Fistful of Cinema
After watching “Yojimbo” I could not resist watching “A Fistful of Dollars” again just to see how close of a remake it actually is. And, while “A Fistful of Dollars” is a remarkable film in its own right, it is quite surprising how much these two resemble despite the obvious difference in setting.
The similarities to “Yojimbo” are quite startling. The plot is very much the same, and even on a scene by scene basis Leone’s film doesn’t ever deviate too much from Kurosawa’s. Whole sequences seem to be recreated beat by beat, but at least Leone never copies Kurosawa’s shot list. Actually Leone’s shots and blocking are quite more elaborate than the ones found in “Yojimbo”. The shots are longer and the camera moves much more. I mean this is what Leone is the master at; the man had an amazing ability to visualize and stage very complex shots and scenes that, while overtly stylized, where completely in service of his story and characters.
This is not saying that the visual aesthetic in “A Fistful of Dollars” is better than the one in “Yojimbo”, not at all. I am saying that what makes Leone’s remake stand out is that he brings his own cinematic language with him and does not copy Kurosawa’s.
But I have to admit that there are certain things that “A Fistful of Dollars” does slightly better. The basic progression of the plot is the only thing that I’d point out actually. Like the characters of the evil brother (played by Tatsuya Nakadai in “Yojimbo” and by Gian Maria Volonte in “A Fistful”) and his forced mistress are brought in way more gracefully in Leone’s film. While in “Yojimbo” they show up when the plot requires them to, in Leone’s film they are foreshadowed from the very beginning. Another great piece of foreshadowing and build-up is the suit of armor and “shoot for the heart”, which pays off at the very end in the great final duel.
For me this marks Leone as a greater storyteller than he is often given credit for. Sure a huge part of the work has been done by the film that he’s quite shamelessly “borrowing” from, but he is able to point out potential weaknesses in the source film and beef them up while also presenting the story in a brand new cinematic language. With a style that is in service of the story, but also a style that gleefully goes for the effect when it needs to. And this style makes his movies an absolute joy to watch.
Many have tried to copy or re-create the Leone style, but they never really succeeded and there is a simple reason for this. Leone’s style was a product of his storytelling, while the re-creation of Leone’s style by these copycats is just style for the sake of it. Tarantino is the great exception but that is because he never really tries to copy it. Yes many of his shots and frames and scenes play out like Leone’s, but I do not think this is a conscious decision by Tarantino but more his natural integration of Leone’s visual aesthetic in to his own. A product of pure adoration. And Tarantino is not the first or last filmmaker to do this. In fact it is quite a natural thing to be influenced by a filmmaker you admire. Just look at Leona and Kurosawa and tell me they do not integrate many of John Ford’s visual sensibilities in to their own.
Apart from Leone’s magnificent stylization I also have to mention Clint Eastwood. And even though they do essentially play the same character I am not going to compare him to Mifune, because that is a complete fool’s errand. I will say that he is electric, mysterious and completely cool, and after watching him again in “A fistful of Dollars” it is very easy to understand why he became such a huge star. I honestly cannot imagine any other actor playing this role; Iconic is a word that is a good place to start when describing it. And because I am starting to drown in superlatives here I will gladly move on to another topic. That topic being the place of this movie in Leone’s oeuvre.
As films go “A Fistful of Dollars” is magnificent on every front. But as Leone films go, for me personally, it is near the bottom of the list. More than anything this is a testament to just how awesome of a filmmaker Leone actually was. He didn’t make many films (six to be exact) but all of them are true cinematic gems and half of them are bona fide masterpieces. Even with that “A Fistful of Dollars” is one of top five films Clint Eastwood has ever been involved with. As actor, director or producer.
But of course, all this is just my fan gushing. And a lot remains to be said about this film, about Leone, about Eastwood and I didn’t even mention where this film fits in the western genre, or anything about the spaghetti western. And then there’s Morricone. I slightly touched upon him in my “Sacco and Vanzetti” post, but this is the shit he is most known for!
There is so much left to say, but this post is getting too long as is. So I guess I’ll leave it for another time and conclude with this: “A Fistful of Dollars” is the work of one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, a man who redefined cinema with his vision and this is where he made his first real step to accomplish that. A must see film*.
*I warmly recommend the exercise of watching "Yojimbo" and "A Fistful of Dollars" in a double feature format to anyone interested in actually studying film.
Original title: Per un pugno di dollari
Clint Eastwood - Joe
Gian Maria Volonte - Ramon
Marianne Koch - Marisol
Mario Brega - Chico
Original language: Italian
A Fistful of Dollars on IMDb