nobody movie_21 Things We Learned From The Fistful Of Dollars Commentary

“He comes out of nowhere, he’s not going anywhere, and he’s shooting around and shooting people.”

Lorber cinema

Of Rob Jaeger Released May 26, 2022

Welcome to comment comment, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work and then share the most interesting bits. In this edition Rob Jaeger revisits the first entry in the unofficial Man With No Name trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars.

The Man With No Name Trilogy – Three Movies Directed by Sergio Leone and main role Clinton Eastwood as a nameless stranger who rides in and out of trouble – started in 1964 with A handful of dollars. The film sees Eastwood’s character arrive in a small frontier town and immediately set out to pit two warring factions against one another. It’s a well-known story, more on that below, but it’s gained some cult following as it ushered in the spaghetti western as we know and love it.

The new 4K UHD from KL Studio Classics is the beautiful release you’ve been hoping for, with new color grading of a 4K restoration and two narration tracks. One is by Tim Lucas, the other – the one we’re hearing today – by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, author of a Sergio Leone biography. Read on to see what I heard on the comment trail A handful of dollars.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Commentator: Sir Christopher Frayling (film historian)

1. That preamble of the title were designed by Luigi Lardani and based in part on the then-popular James Bond title credits. The shot at 1:13 is a fairly direct reference with “the eye, the iris looking down at the rider”.

2. Ennio Morricone’s score stands out from the usual music of the genre, which is clear from the start. The title track incorporates gunshots, whiplashes, electric guitar and more to create “a rock ‘n’ roll western.”

3. The script begins with a map showing the division between Mexico and the southern United States in 1872. The main character (Clint Eastwood) is named Ray…something wisely left out to leave him as a man without a name, though the coffin maker does call him Joe in the third act.

4. There weren’t many trees in this part of Spain (as a substitute for Mexico), so – according to Eastwood – when Leone drove past a farm with a single roadside tree, he stopped to acquire it. “They stopped the car, got out and said, ‘We’re from the Department of Highways and your tree is a hazard to passing traffic.'” They took the tree, took it to the shooting location and secured it to the ground to hang it a sling out of it.

5. The man rides into town at 7:05 am, and it’s a shift from early filming to an existing “set” north of Madrid. It was built for a series of Zorro films in 1962 and then rebuilt for this film. Leone would reuse it in other films, but while those later budgets would allow extras to roam the streets, the low budget here left no room for non-speaking filler.

6. A handful of dollars is a co-production between Italy, Spain and Germany. While some considered it the first Italian western, there were actually around twenty-five that preceded it with the same production configuration. However, they were “American” westerns, meaning Leone’s film was the first to create this new style.

7. You already know this, but the film is very directly based on Akira Kurosawa Yojimbo (1961). Kurosawa had already admitted that his samurai films were in some ways a re-imagining of traditional Hollywood westerns, but A handful of dollars is a very, very clear remake of Yojimbo – “The problem was that no one had cleared the rights.” Kurosawa finally wrote to Leone after watching the western and said, “I like your film very much, it’s a very interesting film, unfortunately it’s my film, isn’t it Your film.” They settled out of court that the Japanese director would earn more from this film than he would from his own releases.

8th. The original title was The gorgeous stranger. The script also specified the two competing clans as both Mexican, as opposed to where it now stands with a Mexican group versus whites.

9. Eastwood was paid $15,000 for the film, including a six-week “holiday” in Spain. Other actors originally considered for the role, including Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Henry Fonda, and others, all overcharged.

10 Morricone was not the first choice to compose the film as she was Angelo Lavagnino (The Last Days of Pompeii, 1959), but Leone met with Morricone anyway. He discovered that the two had attended elementary school together, and after reminiscing, they began discussing a possible scoring approach. Morricone shared an arrangement he previously wrote of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” featuring electric guitars, choir and more – and that became the opening track.

11. A whopping 34% of Hollywood productions in 1950 were westerns, but by 1963 that percentage had dropped to just 9%. Leone and Italian producers saw its opening as European audiences raised under fascism still craved the “freedom” and wide open spaces captured in westerns.

12. René Magritte was one of Leone’s favorite artists.

13. Eastwood tastes an Italian cigar called the Toscano, “which is practically unsmokable,” though he’s very much against smoking himself. However, the filmmakers felt it was part of the character, so he conceded. He asked Leone if the cigar could be skipped on her next film, but Leone said, “Of course you’re going to smoke the cigar, she’s the lead.”

14 Leone had wanted to use that traditional deguello theme out of Rio Bravo (1959) and The Alamo (1960), but he discovered that it wasn’t as old and traditional as he thought. It was actually written for the movies in the 50’s, so Morricone wrote his own starting at 33:03.

15 The intersection between the gunfight in the cemetery and Eastwood’s search for the gold finds an additional level in its acoustic syncopation. He taps barrels in the basement at 45:21, and we cut to the same number of shots in the graveyard. “It’s pure style, it has nothing to do with the real world.”

16 Leone’s English was limited, and his guidance to Eastwood typically consisted of standing in a cowboy hat with a pair of toy pistols and saying, “Watch me, Clint!” and mimicking whatever he wanted the actor to do.

17 The film features numerous references to Christianity and Easter, with the dinner at 57:51 being a deliberate nod to Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper.

18 William Thomkins was Eastwood’s double and has a small role in the film as a member of the Baxter gang.

19 “Because I once knew someone like you, there wasn’t anyone there to help me,” is the only moral motivation given to Eastwood’s character. The original screenplay has been moved at this point to feature a three-page flashback, showing an earlier incident in the man’s life.

20 The shot at 1:08:50, in which a thug stubs out his cigarette on Eastwood’s hand, was cropped by many British prints in the 1960s as too cruel.

21 The revolver belt and pistol grips were borrowed from the Eastwood rawhide (1959-1965) and he brought them into production as a good luck charm.

Preferably in a context-free comment

“He’s a big man on a little mule.”

“He comes out of nowhere, he’s not going anywhere, and he shoots people.”

“You keep wanting Eastwood to be the goodie, but he never quite acts that way.”

“Everyone is pretty bad, but some are worse than others.”

“Italian western heroes like to strike their matches on any available surface, be it their chin, a hanged man’s boot or a piece of metal.”

Final Thoughts

You can’t go wrong ripping a Kurosawa film, and A handful of dollars succeeds in creating a stylish story about violence and morality. Frayling’s commentary validates his extensive knowledge of Leone and the director’s work through details, anecdotes and more. However, fans should listen to both commentaries as the story behind the film, the filmmakers and the genre itself is rich.

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Rob Hunter was writing for Film School Rejects before you were born, which is odd considering he’s so damn young. He’s our chief film critic and associate editor and lists Broadcast News as his all-time favorite film. Feel free to say hello if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.

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