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Review: A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars uses American myths as fodder for a visionary director’s formalist carnival.

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A Fistful of Dollars
Photo: Park Circus

If Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars struck audiences in the 1960s as a brash, vital reprieve from the sanctimony of westerns at the time, it continues to serve as a breath of fresh air today for ironically inverted reasons. American westerns are often divided into “classic” and “revisionist” categories, with the former bolstering myths of the country’s formation and governance and the latter deconstructing said myths. This distinction is pat, as the westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher, and Anthony Mann were grappling with American myths long before the counterculture took the credit for revisionism. Still, the westerns of the 1950s and ’60s, as practiced by less distinctive journeymen, had settled into a preachy routine that would be unsettled by filmmakers such as Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Monte Hellman.

A perversion of the American revisionist western has become the new classicist gold standard, and it’s grown as predictable and tedious in its own way as the studiously wide-eyed westerns of yore. TV series like Westworld and films like Scott Cooper’s Hostiles are so drunk on their fashionable hopelessness that they become criticisms of themselves—walking and talking testaments to their “relevance.” But the true modern western is the superhero film, which grapples with issues of American responsibility and power in similar fashions, and which has been calcified with few exceptions into a multi-studio all-purpose style averse to eccentricity. Collectively, modern superhero films have little actively human behavior because that might compromise their totalitarian ambition to inspire fealty and reverence at all costs. The modern superhero film’s obsession with specialness couldn’t be more commonplace, and is designed to congratulate us for succumbing to it.

A Fistful of Dollars feels as if it hasn’t aged a day since its initial release in 1964. The film’s opening credits sequence is more vigorous and exciting than most entire modern movies for its simplicity and boldness—for its willingness to risk ludicrousness so as to inspire an operatic level of emotion. An illustrated silhouette of a man on a mule gallops against a blank backdrop while Ennio Morricone’s score whips up a fevered tone of comic malevolence. The colors of the man and the backdrop alternate between red and black, foreshadowing the switchback motif of the film’s narrative.

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The credits sequence brings the audience onto the film’s tonal wavelength, signaling that A Fistful of Dollars is in no way “real” and will in fact operate in a kind of unofficial comic-book style, as it was thought of decades before Disney gentrified it for mass consumption. True to the promise of these credits, Leone offers imagery with a spartan directness, which achieves a homemade epic quality through chutzpah and force of will. As in many comic books, the film’s frames pivot on a highly tangible and often diagonal axis, contrasting bold foreground close-ups with menacing figures hiding in foreboding landscapes. The characters’ faces—memorably vicious, hairy, panicky, and sweaty—feel legendary even before Morricone’s score seals the deal, granting them an authority of iconography that serves as the cinematic equivalent of dedicating someone a spot on Mount Rushmore.

Riffing on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo—which, along with A Fistful of Dollars and its quasi-sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, would inspire an entire canon of action mythmaking—Leone recognized how a shrewdly nurtured streak of unpretentiousness could allow modern audiences to accept legends without feeling naïve. The Italian filmmaker makes no attempt to launder the western’s most disreputably appealing quality, which went on to inform vigilante thrillers: its reveling in power for its own narcotic sake. In certain westerns, and in many modern blockbusters, viewers have to sit through the equivalent of a citizenship seminar so as to get to what they came for: the killing of an evildoer by the lone stranger who affirms our inherent distrust of the mechanics of society.

Leone only etches in the most necessary generalities of the barren Mexican village that serves as the film’s setting. Everyone is a pointed cliché, from the undertaker anxiously waiting to build more caskets, to the toady who kisses up to the stranger, to the beautiful women who pull strings behind the backs of their diseased patriarchs. This minimum characterization fuses with the iconic imagery and score to usher in a genre-infused postmodernism that would pave the way for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and the career of Quentin Tarantino, among other things. Nothing matters, so let’s revel in sensation: in sex, violence, and the license of hipness that’s granted to us by our willingness to indulge our most cynical instincts without apology or illusion. The difference between the cynicism of A Fistful of Dollars and of, say, Hostiles, is one of earnestness. A Fistful of Dollars wallows in the muck, using American myths as fodder for a visionary director’s formalist carnival, while Hostiles thinks it’s saving the world with its numbing literal-mindedness.

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And yet, the climatic bloodbath of A Fistful of Dollars still stings because the film’s swaggering braggadocio deliberately fails to prepare us for it. For a long spell, we’re allowed to enjoy the punishment that the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) inflicts on the warring gangs selling booze and arms to the Americans and Mexicans. But when the Rojos massacre the Baxters, mowing them down in cold blood after smoking them out with an explosion, the film changes emotional tempos without sacrificing its sacrilegious integrity. A Fistful of Dollars doesn’t pretend to reconcile its cynical vision of power with its irresponsible sentimentalizing of retribution—a conflict of ideas that’s at the heart of most action films. Leone is a bit of a softy after all, subscribing to a familiar and troubling western notion of the loner as correcting authority, yet the ferocious power of his violence—as in a haunting image of a dead man sprawled over a barrel—transcends his debts to formula.

Of course, A Fistful of Dollars is most notable for cementing Eastwood’s on-screen personality, which would for years scan as an impudent response to the sincerity of John Wayne, which was showing its cracks in the wake of the Kent State shootings and the Vietnam War. The Duke’s characters were more nuanced than was typically acknowledged, at least in their heyday, but they usually transcended their demons, while the Man with No Name and his descendants operated with a seriocomic self-regard that suggested a form of truth-telling on Eastwood’s part. As an actor, Eastwood doesn’t have the depth of Wayne at his best, but he fashioned a swaggering, anarchic, strikingly sensual physicality that suggests the retroactive arrival of a rock star in the Old West. Eastwood’s astonishingly fully-formed performance in A Fistful of Dollars established a pattern that would yield many unforgettable phantoms for the actor, who largely defined emotion by its absence. (It’s a definition that would also inform his work as a director.) Leone’s excess and Eastwood’s minimalism merged to create a multi-part fable of how the west, like filmmaking itself, is truly won by any means necessary.

Cast: Clint Eastwood, John Wells, Marianne Koch, Jose Calvo, Joe Edger, Antonio Prieto, S. Rupp, W. Lukschy, Margherita Lozano, Bruno Carotenuto, Daniel Martín, Richard Stuyvesant, Rating: NR Buy: Video

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2019 Oscar Nominations: The Favourite and Roma Lead Field, Bradley Cooper Snubbed for Director, & Cold War Surprises

Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced today and The Favourite and Roma led the way.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma led the nomination count with 10, followed by Adam McKay’s Vice and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born with eight, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther with seven, and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman with six.

Cold War made a strong showing, with Pawel Pawlikowski claiming his first nomination for best director. Notably snubbed in the category was Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly, whose Green Book is considered the favorite to win best picture after its victory at the Producers Guild Awards. Elsewhere, Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy) had to make way for Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) in best supporting actor, while Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate) snagged a spot in the best actor race thought to be reserved for John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman).

See below for a full list of the nominations.

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Best Picture
BlacKkKlansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Best Director
Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Adam McKay (Vice)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

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Best Actor
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams (Vice)
Marina de Tavira (Roma)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Best Costume Design
Mary Zophres, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Ruth E. Carter, Black Panther
Sandy Powell, The Favourite
Sandy Powell, Mary Poppins Returns
Alexandra Byrne, Mary Queen of Scots

Best Sound Editing
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
A Quiet Place
Roma

Best Sound Mixing
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
Roma
A Star Is Born

Best Animated Short
Animal Behaviour
Bao
Late Afternoon
One Small Step
Weekends

Best Live-Action Short
Detainment
Fauve
Marguerite
Mother
Skin

Best Film Editing
Barry Alexander Brown, BlacKkKlansman
John Ottman, Bohemian Rhapsody
Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite
Patrick J. Don Vito, Green Book
Hank Corwin, Vice

Best Original Score
Ludwig Goransson, Black Panther
Terence Blanchard, BlacKkKlansman
Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk
Alexandre Desplat, Isle of Dogs
Marc Shaiman, Mary Poppins Returns

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

Best Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep
End Game
Lifeboat
A Night at the Garden
Period. End of Sentence.

Best Foreign-Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Best Production Design
Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart, Black Panther
Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton, The Favourite
Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas, First Man
John Myhre and Gordon Sim, Mary Poppins Returns
Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez, Roma

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Best Cinematography
Robbie Ryan, The Favourite
Caleb Deschanel, Never Look Away
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Matty Libatique, A Star Is Born
Lukasz Zal, Cold War

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Border
Mary Queen of Scots
Vice

Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Adapted Screenplay
Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters, and Eric Roth, A Star Is Born
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, BlacKkKlansman
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Original Screenplay
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga, Green Book
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

Best Original Song
“All the Stars,” Black Panther
“I’ll Fight, RBG
“The Place Where Lost Things Go,” Mary Poppins Returns
“Shallow,” A Star Is Born
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

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Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

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Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

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Watch Stay below:

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