A Fistful of Dollars, released in 1964, was the first Western directed by Sergio Leone, as well as Clint Eastwood’s first leading role. While it is arguably the weakest of the Dollars Trilogy, its importance and influence cannot be overstated. The stories that Leone would tell in his Westerns would become far more complex and epic in scope with parts two and three, but that should not be considered a knock against this picture. It remains a pivotal, dizzying and supremely well-executed film which made Clint Eastwood the most iconic Western actor since John Wayne, and in this viewer’s opinion, far surpassing the admittedly great work of Wayne.
A Fistful of Dollars is centered around a war between two families: the deadly and devilish Rojo brothers and The Baxters, a slightly more honorable outfit. (The story of two families at war, both of which are murderous, is something that likely influenced Rockstar with the story of the Braithwaites and the Grays.) Clint Eastwood, as he would in all parts of the Dollars Trilogy, plays a man with no name. A stranger comes into town looking for work and becomes involved in a bloody feud. While he is not exactly a traditional hero, he is acting in his own interest for much of the picture—he is ultimately more of a good man than the people he faces down the barrel of a gun. The harsh edge that Clint brought to the Western turned it upside down and subverted so many of the expectations of the audience. Unlike John Wayne, Clint was just as likely to shoot someone in the back if he needed to. This pragmatic grit would go on to define many of Clint’s best roles, not only his Westerns—almost all of which are brilliant—but of course pictures like Dirty Harry and Gran Torino.
Sergio Leone was a supremely stylish director and every frame of A Fistful of Dollars is a testament to this. From the opening titles to the music by Ennio Morricone to the sheer beauty of the cinematography by Massimo Dallamano, this is a movie that redefined the flow and feel, sight and sound of a Western. Every single Western made after A Fistful of Dollars had to make sure that it was able to operate at a similar level of supreme artistry, and was influenced by Leone and Clint’s work, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent. Those who made Westerns that followed Leone and denied that they were influenced by his work are either dullards or liars. The same goes for Clint’s performance. No longer did people want to be The Duke, they wanted to chew a cigar and wear a poncho and never offer their name. When you look at the sublime Red Dead Redemption 2, the strongest influence is not in the story that reflects Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but in the way Rockstar portrays the main character, Arthur Morgan. Red Dead Redemption 2′s primary mission is to make the player feel like Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy. Consider the insane money and time invested in Rockstar’s masterpiece and realize that over 50 years after Leone’s debut Western, the genre still hasn’t exhausted ways to echo that seminal work.
Speaking of influences, it is interesting to note that A Fistful of Dollars is—much like The Magnificent Seven—heavily indebted to the films of Akira Kurosawa, specifically Yojimbo, which was released three years prior to Leone’s movie. Just as George Lucas would go on to take the Western and Samurai movie into space, borrowing heavily from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Leone had a keen eye for how Kurosawa’s world could be married with the lawless frontier of the Wild West. Some consider Sergio Leone to be more of a talented scholar than an originator, and this borrowing from other movies can be seen as one reason why. This is important to state and not in order to knock Leone, but to accurately identify where and when he surpassed his influences and peers—especially considering Ennio Morricone’s recent comments about Quentin Tarantino (essentially that he is a fraud and steals material from other artists). If you give more than you take, borrow or steal all you like, in my opinion.
The way that Sergio Leone shoots action scenes is arguably the biggest influence on Westerns that followed. Whereas previously—with a few exceptions—action scenes were seen as being a necessary though hardly compelling element of the genre, Leone’s incredible sense of style and mastery of tension—up there with Hitchcock in my book—transformed a boring shooting match over some rocks into something chaotic, terrifying and riveting as all hell. The closing moments of the picture are iconic. Clint uses a makeshift bulletproof vest to outwit and defeat the evil Rojo brothers, and that quick zoom into the eyes, and the realization that death is coming. The hand by the gun, the tension ramping up and up and that explosive payoff…very few Westerns that preceded A Fistful of Dollars could compare with it, explaining in part why it was so damn influential.
Clint Eastwood is the most iconic Western star of all-time, surpassing even greats like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. A Fistful of Dollars made him a star because of the sheer electricity that he projected on-screen, and because of his minimalist approach to acting and his overwhelming confidence and coolness. A Fistful of Dollars is not the best Western role for Clint—The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, High Plains Drifter, and The Outlaw Josey Wales are all in contention for that spot—but it is the role that made the most impact on his career and on the Western genre as a whole. The way the lines between villain and hero are blurred in Clint’s best Westerns would have a huge impact on the genre, all the way down to today with Red Dead Redemption 2.
A Fistful of Dollars is not the best of the trilogy; the story is far simpler and straight ahead than either For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but considering that this was the first Western that Leone ever did, it is ridiculously well-developed and executed. It is not as violent or as anarchic as say Sam Peckinpah’s pictures, nor as politically/morally switched on as the best revisionist Westerns, but the weight and power of the world that Leone crafted makes A Fistful of Dollars a formidable work and unarguably the most influential Western of the last 50 years. If you haven’t seen A Fistful of Dollars, you need to. It is a brilliant, beautiful thing, that set up the greatest Western series of all-time. Yes, we would get better, more emotionally complex stories in the sequels, but without A Fistful of Dollars leading the way, we never would have gotten the classics that followed.