It’s quite hard to overstate how influential A Fistful of Dollars has been to the Western genre. In 1964, the Western was beginning to show its age, as was its most recognisable star, John Wayne; Sergio Leone’s ironic, subversive film helped breathe new life into the Western, created the spaghetti Western subgenre, and began a serious of revisionist Westerns which would be the dominant force in the genre for the next 30 years, until Unforgiven more or less heralded its death knell. Indeed, Clint Eastwood was to be the man who would define the Western after John Wayne, and without A Fistful of Dollars, he may well have never become the icon that he is today.
Eastwood plays the Man With No Name (who, amusingly, is referred to as Joe in the film), a drifter who arrives in the Mexican town of San Miguel and, after an encounter with a local gang, learns that the town is controlled and being oppressed by two rival gangs, the Rojos and the Baxters. He decides to play the gangs off against each other, helping the villagers and making quite a bit of money for himself in the process.
The title itself (A Fistful of Dollars) is the audience’s first clue that this is not going to be a clear-cut, white hats vs. black hats Western; the Man With No Name may have some vaguely altruistic motivation for doing as he does, but he is a drifter all the same, acting principally on the opportunity to make money, and leaves town as soon as he’s done. As Clint’s first major film, he has yet to develop the acting ability which he would later show off in films like Million Dollar Baby (Leone once said he had two expressions: hat on, and hat off), but he cuts an indelible presence in the film all the same; it isn’t difficult to appreciate how this film was the beginning of the Clint Eastwood legend. And he’s still the only person to make a poncho look good.
All of the Leone trademarks which would become so famous and refined in later films are display in A Fistful of Dollars: the extreme (for the time) violence; the wide shots of towns and landscapes juxtaposed by extreme close ups, often just of a character’s eyes; and breathtaking visual style balancing out the relative minimalism of plot and dialogue. It’s a Western taken to the extreme, a bleak and cynical vision of the frontier undercut by a stream of black humour, a concept which would come to its full fruition in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: the violence is bloody and graphic, and instead of black and white, the morality here is very much black and grey; some of the characters are worse than others, but few of them can honestly be described as good.
And it would be remiss of me not to mention the score by Ennio Morricone, a man whose music would become as iconic as the films it featured in. He does a brilliant job of gradually raising the tension during the gunfights, and when Clint marches back into town for the final showdown, accompanied by the soaring main theme, a legend was born.
A Fistful of Dollars is one of the most important and influential Westerns ever made. Without it there would be no Django, and certainly no Unforgiven, and the genre may have come to an end in 1964 instead of 1992. It’s influenced just about every Western since, from the final duel with Mad Dog Tannen in Back to the Future Part III to pretty much everything that happens in Mexico in the videogame Red Dead Redemption. Just don’t laugh at Clint’s mule. He doesn’t like that.