#5 in my ranking of Sergio Leone’s films.
This is a film of great moments. I’m not entirely convinced that they coalesce into an actually good film, but I’m consistently entertained every time I watch it. And that, really, is all the movie really endeavors for, entertainment. Plagiarizing Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (to the point where Kurosawa all but owned the film in Japan after his legal challenge) and bringing over the young actor Clint Eastwood, known only for his role in the television show Rawhide, Sergio Leone took the studio cache he had acquired after the direction of The Colossus of Rhodes and made one of the early spaghetti westerns, helping to create and popularize a burgeoning subgenre.
An unnamed man on a horse (Clint Eastwood) rides into the remote Mexican town of San Miguel. He is met by a series of sights that go without explanation. A young boy moves from one building to another, crawling in through a window. He’s ejected outside by some men with a young woman (Marisol played by Marianne Koch) looking out expressionless from the window in question. The man does and says nothing, instead moving deeper into town. It’s a dead place. There’s no business, no activity. Instead there are two centers of town on opposite sides of the main street. On the near side are the men of the Baxter clan, shooting at the man’s horse’s feet, forcing the beast into a high-pitched gallop that leaves the man hanging from the sign of the local tavern. On the other end of town is the large house of the Rojos, and in the middle is Silvantino (Pepe Calvo), the weathered proprietor of the tavern who gives the man the rundown.
The argument between the Baxters and the Rojos has crescendoed to the point where the only way for anyone to make money in the town is to join one of the gangs and kill other men. There’s no commerce left, and the man has an idea. He’ll pit one side against the other, with him in the middle, raking in cash from both. The first step is to kill the Baxter men who insulted him on the way into town. He makes quick work of them in public, and walks right over to the Rojo house and gets paid $100 for his troubles. A bit of eavesdropping of a conversation between Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp) and Miguel (Antonio Prieto) Rojo tells the man that they’ll never trust him and will take the first chance to kill him, so he moves out, back to the tavern.
The plot itself is rather loose with connective tissue from one sequence to the other often kind of thin, like when hears open talk of the Rojos about a military caravan coming through town in a few days, so the man decides to just go and investigate. There, he witnesses a Mexican army suddenly massacred by the American army, supposedly delivering guns in exchange for gold, but the Americans were simply the men of the third Rojo brother Ramon (Gian Volonte). The man uses the situation to put the two sides in direct conflict with each other, dragging a pair of corpses to the cemetery and spreading word that the men are survivors. When both the Baxters and the Rojos arrive, a gunfight ensues, and a prisoner is taken.
The movie really doesn’t care that much about this story. It’s probably far too complicated (and seemingly a bit incomplete since the man never actually goes to work for the Baxters) for Leone’s emergent style. His style requires simplicity in narrative because it’s more about the tension of individual moments. A flurry of dialogue explaining motivations from one big moment to the next isn’t really conducive to this kind of story. It needs to be a story of simple movements, just enough to justify the next big moment. Needing to explain the history of Marisol’s kidnapping by the Rojos, her inability to see her son and her husband, and her desire to get out? The amount of explicit explanation we get in the middle of a tense moment isn’t that interesting, undercutting the moment itself. Later Leone would strip this sort of thing down to its minimum, usually helping his movies feel more cohesive.
It’s really this sort of thing that keeps me from loving A Fistful of Dollars at the same level as many others. The moment of the man discovering this information happens when Marisol and the heir to the Baxters Antonio (Carol Brown) are being exchanged in the middle of town. It’s a great little sequence, tense and filled with dread as things could go wrong, and then it breaks to give the man the unnecessary exposition.
The movie’s plot resolves with violence, fire, close calls, and death. It’s a thinly thrilling series of events that leads to a satisfactory conclusion.
Ah, but the moments along the way. The man facing off against Ramon in the street while the man hides his plate metal armor, the man’s escape from the Rojos, the man’s rescue of Marisol from the remote hideaway, these are all great moments where Leone often edited too long in order to fit the music by Ennio Morricone. That overlong nature is far from a bad thing, helping to ratchet up tension while great music plays. I have no problem with this, it’s kind of one of the central things that makes Leone’s work overall special (and something that was sorely missing from The Colossus of Rhodes), it’s just that the story around those moments seems overburdened and a bit underdeveloped at the same time. It feels like Leone and his screenwriter Duccio Tessari started with the objective or remaking Yojimbo, but Leone just kind of fell in love with Clint’s coolness along the way, stripping the script down of, in particular, Clint’s lines to make him a bit more enigmatic. The result was a movie of great moments that has some stuff in between.
I enjoy the film, for sure. It’s fun, tense, and exciting, and that’s almost entirely driven by Leone’s craftsmanship with the camera and in the editing bay (special shout out to Roberto Cinquini, the actual editor, of course), carrying a somewhat incomplete script well past the finish line.