John Wayne was still dusting streets with McCarthy-era Americana when Sergio Leone made A Fistful of Dollars out of his dream to be Kurosawa. Wayne once said that Fred Zinneman’s High Noon was “the least American thing I’ve ever seen” because the hero asks callous, religious townsfolk for help and they forsake him. He was probably thinking of the rugged bootstraps he pulled up to his gun belt in Rio Bravo, in which he dutifully refuses everyone else's help to take care of their town. A Fistful of Dollars, a film in which the American plays rival gangs against each other at the expense of impoverished locals, had not yet come out when he ranked the universe in order of ascending patriotism. High Noon is an army recruitment video by comparison.
The film’s many styles purposely negate each other. The stalwart cowboy trope gets subverted by being combined with Leone’s interest in samurai movies (A Fistful of Dollars is essentially a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). The ancient warrior classes discover greater meaning in giving their lives for humanity (at least in the movies), while the cowboys make out with treasures they’ve been pretending not to be looking for and girls whose advances they’ve been spurning for the whole film. The good people of Leone’s little town may not even need saving in the first place, if no “heroes” existed at all – the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) seems just as responsible for their misfortunes as anyone.
These changes are reflected in costumes and sets, which no longer attempt to sell themselves as romantic. Gone are Howard Hawks’ well-bred corseted dames, sardonic southern doctors, and basically honorable deputies recovering from self-loathing and alcoholism. Replacing them, Italian stock actors masquerade as Mexicans dubbed by Americans in recreations of heroic Western brutality, caked in dust. A loaf of bread would make their week. In the American Westerns, everyone wanted to get along. In Leone’s version of them, everyone just wants to be left alone.
The result is a fantasy, one-part chanbara (“sword-fighting”) and another crossed with that impression of frontier Americans that young boys saw when they looked at marquees of Wayne. Beady Clint Eastwood (has any actor been more appropriately named?) would have shot Sherriff John T. Chance for twenty bucks. He would have shot him for grinning at him the wrong way. He never shaves, never tells the truth, and never cries about it. A few years ago, Eastwood said at Cannes that we’re “the pussy generation.” The Man with No Name, perched on a dusky horizon, with heat flustering his poncho and dampening his ferocious brow, might have also said this of Wayne and Cooper.
The simple change in music from the strumming frontier melodies of the old cowboy movies to the score of A Fistful of Dollars announces the Italian neo-real aesthetic creeping up on the Western’s horizon, threateningly. Trumpet snarls and primal flutes replace homey harmonicas and banjos – they give Leone’s folklore a feeling even older than the American frontier. Eastwood seems transformed beyond the pleasantly revised colonist-pioneer, the good ol’ jailhouse ramblers and dashing dudes, and into something ancient, self-serving, indigenous. He wanders into the border town, not as a stranger “not from around these parts,” but like a force of nature that was here before there were any adobes at all to stand in his way, and will be after they've all been sacked for their gold and repurposed as hideaways for the critters of the desert.
This new style touches on the movies Wayne spoke so highly of, though he may not have realized it – the song of impending doom in Rio Bravo, “El deguello,” is the missing link between the old and the Leone, the introduction of those dramatic death trumpets into the consciences of American cowboy crooners. The difference though, is that El deguello was the darkest Howard Hawks ever got and it’s where Leone chooses to start, as though the most important thing about hanging out was waiting for the song of death to start playing. I don’t believe Leone wished to abolish the American Western, being indebted to it, but it does seem like he hoped to excise its self-approval.
Eastwood is meaner than the villains in most Hawks movies, but he has a soft spot for women, one that Wayne’s characters often hid behind well-meaning brusqueness. Imagine him sneering at Angie Dickinson’s advances in Rio Bravo, despite wanting them, or battling Katherine Hepburn from his mighty savvy in Rooster Cogburn, or snatching Michele Carey by the wrist and towering over her, broad as a bookcase, to tell her how to survive the frontier (and his patience). But the Man with No Name unwisely subjects himself to torture to help the mob boss’s captive get out of town with her family. He shoots four men for a few bucks but gives up a fortune in gold to make sure a woman is okay in the head when she falls. His reluctant chivalry is his heroic glimmer in the middle of a lot of staring, his face creased like well-tanned leather. The stare contains love (though I would not say “romance”), even as the Man turns from it, more afraid of the danger of those emotions in his cutthroat world than, as a Wayne character might have said in no uncertain terms, the fear of being tied down and fenced in to a family.
For all that, the Man acts the part of a Western hero, though he under-acts it. Anytime the film crosses paths with conventions, it makes them more meaningful as a result of its meditation on them (or maybe for lacking them most of the time). Despite seeing a million shootouts in a million Westerns, A Fistful of Dollars returns weight to them. They become eons-long chess games, men sidling, striking matches, chewing cigars, staring across waves of heat through greasy hat-brims. When a single strike can kill you, all that matters is the first move.
The shot never breaks in a scene in which a badly-beaten Man drags himself on the ground to the underside of a porch – it takes as long to watch as it takes for him to actually do so. By showing him endure a scenario of such weakness, it makes him strong. It’s how Leone can make the American Western seem even larger by disenchanting it. Going back to Rio Bravo now reproduces an even stronger feeling of its status as a moral illusion. Every standoffish deal in A Fistful of Dollars, every morally unmoving scenario laid bare in the blistering heat, makes it seem even more romantic to watch Wayne be told that he’s likable, in equal proportion to how much he deflects it.
But John Wayne was always an actor, a real Hollywood star, in every film seeming like the same sculptural, iconic face: JOHN WAYNE. A Fistful of Dollars is the reason Clint Eastwood has never felt like an actor so much as a cultural inevitability. It seems like the nameless Man will walk off, camera unmoving, and just disappear. We’ll stare after him, wondering, “Who was that?” There is some magnetic glamor to the pure Leone hero that belongs only to the myths in movies, like he remembers how icons used to look painted on walls instead of magazine covers, like they don’t have to get the girl or sell war bonds to save the day (Rango understood this perfectly, using Eastwood’s face to create a “Spirit of the West,” with no other name, and no clear connection to any actor that had ever called themselves by one). These kinds of heroes don’t have to be worthy of their actions so long as they do them. After a century of dreaming and undreaming him in America, who would have thought the thinly veiled Italian outback, twice dubbed, was the place to find him?
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Unidis/Jolly Film
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, October 1, 2018