When James Coburn and Charles Bronson turned down the meagre fistful of dollars ($15,000) on offer to star in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western Per un pugno di dollari, a 34-year-old actor whose career was going nowhere jumped at the chance. Clint Eastwood, hitherto best known for starring in the TV series Rawhide, became The Man with No Name and an international star.
Two sequels followed (For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) but the original remains the best (although the story borrows heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and the film was only released worldwide when the Italians and Japanese came to a mutual agreement).
Shot on location in Spain and Italy, the film is set in the Mexican bordertown of San Miguel. A stranger riding into town (Eastwood) is passed by a dead man on a horse with a placard reading “Adios amigo”; it’s that kind of town. Two rival gangs are in situ, the Baxters and the Rojos.
The Man with No Name (although he’s referred to as the considerably-less-enigmatic ‘Joe’ in some early reviews) uses the Baxters as a calling card and, after dispatching four of them to the cemetery, he’s hired as a gunslinger by Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonté). Not content with this, he then plays both groups off against each other, making a nice profit in the process. It’s when the Rojos discovers his deception that the bullets really start to fly.
With his iconic attire of poncho and permanently half-smoked cheroot protruding from his mouth, Eastwood established himself as the very strong silent type here. He jettisoned most of the movie’s original dialogue, preferring instead to let his smouldering gun do the talking. A Fistful of Dollars reinvented the western, with its amoral action sequences superseding the heavily moralistic character studies that had emerged in the early 60s (the likes of John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn and Raoul Walsh’s A Distant Trumpet). Leone, who was originally credited in America as Bob Robertson, put the emphasis on violence, atmospheric music (by Ennio Morricone) and a man having to do what a man had to do.
Italy / 1964
Director: Sergio Leone
Writer: Sergio Leone, Duccio Tessari
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volonté, Sieghardt Rupp, Josef Egger