Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone / Italy-Spain-West Germany, 1964):
(Per un Pugno di Dollari)

The psychedelic rotoscoping of the opening credits lays out the Sergio Leone experience: Otherworldly sights and sounds as incantation and deformation of the Western. Joe the Americano (Clint Eastwood) rides into the bandit frontier hamlet, divided "between funerals and burials" and between rival crime families, the Rojos and the Baxters. The summarization of the plot in one line ("There’s money to be made in a town like this") is typical of Leone’s acerbic approach, genre tropes are flashed only to be defamiliarized. Whitewashed rocks surrounded by sandy, battered plains constitute the West -- the only tree in sight has a noose dangling from its gnarled branch, the only family has been disbanded so that the mother (Marianne Koch) can be forcefully kept as mistress of the head of the Rojo family. Gian Maria Volontè as the villain who "always aims for the heart" is given a build-up worthy of O’Neill’s Hickey, and lives up to it in a fabulous intro, blithely machine-gunning down an entire U.S. regiment while dressed in fake cavalry blues. (Eastwood’s mysterious gunslinger, who by then has perfected the sly comedy of cowboy-Zen, registers the slaughter by shifting the cheroot from one side of his mouth to the other.) The basis is Yojimbo, which means that it’s about Ford, too; Leone’s wide-angle lenses purposefully distort Kurosawa’s long lenses, the revolver that once shot the samurai code is now the rule. It’s very much an act of sardonic disrespect toward the genre, like propping up dead bodies against a tombstone, yet it’s also a legitimate passion play, with its stubbly wanderer undergoing a crushing Calvary that dilates the violence of Mann and De Toth, flight (with a coffin’s viewpoint of a fiery massacre), resurrection in a cave (One-Eyed Jacks) and, finally, a miracle on main street. The tenor is still clearing his throat, but this rough draft already displays the filmmaker’s Old-West-as-Mars grandeur. Music by Ennio Morricone. With Wolfgang Lukschy, Sieghardt Rupp, Joseph Egger, Antonio Prieto, José Calvo, Margarita Lozano, Benito Stefanelli, Daniel Martín, and Mario Brega.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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