17 September 2010
It's interesting to note that in this, the film that made Clint Eastwood, the actor looks just a little too pretty-boy to be believed as the badass stranger he's meant to play. Because he went on to embody this archetype so absolutely over the next two decades, there's a kind of cognitive dissonance in watching him here. It's like watching a man in an ill-fitting suit, even though you've seen that man in the very same suit dozens of times and you know it's a perfect fit.
A cursory glance through Wikipedia tells me that this was Leone's first spaghetti western, and that it was early in the genre's life, which makes sense. Like Eastwood it feels like the genre and the director are both finding their footing here. It's a little rough around the edges, but it's definitely got something. I wonder how we'd view Fistful if it hadn't been followed by For a Few Dollars More and of course, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, among so many others. If Leone and Eastwood hadn't gone on to be the defining names of this type of storytelling. Taken on its own merits, it's a western remake of Yojimbo (itself an adaptation of Hammett's Red Harvest, such an awesome road from mobsters to samurais to the old west), and it's got a lot going for it but it's also clearly a b-movie in a b-movie genre; it doesn't quite transcend. It's impossible for me not to see this through the eyes of someone who's seen later, greater works in the genre, not to mention who's acutely familiar with the source materials that led us here. Trying to view it as a stand-alone piece, I think it's fine, but that's about it.
Also, this film influenced more than just the stylistic choices of Leone's later films and spaghetti westerns in general. Eastwood would later direct two films of his own, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, about a stranger who rides into a corrupt town, fights the forces that be with cold brutality and shifting allegiances, and then rides back out at the end. In fact, if memory serves, he remains nameless in both films and they're implied sequels to The Man With No Name. More to the point, though, I found both of them to be stronger films than A Fistful of Dollars, definitely the work of a man with a firm grip who'd found his voice and his style. But I guess it all started here.