Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Dollars Trilogy, Part I: A Fistful of Dollars

The Dollar Trilogy films are what are known as "spaghetti westerns". These are a sub-genre of films, as you might have intelligently guessed, that were directed and produced by Italians. They are essentially the Italian filmmakers' take on the western genre. Popularity of these films arose in the early '60s and had a good run before they more or less died out in the late '70s.

Shameful as it might sound (it is), only until a few days ago, I had yet to see any of Sergio Leone's famed "Man With No Name" Trilogy. As a double whammy, this is also my first witness to Clint Eastwood in the western genre. In order to make up for this unnecessary guilt that I have imploded upon myself, I thought it would be interesting to write about them as I watch not only the Dollar triliogy for the first time, but my first Spaghetti westerns as well. The difference between spaghetti westerns and the "American" westerns, arguably made famous by John Ford and John Wayne, that most of us have become accustomed to aren't night and day, but they aren't difficult to point out either. It's the small and subtle differences that make (almost) make spaghetti westerns a standalone genre.

A Fistful of Dollars, generally known as the first "true" spaghetti western, is a near shot-for-shot remake of the Japanese 1961 film Yojimbo. Directed by newcomer Sergio Leone, it stars none other than Clint Eastwood as a mysterious, nameless man arriving at a desolated town torn apart by violence and crime. At the time, Eastwood was new to the silver screen as well. Prior to making his real breakthrough in the 1964 film, he was mostly known for the widely popular western television series Rawhide. When "Nameless" arrives in San Miguel, he learns that the town is overrun by two feuding families, the Baxter's and the Rojo's. Ramon, a madman fueled with greed, is the head of the Rojo' family, which is fueled with thieves and murders. The head of the Baxter family is the town Sheriff, and is mostly filled with dick heads, although they are not particularly evil. Only having one accomplice whom he trusts in town, he decides the best way to solve the problem is to spark an all-out war between the families, and profit from it in the process. He does this by pretending to be loyal for one family and not the other, doing jobs at an expensive price. In reality, he's not loyal to either of them. Only himself. We watch him as he continuously sets up both families until they finally wage war, and they are both blind to his true intentions.

Other than a bunch of name-calling and bodies falling, there is not much else going on here plot-wise. There is one subplot, however. Ramon has kept a woman has a girlfriend, whom he is deeply in love with". This is romantic and all, only that he he stole her from her husband and son, threatening to kill them if she sees them again. For one reason or the other, Nameless helps Marisol and her family escape from Ramon's grasp. When Marisol asks why he has done this, he responds with "Because I knew someone like you once." This is the first and only line in the film that proves that Nameless might actually have a soul under that stone cold face of his. 

His good deed doesn't go without consequence however, as he is finally caught and tortured for it. Of course, he escapes, and the Rojo's being the hotheads that they are, believe that his accomplice, Silvanito, is hiding him. As Nameless watches in hiding (and they beat him until he confesses where he is (he doesn't). They eventually give up and accuse the Baxter's of hiding him instead. What we get in result is not only a bloodbath, but a massacre. Seriously, the gang lights a hideout on fire and guns down anyone who tries to escape, including women and children. What's very troubling about this scene, and one of my major (if not the only) gripe, is that after watching his buddy nearly get beaten to death in hiding, he watches dozens of innocent people die, and does nothing. In hiding. It can be argued that he is too injured at the time to do anything effective, but it is enough to begin to question his morality in all of this. That's not say to he doesn't give the Rojo's what's coming to them. After arguably being single-handedly responsible by decreasing San Miguel's population by 99%, Nameless does a "Nameless" kinda of thing and simply carries on and leaves behind an Auschwitz-style pile of corpses to Silvanito and Piripero the coffin maker. Probably to repopulate. 

So what makes the Man with No Name so different from the rest of the westerns we are used to? It is mostly the hands of the director, Sergio Leone. The film's set pieces are almost nonexistent. Other then the crudely made inns and shacks, there is not much to look at considering the film basically takes place in a desert. Much of the film is composed of extremely wide angle shots, emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of both the ghost town and the titular character. The Stranger himself is a refreshment of the iconic cowboy heroes we are used to. John Wayne, for example, usually depicts a noble, heroic (and sometimes troubled) protagonist. Clint Eastwood was tired of his black and white role in Rawhide, and changed it up here with much success. He is too mysterious to know what he will do next, and that is one of the major pillars that keep the film standing.

Personally, my favorite difference so far is the very excellent score composed by Ennio Marricone (credited as Dan Savvio). Being a big Quentin Tarantino fan, it is painfully easy to see where he gets his notes from, particularly in the Kill Bill films (which is considered by many to be his take on the spaghetti western genre). Marricone's score is so unique and compelling that it is quite unlike anything else. The brilliant blend of Marricone's score and Leone's suspenseful, heart-pounding shots had me at awe. The purpose of the score is to get you more amped and excited than a 12 year-old at a Linkin Park concert (a feat to be admired), and it works terrifically.

Despite how rich and captivating this movie is, there is definitely room for improvement. I am told each movie in the trilogy is better than the last, so I am more than excited to see the two sequels. To be continued with part two!