Friday, July 26, 2013

“When a man’s got money in his pocket he begins to appreciate peace.”

That was a hiatus that went on longer than expected. Hard work is hard.

I've covered a few Spaghetti Westerns here at RMWC before, which tend to be fun and wacky, and often blatant imitations of Sergio Leone's seminal Man With No Name trilogy. Leone obviously didn't invent the Western, nor was he the first man to film one in Europe with mostly European actors, but he sure as hell put his stamp on it.

In 1964 A Fistful of Dollars (AKA Per un pugno di dollari), an “unofficial remake” (that led to a lawsuit by Japanese Studio Toho) of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (which was itself inspired partly by the Westerns of John Ford). And in turn, Yojimbo/Fistful was remade as Last Man Standing

Legal stuff is complicated.

Clint Eastwood shoots dudes. 

Ok, fine, there’s more to it. A mysterious drifter rides into the little town of San Miguel and finds two gangs fighting over who will get to run the town. Sensing there’s money to be made, he starts playing off both sides, hiring himself out as a gunfighter to both groups at his convenience. 

“Joe”: Clint Eastwood’s breakout role as the flint-eyed stoic anti-hero of the movie. Joe’s not his name, its just what some of the locals take to calling him. While certainly not a bad guy (he doesn't kill any innocents) he’s still a greedy, selfish, callous man. Exactly the kind of man to thrive in a world as harsh as the one Leone builds for him. There certainly isn't a lot of variety to his expressions in this movie, but Eastwood clearly displays the steely nerve that cemented his future roles as relentless badasses. Which isn't to say he’s completely mirthless. The scene where he demands an apology from four thugs for insulting his mule is some fun black comedy, but “Joe’s” sense of humor is a deadpan, sardonic sort that only surfaces rarely. He also has an awesome poncho and a fondness for stubby cigars. 

Don Miguel Benito Rojo: Antonio Prieto is the nominal leader of the Rojo gang. The Rojos sell liquor but want to move in on the rest of the shady dealings in town. He’s not a handsome man, but is arguably the friendliest Rojo to “Joe.”

Esteban Rojo: Sieghardt Rupp plays the youngest and most headstrong Rojo. Brash and kind of dumb, Esteban dresses fancier than his brothers, likes pistols, and has a screechy laugh that just makes you want “Joe” to shoot him.

Ramon Rojo: Gian Maria Volonté is the real brains behind the Rojo operation. Brutal and controlling, he’s incredibly clever and a monster to women. Exactly the kind of villain you want to see our hero destroy.

Chico: Mario Brega plays the main Rojo goon. Not much to say about him other than he’s trusted by the gang, is a chubby guy, and shows up on screen a fair amount.

Marisol: Marianne Koch plays “Ramon’s woman” and boy is she unhappy about it. See, Ramon keeps her under guard in a shack outside town and her husband Julio and son Jesus have moved into the shack thirty feet away. At first she’s little more than a pawn for “Joe,” but as the movie progresses (and so does “Joe’s” war on the gangs, he shows her family some genuine kindness. Oh, and her son is dubbed with a really annoying, whiny voice. Yes, I know the little kid’s sad and abused by the bad guys, but he still set my teeth on edge whenever he spoke.

John Baxter: Wolfgang Lukschy is the “sheriff” of town and patriarch of the Baxter family. His gang run and sell guns illegally. Slightly less ruthless than the Rojos, they’re also less interesting, clever, or menacing.

Silvanito the barkeep: Jose Calvo plays one of the few characters who become acquaintances/helpers for “Joe.” Silvanito also provides exposition as needed, in fine Movie bartender tradition. 

The Visuals
Directed by Sergio Leone, the film looks really good in daylight and interior shots. The heavy use of day-for-night though, betrays the film’s lower budget origins. That bit of cost-cutting doesn’t detract from the quality of the rest of the movie. Action sequences are nicely shot (and with great build-up). Leone also uses extreme close ups on faces to good effect as well. Most of these faces are as weathered as the landscape, and Leone really plays up the harshness of the West. Case in point: “Joe” gets the crap beaten out of him something fierce a third of the way through the movie, and it is very effective in its brutality. 

Oh, and this movie totally stole Marty McFly’s gunfight strategy against Mad Dog Tannen in Back to the Future Part III.

The Story
Story by A. Bonzzoni, Víctor Andrés Catena, & Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas, & Sergio Leone. Dialogue by Mark Lowell (and Uncredited: Fernando Di Leo, Duccio Tessari, & Tonino Valerii). Character motivation is quite simple, and most of the cast are painted in broad strokes with a few character traits to define them. The plot is the real focus of the story, with intrigue, betrayal, and manipulation taking center stage (and that’s exactly what “Joe’s” doing). The twists and turns of the story, along with how Joe reacts to them in his game of cat-and-mouse with the gangs is great fun to see play out. 

The Sounds
I've read arguments that Ennio Morricone single-handedly elevated the Man With No Name trilogy to greatness by the awesomeness of his score alone, and there is some credence to that. The variety of moods that Morricone can set with little more than a piano, guitar and a whistle is inhuman. 

The Verdict
A Fistful of Dollars is a damn fine movie and an interesting alternative take on the Western genre. Moody and amoral, its quite a difference from the more forthright heroics of the American-grown Westerns that John Wayne became a fixture of. I hesitate to say Leone made a superior version of the Western (I have good things to say about Stagecoach as well, for instance), but he definitely helped make Spaghetti Westerns a legitimate, and stylish sub-genre. The direction, Eastwood’s intensity, and Morricone's amazing music make this well worth watching. 

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