Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Film Appreciation - The Magnificent Stranger

Film Appreciation goes west (in Spain) as Cody Hamman takes a look at Sergio Leone's 1964 film Fistful of Dollars.

After kicking around Hollywood for a while, showing up in movies like Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula, Clint Eastwood landed a lead role in the western television series Rawhide, and I'll be honest - I'm primarily familiar with Rawhide through the performance of its theme song in The Blues Brothers. It just didn't seem to show up in reruns on the channels I watched as much its contemporaries Bonanza and Gunsmoke did. Regardless, Rawhide ran for eight seasons, a total of 217 episodes. Eight years of Eastwood playing a cowboy character who was purely good. As the show was winding down, Eastwood was looking to shake up his image a bit by playing a character who was a bit more complicated. That's when he got the opportunity to star in director Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars, an Italian/German/Spanish production set to be filmed in Spain. Leone was looking to shake up the entire western genre, which felt had gotten stale. Eastwood was far from Leone's first choice to play the gunslinger at the heart of his story. He was at least tenth choice down the line, after actors like Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Richard Harrison had turned down offers, but he ended up being the perfect man for the job. Eastwood and Leone would accomplish their goals together, taking Eastwood's career to a new level while also altering the perception of westerns.

Eastwood's character in the film is a drifter, a man with no name, although the allies he makes in the film will call him Joe a couple times, so maybe his name is Joe. He has no back story, we don't learn anything about him, we only observe his actions for the 100 minutes that the movie lasts. This stranger is drifting through the Mexican desert sometime in the late 1800s when he ends up riding into a small town called San Miguel. As soon as he enters this place, it's clear that it's nowhere anyone would want to be. He witnesses what are obviously very bad men separating a mother from her husband and child. He sees a corpse propped on the back of a horse, a sign stuck to it that says "Adios amigo". Villagers hide in their homes. A group of men mock the stranger and fire their guns around his mule's feet, scaring the beast out from under him. The local bell-ringer expects he'll be ringing the bell to mark the death of the stranger quite soon, and a coffin maker sizes him up so he'll know what size coffin to make for him. That's how often people are shot dead in San Miguel - if you come to this town, odds are you're going to be killed and buried in it.

Innkeeper Silvanito (Jose Calvo) provides the stranger with some exposition, letting him and the audience know what exactly is going on around here. There are two gangs operating out of San Miguel, gangs which happen to reside in the two large buildings at each end of the street that runs in front of the inn. At one end are the Rojo brothers, who have come down from Texas to acquire cheap liquor to take back to the Native Americans across the border. At the other end of the street is the Baxter family, which includes local sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), who have a similar operation going on, but they're gun runners.

Hearing this story, the stranger gets an idea on how to clean up San Miguel. Why does he feel compelled to do this? The stranger doesn't really share his feelings or thoughts, and he doesn't show much emotion, so you have to come to some conclusions yourself. At first, you might think it's revenge for the way he and his mule were treated, but later in the film he will deliver some very simple and vague dialogue that will suggest seeing the way that family was treated triggered a memory. That's the most you'll get out of him. This was by design; the stranger had more dialogue in the script, which was cobbled together by a small army of writers, but Eastwood had his lines pared down to the bare essentials. There's a quote attributed to John Wayne where he advised, "Talk low, talk slow, and don't say too much." That's exactly what Eastwood did in this film, and it works. His character is intriguing because he's so blank slate mysterious, and while Eastwood does have some awesome lines in here, a glare from him is worth a thousand words.

The stranger puts together a plan that will soon have the Rojos and the Baxters working to destroy each other. He offers to work for the Rojos, then gives a display of his abilities by walking down the street to kill the Baxters who messed with him and his mule. While walking down the street, he tells the coffin maker, "Get three coffins ready." He confronts the Baxters, they draw weapons - and the stranger is able to shoot four men before any of them can shoot him. He turns around and walks back down the street. As he passes the coffin maker, he says: "My mistake. Four coffins." If you watch this movie and the stranger hasn't now become one of your favorite characters ever, I don't know what you're looking for.

By doing some gun business of their own, a deal which involves pulling off the massacre of a large group of military soldiers, the Rojos just provide the stranger with more options as he manipulates the situation.

Of the two gangs, we see more of the workings of the Rojo bunch, which is led by brothers Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and the notoriously evil Ramón (Gian Maria Volontè), along with their loyal lackey Chico (Mario Brega). It's Ramón who kills those soldiers, and it's him who stole that mother (Marianne Koch as Marisol) away from her family, taking her as his own after falsely accusing her husband of cheating at cards. They are the worst of the bad guys, with Ramón being the main villain of the film. We only get a little time with the Baxters, but there is something interesting going on there. While John is the leader of the group, his wife Doña Consuelo Baxter (Margarita Lozano) holds a lot of sway over him and really seems to be the brains of the operation. She's quite intriguing, I would have liked to have spent more time with that character.

Everything eventually devolves, as you would expect, into violence, death, and destruction on the streets of San Miguel. The stranger does everything just right to kick off a war between the two groups and to save the innocent - although things don't go perfectly for him. He takes a beating by the end of the film, and has to recover from it before he can participate in the final confrontation with Ramón. It all comes down to a duel between these two, and I think it's probably common knowledge by now that the stranger strolls into this fight wearing a makeshift bulletproof vest beneath his iconic poncho.

Fistful of Dollars is one of those films that could be held up as being the definition of cool. The stranger himself, Eastwood's performance, his dialogue, the shootouts, the unforgettable music composed by Ennio Morricone, it's all so incredibly cool. You can't even try to make something like this, it can't be replicated, this movie has a feeling that could have only been achieved by this creative team at this time. There are a lot of other "spaghetti westerns", Leone would make more them, some of them starring Eastwood, but Fistful of Dollars is unique.

This film tells a simple story, but the elements that were assembled to tell that story added up to make it awe-inspiring. It's easy to see why this film was a hit when it was released, and why it remains popular more than fifty years later. This movie will blow away an audience member just as easily as the stranger blows away his opponents.

No comments:

Post a Comment