.
- Commentary by Christopher Frayling. Perhaps a touch to the dry side, this track has a lot of information to offer. Scene description and lots of background are provided. He sort of reminds me of Bey Logan and his martial arts commentaries.
- The Christopher Frayling Archives. Frayling has an incredible assemblage of promotional materials, posters, and other items to show.
- A New Kind of Hero. Made back in 2005, this takes a look at the film's production. It is like a condensed version of the commentary.
- A Few Weeks in Spain. Interviews with Eastwood as he talks about how he became involved in the film and his experiences during production
- Tre Voci. Three of Leone's friends – producer Alberto Grimaldi, screenwriter Sergio Donati, and actor Mickey Knox – talk about working with Leone and their part in making spaghetti westerns.
- Not Ready for Prime Time. When the movie arrived on TV, standards and practices needed a moral justification for the main character's moral ambiguity. This led to a prologue being shot to give our hero a little bit of a relatable background.
- The Network Prologue. Wow, this is bad. It changes the tone of the film, does not fit the look or feel, and clearly uses a body double.
- Location Comparison: Then to Now. This is pretty interesting, a comparison with archival stills and clips from the original location, Almeria, Spain.
- 10 Radio Spots.
- Double Bill Trailer. For A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More.
- Theatrical Trailer
Bottom line. I am now really looking forward to watching (rewatching? I don't know anymore) the other two films of this loosely connected trilogy. This really is a fantastic film with a very distinctive look and sound and an iconic performance from its legendary lead actor.