Rated: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

"Get three coffins ready."

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The term “spaghetti western” comes from the fact that the film was an American-style western movie produced by Italians. A Fistful of Dollars was the first movie to display this unique combination of styles. As such, even before it had screened to audiences, it was widely panned by American critics who didn’t appreciate the intrusion of the European perspective into a uniquely American film genre. In fact, the term “spaghetti western” was originally meant as a derogatory description. History, though proved those critics wrong.

A Fistful of Dollars became a huge critical and financial success. As the 1960’s began, the youth movement was growing and a shift in pop culture was taking place. Audiences demanded more realism, more action, more fun from their movies. Traditional western movies were long, drawn out affairs, filmed as plotting epics more than action movies. The hero was most always a handsome, easy-on-the-eyes, Mr. Goody-two-shoes and, most importantly, everything always went according to his plan. Spaghetti westerns, on the other hand, were jam-packed with gritty-bloody action. The so-called “hero” was always a questionable fellow, not afraid to take a few punches, and never hesitant to dish any out. Finally, the Italian film makers infused their own artistic style into the work, and this included filming the movies in Europe, rather than in the US.

A Fistful of Dollars easily meets all these criteria, and while it is true that it contains all of the stereotypes we associate with Western films these days, it is still an enjoyable movie. First of all, it moves along swiftly and bloodily; action-driven but with a smart story developed through the dialogue. Those familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s films will see where he gets his inspiration. Second, the Italians craft their film frame by frame, rather than through sweeping panoramas and moody establishment shots like their Hollywood counterparts of the time. Finally, there is the hero, Clint Eastwood at his most bad-ass. If that’s not a good enough reason to watch this movie, I don’t really know what is.

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Story: A mysterious man wanders into a Mexican town that is all but deserted. There is trouble here, and he is curious to investigate. Two competing gangs use the town as a outpost to smuggle goods into the United States. When one of the gangs uses an ambush on a US army battalion to frame the other gang, the mysterious stranger suddenly finds himself in a precarious position. Will he help the town out by encouraging the gangs to destroy each other, or will be find a way to benefit personally from the situation?…Good (20/25)

Acting: Clint Eastwood plays the unnamed protagonist. Even though the sound is dubbed over to allow for European viewing, Eastwood makes for quite the character. From the very first scene in the film, he is instantly likeable even if you don’t know anything about him. His squinty eyes and homely poncho are a pretty good combination. Everyone else in this film is largely unknown. Although there are some questionable acting jobs, for the most part everyone pulls their weight and the film never suffers. Good (20/25)

Direction: Sergio Leone is the father of the spaghetti western. His European take on film making is apparent straight from the first scene in the movie. Close ups are common occurrence, used more to frame a character than to show close-up detail or expression. Combined with the swift plot, it is the craft-like artistry by which the film is put together that makes it a unique viewing experience. However, despite Leone’s stylistic wizardry, moments still exist where the low production values are apparent. Good (23/25)

Visuals/X-Factor: The movie is as dusty, bright, and hot as you’d expect a western to be. The action sequences, while showing their age, are actually quite impressive as well. There are times when the film is lacking in details or seems poorly made, but the rest of the movie easily makes up for those few moments. The film’s score is arguably even more innovative than the film’s direction. It is sparse at times and dense at others – perfect for capturing the mood of the western film perfectly and set the tone for the next decade of western movie scores.Good (22/25)

Rating: (85/100) = B (Recommended)

  • What’s Good: Action-packed, gritty, and fun. Leone finds a way to reinvent the Western genre using a new perspective and getting some help from the crowd-pleasing Clint Eastwood.
  • What’s Bad: The story is not that original (it’s a remake actually), and despite the film’s advances in technique, looks dated and has its moments where the low budget becomes apparent.

Summary: Leone invents a new way to make an old story exciting.  

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