A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

A Fistful of Dollars was produced a long time ago, so that when I mention the movie to someone, it does not surprise me if he says he never heard of it.  If he has heard of it, it does not surprise me if he says he saw it years ago, but 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.  But the one thing that never fails to surprise me is when someone says he prefers the movie it was based on, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo ( 1961).  I am similarly perplexed when someone says he prefers Seven Samurai (1954), again by Kurosawa, to the movie that is based on it, which is The Magnificent Seven (1960).  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.

I suppose the people that prefer Yojimbo to A Fistful of Dollars actually derive greater pleasure from watching the former than they do from the latter, but I sometimes wonder if much of that pleasure 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?”  From the mere fact that he asked that question, we can guess what the answer was.  He quit studying Greek soon after that.

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 listen to a symphony or see a 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 today, 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 sixteenth century England, I would probably have loved plays by Shakespeare, especially since I would have been speaking Elizabethan English myself and thus could understand what was being said and what it meant.  I might even have thought his comedies were funny.  In any event, 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 in this century 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.

The extra-aesthetic pleasure that comes from going to the theater to watch a play may be more characteristic of women than of men.  When comparing notes with her friends, a woman may indifferently say of the date she had last Saturday that they went to see a movie, but she can take no small amount of pride if she was taken to see a play instead.  As the eponymous doctor said in one episode of House, “Men don’t like plays.  Men go to see plays only when they’re dragged there by women they want to see naked.”

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 Japanese originals, which I forced myself to watch and never care to do so again.  Of course, the story in Yojimbo was not original either, for it too has antecedents, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest.  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.”  In For a Few Dollars More, he is referred to as Monco, but after the idea of the Man with No Name caught on, a scene where someone refers to Eastwood’s character as Monco was snipped out of most prints.

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 1975.  The censors were old hands at 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, much of 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.

On the subject of censorship, real or imagined, Eastwood is reported to have said that prior to A Fistful of Dollars, the Production Code did not allow the man shooting a gun and the man being shot to be in the same frame.  And indeed, when we do see such scenes in Leone’s movies, the impact is much greater than when they are filmed separately, as is the case in most movies.  But if Eastwood did say this, he was wrong.  Perhaps he was thinking of Rawhide (1959-1965), a television show he worked on where such a restriction may well have been in force.  But not so with the movies.  There are numerous examples of earlier Hollywood movies in which killer and victim are in the same frame, but here are just a few:  This Gun for Hire (1942), The Big Sleep (1956), Shane (1953), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Speaking of the impact of seeing a man firing his pistol and another man getting shot in the same frame, Leone managed to make these scenes seem realistic, even though Joe’s skill with a gun seems unbelievable when we think about it later.  Early in the movie, he beats four men to the draw, while in the final showdown at the end of the movie, he beats five men to the draw.  Of course, Joe is a professional gunfighter, who probably spends several hours every day working with his gun, much in the way that a musician spends several hours a day on his instrument.  As a friend of mine remarked, the men he kills are “just a bunch of North Side punks that strapped on a gun.”

In any event, the scenes seem realistic at the moment we watch them.  By the 1970s, however, there began a trend toward silliness.  Terence Hill’s Trinity character did stuff with his pistol that we didn’t believe for a minute.  Leone himself, much to my chagrin, even contributed to this trend in My Name Is Nobody (1973).

Nor was this limited to Westerns.  A similar phenomenon occurred in martial arts movies.  Before the 1970s, if a protagonist in a mainstream movie had training in the martial arts, the scenes which displayed that skill were believable.  Examples of such are the Mr. Moto movies, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and the James Bond movies.  But then came the kung-fu craze, where realism was no longer a consideration.  Or rather, it was deliberately avoided.  They could be fun at times.  Some of my favorites were Duel of the Iron Fist (1971), Queen Boxer (1972), and Triple Irons (1973).  But to say they were not realistic would be an understatement.  And after a while, the novelty wore off.

Nevertheless, this trend continued and has culminated in the comic-book movies of today.  But I liked the realism of movies past, even if it was only apparent realism, as in A Fistful of Dollars.

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