A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

If you want to get the cut of a man when you first meet him, you might mention the movie A Fistful of Dollars.  If he says he never heard of it, or that he remembers seeing it a long time ago, or that he did not care for it, or that it was too violent, or that it was one of his favorite movies, or any number of other such responses, then you are probably talking to an ordinary human being with whom further conversation may be pleasant and agreeable.  But if he suddenly gets a contemptuous look on his face and says in a disdainful manner that it was a based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo ( 1961), which was vastly superior, then you know you have the misfortune to be talking to a culture snob with whom any further intercourse is to be avoided at all costs; unless you yourself are also a culture snob, in which case you two deserve each other.  A similar shibboleth would be the movie The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which case a culture snob will inform you of the vastly superior Seven Samurai (1954) by the same director.  But I’ll say this much for Yojimbo.  At least it was only 110 minutes long.  Seven Samurai, on the other hand, drags on for 207 minutes.

Perhaps I am being a little harsh.  Perhaps some people actually do prefer Yojimbo to A Fistful of Dollars, the pleasure they get from watching the former is genuine, and they are not being pretentious.  Much of that pleasure I suspect is extra-aesthetic, which is the pleasure one derives from not from simply watching a movie, but from the idea that one is watching that movie.

Let me give an example of what I mean.  A friend of mine read The Iliad when he was in high school, and he was fascinated by it, subsequently reading it several more times.  After graduating from college, he decided he would study Greek so that he could read this work in the original language.  After several months, he had advanced to the point that he was able to start working his way through this ancient epic, albeit slowly and with a Greek-English lexicon by his side.  He told me that reading The Iliad this way was exhilarating.  But then he posed the question, “Is it that The Iliad is really that much better when read in Greek, or am I just excited by the idea of myself reading it in its original language?”

A similar extra-aesthetic is probably at work in the enjoyment people get from watching an opera.  In the nineteenth century, the typical way to enjoy music was either to have someone in your home play a musical instrument, like a piano, or to go to the theater and watch a symphony, ballet, or opera.  Had I been alive in that century, and had I the wherewithal to afford it, I would probably have attended the opera on a regular basis.  But no such effort is required in the twenty-first century.  One can simply listen to the arias in the comfort of one’s own home, owing to modern recording devices, and skip all that in-between stuff, where people sing-talk their way through a simple story that goes on for hours.  However, if one does go to the opera, one gets the extra-aesthetic experience of dressing up in formal attire and going to the opera house, where one is surrounded by the city’s elite, who are there to see and be seen.  And as one watches the opera, one derives an additional pleasure at thought that one is attending an opera.

Likewise, if I had been alive in the sixteenth century England, I would probably have loved plays by Shakespeare, especially since I would have been speaking Elizabethan English and thus could understand what was being said and what it meant.  With no movies or television, what else could I do?  But today, watching a play by Shakespeare is, for me, an unrewarding chore, especially compared to movies.  Nevertheless, going to the theater to watch one of the Bard’s plays can afford one the extra-aesthetic pleasure derived from the thought of one’s being at that theater for a little Shakespeare.

So, perhaps the idea of watching a Kurosawa film at an art house provides some people with enough extra-aesthetic pleasure to prefer such films to their Western versions.  To philistines like me, who don’t get enough mileage out of the extra-aesthetic experience to make it worth the while, the only redeeming value of those two movies by Akira Kurosawa is that they paved the way for A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven, which are actually quite good, as opposed to the vastly inferior Japanese originals.  Of course, the story in Yojimbo was not original either, for it too has antecedents.  Those who are interested can read a fairly thorough account in Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone.

The basic idea is that of a man playing two warring factions against each other as he seems to be on one side and then the other as suits his purposes.  As for A Fistful of Dollars in particular, the central character is played by Clint Eastwood.  Eventually, this character, who would also appear in the sequels For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), would become known as “the man with no name,” but here he is given the nickname “Joe.”

Joe is a hired gun who drifts around looking for someone to pay him for his services.  Soon after arriving in San Miguel, a small Mexican town, he finds out that there are two rival factions, the Rojos and the Baxters, the former making their living dealing in liquor, the latter in guns.  They periodically load up on and guns and liquor, take them north across the border, and sell them to the Indians.  Both families want complete control of the town, and Joe hires out first to one side and then to the other, making more and more money as he does so.

At that level he is completely amoral.  However, he forms a friendship with Silvanito, the bartender who tries to get Joe to leave town before he ends up being killed like so many others, and Piripero, the undertaker who makes a good living making coffins for all the men who get killed in the feud between the two families.  And Joe also takes pity on an innocent family, in which the wife is held as a sex slave by Ramón Rojos.  He helps that family escape, but is almost killed as a result.  In the end, the Rojos wipe out the Baxters and then Joe wipes out the Rojos.  Inasmuch as Joe gave all his money to the family he rescued, he leaves San Miguel no better off than he arrived.  But that’s all right, because he will simply move on to another town where he will find someone willing to pay for his services.  In other words, the business about the family aside, he is still an amoral hired killer.

It was the amoral quality of this movie that was the most problematic for the censors when the movie needed to be edited for television after ABC bought the rights to broadcast it in the late 1970s.  The censors were old hands and bleeping out bad words, snipping out nudity, and reducing or minimizing scenes of violence, but these tried and true techniques were not enough.  No matter how much of the violence was suppressed, the amoral character of the man with no name still came through.

Then someone came up with a brilliant idea.  Instead of cutting stuff out, why not add stuff in?  So, they filmed a prologue in which some guy dressed up to look like the man with no name is let out of prison on condition that he will work undercover for the Unites States government, with the job of eliminating the two rival gangs of San Miguel.  Legitimate government agents have gone there undercover, but they have all been killed.  It is Joe’s job to pretend to be a hired gun who cares about nothing but money.  If he succeeds in eliminating the Rojos and the Baxters by playing off one side against the other, he will receive a pardon for his crimes.

To those who were familiar with the movie, it was obvious the prologue was not part of the original.  For one thing, Joe’s poncho was too long.  And why would a prisoner be allowed to wear a poncho anyway, along with his boots, cowboy hat, and cigar?  At one point, we see a close up of Clint Eastwood’s face, which is clearly taken from a scene in the movie.  But usually the Eastwood replacement keeps his hand on his cigar while he smokes it so he can conceal his face.  He is told by Harry Dean Stanton, the warden, not to talk, so the censors didn’t have to worry about faking Eastwood’s voice. Finally, when this fake Joe is given his pistol, the barrel is longer than the one used in the movie.

Notwithstanding all these clues, a lot of people thought this was part of the original movie.  Another of Sergio Leone’s movies, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), had had a lot of footage cut out for theatrical release in the United States, but which was added back in when it came to television.  As a result, it was thought by many that something similar had happened here.  It even fooled Peter Bondanella, who refers to this prologue as if it were part of the original movie in his book Italian Cinema:  From Neorealism to the Present.  At least, that’s what he wrote in the first edition in 1983.  Whether he has corrected it in subsequent editions, I cannot say.

What really fascinated me about this prologue was that even though I knew it for what it was, it contaminated my viewing of the rest of the movie.  I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that Joe was really not just a hired gun, but actually an undercover agent.  In fact, some of the dialogue in the movie almost seemed to encourage the idea.  For example, at one point, Ramón says of Joe, “I don’t like that Americano.  He’s too smart just to be a hired fighter.”  When I heard that, I involuntarily thought, “He’s right.  Joe is actually working for the United States government.”  Many years have passed since then, and I have seen the movie many times during those years, but to this day, when I hear Ramón deliver that line, that involuntary thought pops into my head.

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