It was here that Sergio Leone would begin his journey that would rocket him to a level of fame and admiration that made him the essential and much inspired filmmaker of today. A figure that played a critical role in my path of becoming an enthusiast of cinema, a bright and naïve young teenager who simply wanted to take on more serious films; it was here in A Fistful of Dollars where the concept of the Western genre began to shape my perception of it, a seemingly appropriate choice for an introductory course, only to find out later that what I have witnessed is a product that unshackles a recycled genre, a new form of a relic touchstone.
My admiration for Leone have grown over the years, initially felt cold and isolated towards his distinct sense of style, more so in this film than his subsequent entries; but eventually his remarkable innovation of his usage of the widescreen format began to emerge with a poetic touch that is lacking in many other filmmakers; consuming the frame with his actors’ faces, capturing an atmosphere of intimacy that the genre have lacked since its conception. It is in his style that the audience are transported to the vessels of his subjects, the unescapable adrenaline that flows through them, pulsating with such race that a release is much desired, dampening the idea of death, and its anticipation painfully excruciating.
In addition to his methodical approach to his scene constructions, Leone pairs them with the compositions from Ennio Morricone; reversing the genre’s epic sensationalism for a score that is grounded with intimacy through the utilisation of instruments with a distinct sound, with moments taking on a tune utilising only a singular instrument to fulfil its intentions. It was in the timing and sound of Morricone’s pieces that evoke that sense of melodrama that charges the narrative, creating weight of such great proportions without needing to use grand orchestras and fuller sounds; with many of its scenes actually harvesting the previously unharnessed power of silence and environmental effects to define its mood and elevate the experience of its chosen period.
A world so stripped of its glamour and machoism, as instead evoking consistency and equality in its living residents; a town divided by rival families, Rojos and Baxters, both rich in their thievery and smuggling respectively, with an empty and lifeless road taking space right in the middle. This is a place where the idea of satisfaction is far from anybody’s reach, with its towering families constantly at each other’s throats, unwilling to compromise their positions of power, finding contentment only in reaching the ultimate goal, total control. In their rivalry leaves its neutral residents either penniless or six feet under, bars and business that once drew in tourists and passers are now unvalued and a home for the sand and dust.
A lonely individual soon passes by and finds himself intrigued and deeply involved, entering with sights set on the idea of gaining wealth from their stubborn disputes. In the hopes of gaining a pure hero, a trademark of its genre, Leone soon shatters it with the protagonist’s immoral outlook, consumed by his desire for profit and utilising his intelligence in self-created opportunities, further driving the heat between the two factions. Exposed to this grey shaded figure have pushed the boundaries, a new dawn for a new era that would re-evaluate our expectations of the genre, no longer is it a need to place a shining beacon at its centre to capture the attention and heart of its audience, instead our admiration comes from the character’s confidence and skill, the beautifully and unique framing and shots chosen effectively and carefully by Leone that amplifies our mysterious protagonist’s stature; sometimes pushing the first person perspective through clever iconology.
Unfortunately despite multiple returns to the simple tale of greed and immorality, Leone’s distinct aesthetic remains with an amateurish flow, suffering the narrative with omissions of critical scenes that would provide ease in its transition from moment to moment; instead with the minimal dialogue he retains, he gives each one a significant sense weight, where a slight distraction from a spoken word would lose crucial detail in the shaping of its characters and their intentions; even now I found myself educated more of the characters and their agendas, but inevitably unable to lose myself into the aesthetic and gain a whole-heartedly pleasing experience, as each moment I felt the pace and style of the director to the point of simply exercise rather than for profound intentions or masqueraded with compelling intelligence or emotional attachment. Its worst is its usage of dubbing, handled with a sloppy finish, an effect left by the minimal finance of the feature, and adding on to a greater sense of restriction, which leads then to an adverse effect of distraction and suffering, unable to withhold the needed concentration and immersion to appreciate Leone’s intentions.
A Fistful of Dollars, a quiet innovation, which along with Leone’s two subsequent features with actor Clint Eastwood, would speak volumes to cinema as it follows, finding deep appreciation and inspiration, basking in its cynicism, almost stripping its predecessors, the glorified Westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford, of their value of the genre.