MGM // 1964 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 12th, 2011
Every town has a boss.
Director Sergio Leone didn't invent the spaghetti western, but he made the genre an international sensation with A Fistful of Dollars, a wholesale rip-off of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (itself influenced by American westerns -- especially those directed by John Ford). A Fistful of Dollars is the first of Leone's loose Dollars Trilogy, a trio of epic action movies set in the American Southwest, shot in Spain, and starring then TV actor Clint Eastwood as the laconic gunfighter popularly referred to as the Man with No Name.
It would be easy to dismiss A Fistful of Dollars as crass derivative pap, except that not only is it a tight-lipped, squinty-eyed piece of thoroughly entertaining western storytelling, its two sequels -- For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- are even better, demonstrating Leone's rapid development as both a storyteller and a unique visual stylist. Even Kurosawa acknowledged that A Fistful of Dollars was a solidly made picture. He only took issue with its producers trying to pick his pockets by claiming that similarities between A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo were purely coincidental.
A stone-cold gunfighter (Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry) ambles into a dusty Mexican border town called San Miguel. He discovers that the little town has been ravaged by a dispute between the family of corrupt Sheriff John Baxter and the criminal Rojo brothers.
Friendly innkeeper Silvanito (José Calvo, Viridiana) urges the Man with No Name to leave San Miguel, but the steely tough guy sees an opportunity to make money playing Baxter and the Rojos off of one another by renting his formidable gunfighting skills first to one side and then to the other. Whether the Man with No Name is a greedy mercenary or an altruistic hero out to save the town's soul isn't immediately apparent, but his involvement in the power struggle in San Miguel is complicated by the arrival of Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volonté, For a Few Dollars More), a master of the rifle who aims at his opponents' hearts.
A Fistful of Dollars is sometimes accused of being a shot-for-shot remake of Yojimbo. That's nonsense. Leone may wear his love of Kurosawa on his sleeve, but the beginnings of his own visual style are strewn throughout his movie -- most notably the static, ultra-tight close-ups that became a hallmark of his moviemaking. To be sure, A Fistful of Dollars is an extremely close remake of Yojimbo, deviating from its story only when its transposition from the Far East to the Wild West demands it -- Yojimbo's feudal Japanese setting lends it an extra layer of political intrigue not present in Leone's film; and Eastwood's gunslinger, though iconic, isn't nearly as subversive as the samurai played by Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, a character whose grubby physical appearance and noble character produced cognitive dissonance in Japanese audiences raised on traditional samurai adventure pictures. In A Fistful of Dollars, Leone finds his voice as a director by strictly adhering to the narrative template provided by a more experienced filmmaker that he considered a master. That Leone was a good pupil is evident in the high quality of his subsequent pictures.
A Fistful of Dollars was a major milestone in the career of its star, Clint Eastwood. The movie's enormous success (on a miniscule budget) should be credited only in part to its solid story and Leone's elegant but direct style of shooting. Eastwood's creased, wiry, and grizzled screen persona is a major part of the movie's appeal. Eastwood helped to make A Fistful of Dollars a hit, and it helped to make him a movie star -- and, later, a solid director in his own right. Dirty Harry director Don Siegel was Eastwood's primary directorial mentor, but there's no doubt that the actor kept a close eye on how Leone shot his movies, and that he drew some valuable lessons from working with the Italian director. Eastwood's movies -- particularly in the mature phases of his career behind the camera -- display elements of Leone's visual elegance, reigned in by Siegel's tighter, more commercial sense of pacing.
The biggest beef about this Blu-ray release of A Fistful of Dollars among video purists is bound to be the ultra-slight cropping of the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Based on screen captures I've seen elsewhere, the image is indeed cropped but the change is so minute that you'd never notice anything was amiss without a side-by-side comparison of the Blu-ray and previous DVDs. More annoying than the framing issue is some noticeable haloing from edge enhancement. Otherwise, the image is reasonably stable, and offers detail and color that easily outperform the Collector's Edition DVD transfer.
The default audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio track in 5.1 surround. It's tinny, hollow, and sports an artificial ambience that sounds like the movie was dubbed in a low-rent studio -- which is entirely appropriate since A Fistful of Dollar, like most Italian movies of its era, was dubbed in a low-rent studio. Hardcore purists will appreciate that MGM has also included a two-channel presentation of the movie's original monaural audio track. Whether you choose the brassy, expanded lossless track, or the wafer-thin compressed Dolby mono job, the audio experience will be every bit as crappy as fans of the film have come to expect and grown to love.
Those looking for HD-exclusive extras will be disappointed by this release. The dual-layered Blu-ray disc is packed with supplements, but they're identical to the ones found on the 2007 Collector's Edition DVD: an audio commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling, who has written three books on Leone and one on Eastwood; a documentary short featuring Frayling, called A New Kind of Hero; and a series of featurettes that includes a retrospective interview with Clint Eastwood, remembrances of Leone by three of his associates, and a then-and-now comparison of some of the Spanish locations used in the film. There is also a short piece featuring director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) that details the changes made to A Fistful of Dollars for its 1970 ABC television broadcast, as well as the TV prologue voice-over performed by Harry Dean Stanton and directed by Hellman. Finally, a collection of radio spots and trailers is archived on the disc.
What can I say? A Fistful of Dollars is among the best European deconstructions of the American western ever made. Despite some annoying transfer flaws and zilch in the way of new extras, this Blu-ray release is easily the best available home video version of the movie. If you're going to watch a Leone flick, there's no point settling for standard definition.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Network TV Prologue
* Radio Spots