The Man With No Name Called Joe
Up until 1964 there really was only one type of western or at least only one type which gained audiences and that was those where we had a hero looking for justice or revenge, embellished with action sequences and a sense of justice. Then along came Sergio Leone with his reworking of Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo", "A Fistful of Dollars" a gritty, almost dirty western shot in Spain for Italian audiences and made on a minuscule budget. And never would westerns be the same again as he gave audiences something different too what they had ever seen before a rawness and roughness but also a sense of intrigue and of course Clint Eastwood as "The Man With No Name".
A drifting gunman finds himself in the Mexican village of San Miguel where he strikes up a friendship with bar owner Silvanito (Jose Calvo). The gunman learns that San Miguel is run by two feuding families and decides to play them off against each other first working for Esteban and Ramon Rojo then switching sides working for the Baxter's, a dangerous game to play which is sure to lead to blood shed.
Where do you start when reviewing "A Fistful of Dollars" well probably the most sensible place is with the storyline, which may come as a surprise but it's pretty simple. A stranger rolls in to town and starts playing off the feuding families against each other. There is no more than that, not even the subplot about a young woman being kept hostage by one of the families adds anything of real substance or complexity to it. Which may sound like that its a bit weak where in fact it's totally the opposite as it delivers a sense of intrigue with nothing being as clean cut as you would imagine. It leaves you wondering why this stranger did what he did and that makes it a far more interesting movie than what prior to this was your normal western all about vengeance.
One of the masterful things about "A Fistful of Dollars" is that nothing is black and white or at least not in the way we are use to with westerns. Take Clint Eastwood's character, "The Man With No Name" although he is referred to as Joe, here we have a gun man who when we first meet him watches a man takes a beating. Is he a good guy, is he a bad guy well it's never really made clear and nor are his motives as he decides to wage one family against another. It gives "A Fistful of Dollars" almost an air of mystery and that continues as we first watch Joe work for one family then another. It certainly forces you to pay attention because you just don't know what will happen next.
What hits you next is that visually "A Fistful of Dollars" is nothing like you've seen before in a western. It's gritty, dirty and surprisingly more realistic. When someone takes a beating they don't miraculously get up and fight on, they are floored, bloody, dirty and with injuries which carry on plaguing them. And the touch of realism continues into the expected gun fights where we watch guns fire and people killed all in the same shot, something which prior to Sergio Leone's brave direction was unheard off. But it is also the whole styling of the camera work, the close focus on eyes which gives it a completely different feeling. And unlike those standard westerns which give you sweeping camera shots of the scenic backdrops and big gun battles, there is none of that as Leone focuses on the small but powerful moments.
Of course you can't forget that "A Fistful of Dollars" and the other movies in Leone's "Dollars" trilogy were the movies to make Clint Eastwood's career. Yes Eastwood had been in a few movies and was known as Rowdy Yates in "Rawhide" but it is his performance in these movies which would launch him on the way to being a screen icon. As such Eastwood's performance is pretty darn good, he's icy, silent, strong, moody and someone who you really don't want to mess with yet has an almost restrained compassionate side to him as well as a touch of humour. But most importantly Eastwood makes him a man of mystery, someone who we know little about but who intrigues us.
So strong is Clint Eastwood's performance that the rest of the cast make little impact, although Jose Calvo as bar owner Silvanito adds almost a touch of humour to things. And Marianne Koch is stunningly beautiful as Marisol.
What this all boils down to is that "A Fistful of Dollars" truly is a very good western which at the time of release was vastly different to what westerns had been all about. It's both more gritty and realistic than those westerns of say John Wayne and James Stewart but still has all those moments you expect including an iconic gunfight. But it is Clint Eastwood's performance which makes it such a good movie, the ultimate man of mystery who causes you to watch.