Clint Eastwood may not have been a star when A Fistful of Dollars was released, but everything changed for him not long after that.
If it wasn’t for Sergio Leone’s love of lengthy luncheons, the Spaghetti Western as we know it would not exist. Long lunch breaks got him fired from his second unit job on The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), and temporary unemployment got him the spare time needed to start writing the screenplay that would become Fistful of Dollars. Over the next year or so Jamie Comas, Victor Catena, Tonino Valerii, Duccio Tessari, and Fernando Di Leo all contributed to it. Then, in 1964, Leone used his powerful visual style and a deathly desert setting to bring the screenplay to life and make the film that would forever define the genre.
He lifted the plot from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which was itself lifted from Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled crime novel, Red Harvest (1929). Although the first follows a hard-drinking detective of American noir, the second a masterless Samurai of Japanese lore, and the third a existential gunman of the Wild West, all three stories feature marksmen who, after arriving to towns in turmoil due to on-going gang wars, pit one gang against the other to bring gold to their pockets and peace to the citizens.
Each of the stories are entertaining works of art, but Leone’s film has aged the best and for me is the only true classic. In Red Harvest, the story intrigues, but the shallow characters annoy. Watch Yojimbo and the visuals hypnotize but the social commentary distracts. With Fistful of Dollars, on the other hand, Leone captures Hammett’s story, even adding some biblical undertones to it, in the process matching Kurosawa’s visuals with extreme closeups, beautiful wide-shots, and flawless framing. He then tops it off with Ennio Morricone’s groundbreaking score that mixes whiplash sound effects, slow trumpet pieces, guitar solos, and repetitive choruses to dictate the mood and foreshadow the narrative. Then there is the character who has since become—alongside Sean Connery as James Bond and Bruce Lee as ‘Bruce Lee’—cinema’s greatest action hero.
This character, this marksman who comes to the Mexican town of San Miguel to play the two gangs against each in order to intensify their rivalry and increase the bloodshed until it’s time clean up the leftovers, is The Man With No Name. The two gangs he manipulates into all-out war are the Baxters and the Rojos. The gunrunning Baxters are a Gringo family made-up of the spineless Sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), his wife Consuela (Margarita Jimenez), who calls the shots behind the scenes, and their idiot son Antonio (Benito Carotenuto). The liquor-hustling Rojos are run by a trio of Mexican brothers including the trigger-happy but incompetent Esteban Rojo (Sieghardt Rupp), acting-boss Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto), and the most sadistic and the sharpest shooter of them, Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), who would act as the genre standard for a psychotic gang-leader.
There’s also Ramon’s enslaved mistress Marisol (Marianne Koch), whose pretty face and how it is treated is used to direct our loyalties, Silvanito (Jose Calvo), the closest thing to a friend The Man With No Name will ever have, and the unforgettable Piripero (Joe Edger). Piripero, a straggly old-timer who you can probably find a lookalike of in the corner of your divest neighborhood bar, is the only man in the town of San Miguel with a steady job. And because his job is to make the coffins and dig the graves for all the dead bodies The Man With No Name creates, his riches and exuberance increases as the film progresses. “Get three coffins ready,” The Man With No Name tells him but then, after killing four of Baxter’s men, clarifies: “My Mistake. . . four coffins.”
But for Leone, the story of Fistful of Dollars and all the supporting characters who make it up are of minor importance. It’s all decoration for The Man With No Name. Piripero is memorable, but only because his happy demeanor contrasts with the coolness of The Man With No Name. It’s the same with Ramon and how his success as a charismatic and insane villain is dependent on The Man With No Name’s success as a level-headed, money-driven anti-hero. With the next two installments of the ‘Dollar Trilogy,’ For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Leone would shape his stories around an already developed and iconic character—and in consequence created his true masterpieces—but with Fistful of Dollars he had to create the icon and then insert it into a story.
As the work of Hammett and Kurowsawa proved, Leone knew that moviegoers would buy the ticket and take the ride, but he also knew that if his harrowing vision of the Wild West was going to work, he needed the right leading actor. The Man With No Name had to come off as both charming and dangerous, handsome and grimy, mystical and convincing. Leone needed someone that could carry an old story to new heights. He needed a Spaghetti Western prophet.
Henry Fonda was Leone’s first choice, but he was too big of a star. Charles Bronson thought the script was pathetically bad. James Coburn was too expensive. Because Jolly Film was producing Fistful of Dollars and had great success with its first Spaghetti Western, Gunfight at Red Sands (1963), Leone was encouraged to consider the star of that film, Richard Harrison, for the role of The Man With No Name. Lucky for us all, Harrison turned the role down and instead recommended Clint Eastwood. The rest, as they say, is history.
Under Leone’s direction, Eastwood created the prototype Spaghetti Western protagonist in The Man With No Name. He’s a cynical, self-reliant, amoral loner who rides a scruffy mule, takes a beating like Jake LaMotta, and has a knack for dry humor. He moves with the deliberate pace of a stoned teenager forced to clean the family pool, yet draws and shoots his gun with unparalleled speed and accuracy. His unshaven face, permanent cigar, and dusty poncho are as recognizable to film buffs as the Holy Cross is to Christians. And, like the son of God who was crucified upon that cross, Eastwood took to his role as Leone’s chosen savior of the western genre as though it was his destiny.
Not only did Eastwood rewrite most of his dialogue to great effect, but he also oozes with confidence in every scene. At that time, he wasn’t a great talent, and he didn’t have a lot of experience going into A Fistful of Dollars. I used to think that his confidence was the delusional sort commonly seen in handsome young up-and-coming actors who have never known failure or struggle, but then I learned that in the years before he moved to Madrid to commence filming with Leone, Eastwood was working menial jobs as a lifeguard, a gas station attendant, and a ditch digger to supplement his erratic acting gigs.
I can’t say where Eastwood’s confidence comes from, but I can say that he is an enigma. His performance as The Man With No Man in the “Dollar Trilogy” is brilliant, and the film in which Leone gives birth to it, A Fistful of Dollars, is the most important Spaghetti Western ever made.