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A Fistful of Dollars: The beginning


‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964) was the first film under the ‘Dollars Trilogy’ starring Clint Eastwood as the main character – ‘Man with No Name’ – and established the Spaghetti Western genre as a novel kind of Western. Interestingly most Spaghetti Westerns filmed between 1964 and 1978 were made on low budgets and shot at Cinecittà studios, in Rome and various locations around southern Italy and Spain.

In fact, the Western genre was in dire need of a revival in the early 1960s and even a veteran of such films, John Wayne in the lead was no guarantee that the film could draw a large audience anymore. Ironically, it was Italy, not America that revitalised the Western with ‘A Fistful of Dollars’; Sergio Leone the Italian filmmaker, reworked on the samurai classic, ‘Yojimbo’ (1961) directed by Akira Kurosawa, which in turn was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, ‘Red Harvest’. Leone also referenced numerous American Westerns, most notably ‘Shane’ (1953) and ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946) which differs from ‘Yojimbo’.

The ‘Man with No Name’ role was first offered to Henry Fonda. However, the production company could not afford to employ a major Hollywood star. Next, Leone offered Charles Bronson the part. He, too, declined, arguing that the script was bad. Later, both these stars appeared in Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968). Other actors who turned down the role were Henry Silva, Rory Calhoun, Tony Russel, Steve Reeves, Ty Hardin and James Coburn. Leone then turned his attention to Richard Harrison, an expatriate American actor, who although refused the role, suggested Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, in his first leading role, helped create his character’s distinctive visual style. He bought the black jeans from a sport shop on Hollywood Boulevard, the hat came from a Santa Monica wardrobe firm, and the trademark black cigars came from a Beverly Hills’ store. Eastwood himself being a non-smoker cut the cigars into three pieces to make them shorter. Leone reportedly took to Eastwood’s distinctive style quickly and commented that “More than an actor, I needed a mask, and Eastwood, at that time, only had two expressions: with hat and no hat.”

The film being an Italian-German-Spanish co-production, there was a significant language barrier on the set. Eastwood communicated with Leone and the Italian crew mostly through stuntman Benito Stefanelli, who also acted as an unofficial interpreter for the production. The film had no ‘single original language’. Actors performed using their native language and then the movie was dubbed in the countries as necessary: In the Italian release, the English and Spanish actors were dubbed, while in the US release, the Italian and Spanish actors were dubbed, so on and so forth. Not even in the Italian version were the lips always synced.

Initially, Eastwood had some major disagreements with Leone, particularly over the script, which he found too verbose, but after convincing the director to cut his dialogue to a minimum, they began to collaborate more productively. Incidentally, Eastwood’s price to appear in the film was just $15,000.

The film was shot on Spanish locations, mostly near Hoyo de Manzanares, close to Madrid as the producers realised that shooting a Western in Spain was 25 per cent cheaper than filming in Italy. The shooting was completed in eight weeks, in spite of the fact that there were times when the production was almost shut down due to cash shortages.

The film’s music was written by composer, Ennio Morricone. Initially, Leone was not keen on using Morricone for this film. However, trumpet performance by Michele Lacerenza in the score made by Morricone had Leone quickly setting aside all his reservations. Leone requested Morricone to write a theme that would be similar to Dimitri Tiomkin’s hauntingly ominous “El Degüello” theme as used in ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959). Although the two themes are similar, Morricone used a lullaby he had composed before and developed the theme of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ from it. Some of the music was written even before the film was shot, which is unusual. Leone’s films however were made in such a manner because he wanted the music to be an important part of it, and he often kept the scenes longer simply because he didn’t want the music to end. The professional relationship between Leone and Morricone lasted through all of Leone’s future films.

Promoting ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ was difficult as no major distributor wanted to face a risk with a faux-Western and an unknown director, and the film ended up being released in September, which is typically the worst month for sales. The film was shunned by the Italian critics, who gave it extremely negative reviews. However, at a grassroots level, its popularity spread, and made at a budget of $200,000 to $225,000 it grossed $4 million in Italy – that is about three billion lire – more than any other Italian film had done before.

American critics felt quite differently from their Italian counterparts and praised the film. The US release of the film was however delayed because distributors feared being sued by Kurosawa. Finally, the film was premièred in the United States in January 1967, grossing $4.5 million for the year. It eventually went on to collect $14.5 million in its American release. In 1969 it was re-released, earning $1.2 million in rentals.

When the film was shown on American Television station ABC in the early 1970s, additional footage was shot to give the ‘Man with No Name’ character a motive for visiting the San Miguel own. Neither Eastwood nor Leone was involved in the shooting of this additional footage. Harry Dean Stanton (uncredited) played an unidentified lawman or politician, who orders Eastwood to get rid of the gangs of San Miguel in return for a pardon. Stock footage of Eastwood was used.

The 67th Cannes Film Festival, held in 2014, celebrated 50th anniversary of Spaghetti Western by screening ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. In the same year, the film was digitally restored by Cineteca
di Bologna and Unidis Jolly Film for its Blu-ray debut.

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