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.
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.
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.