There isn’t a whole lot I can add to the subject of this film after it’s been the topic of so many film historians, critics, and hipsters since it first came out. However, I feel I should write up a review regardless as I finally watched it for the first time yesterday and also since this year marks it’s 50th anniversary. It’s a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (another film I need to watch — I’m not sure if I ever have) and directed by the amazing Sergio Leone. The rather simple story follows a drifter into a small Mexican town besieged by criminals and a corrupt sheriff. The drifter uses his wits and quick trigger finger bring justice to the town, as well as making a huge profit in the process. The only two honest men able to make a living in the town are the saloon keep and the undertaker (not the wrestler who was defeated at WrestleMania 30 by Paul Heyman’s client Brock Lesnar) whom aid our hero with shelter, whiskey, and key information at various points in the film.
For those of you who don’t know, the hero of the film is Clint Eastwood. United Artists marketed his character as “The Man with No Name”, although he is called “Joe” by the Mortician in a few instances. Whether or not that is his real name is up to interpretation, but hell, I don’t see why not. Anyways, Eastwood fresh off of his stint on TV’s Rawhide brings a confident swagger to the role that lead to him becoming the prototype for the Hollywood action star that we would later see in the 70s and 80s. He’s got a cool, quiet, menace to him that allows the audience to identify with him even though we don’t really know much about him. Although he’s double-crossing and blowing away the bad guys for money, we never get the sense he’s without morals. He never kills any innocents and in fact goes out of his way to help a family whose wife is being held hostage by the evil Rojo brothers as payment for the husband supposedly cheating at a card game. This one act of altruism almost leads to his downfall as he is caught and beaten half to death by the villains. The film’s murky morality is highlighted by this act; Joe gets a lot of money for killing people, but when he tries to save someone he gets his ass kicked. No good deed goes unpunished in this world.
This film is the embodiment of what I love about Italian films: their absurdity, their music, and their craftsmanship. The film exists in a comic book world where a captured hero can free himself from a wine cellar by crushing his captors with a giant barrel. Deaths are eclipsed by wise-cracks and musical cues. After Joe shoots someone, the scene normally ends with the view from his holster, letting the audience feel they themselves are the cool guy effortlessly shooting down four men in a two second time-span.
And although the film exists in a cinematic world, it still feels real world gritty. This is helped by the many sweaty, dust covered faces of the Italian actors Leone seems to want us to memorize every detail of as he spends quite a bit of run time on them in loving close-up. There is no glamor here; Matt Damon could never star in this film. The score, done by Ennio Morricone (who would of course do the score of the entire series) is good, but not as grand or iconic as it would be in the series finale The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Speaking of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I had seen it previous to A Fistful of Dollars many times. And although that film is the series closer, it is also the chronologically the first film as it takes place during the end of the Civil War, which has ended by the time of A Fistful of Dollars. Also, we see Joe don the famous poncho by the end of the film. So, in a weird way, I started the film series at the end, but it’s beginning. And that conundrum adds to the charm of this pulp series of films.
The influence of this film is something that is still being felt to this day. Leone’s cinematography and characterizations have influenced everything from Die Hard to Django Unchained to video games series such as Red Dead Redemption and Metal Gear Solid.
Despite being based on Yojimbo, Leone and Eastwood made the story central story their own. It’s a pop art masterpiece that led to very fruitful careers for both men. Leone’s icongraphy opened up a well-spring of creativity, imitation, and parody that will perhaps never entirely go away. Legends never die, and that is why the Man with No Name has been able to shoot his way through 50 years of imagination.
Happy anniversary, Joe.