Chapter II: A Fistful of Lire
On first viewing, Sergio Leone was transfixed. His wife Carla recalls: 'he got the idea of turning it into a Western there and then.'1 So, the rival families became gun runners and liquor smugglers, and the ravaged town was moved to the Mexican border. Indeed, the story of Yojimbo was originally based on Western sources - Dashiell Hammett`s novel Red Harvest (1929) and Budd Boetticher`s film Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) provided bases for the structure, and Kurosawa never hid his debt to the Western. Leone was also at pains to point out Yojimbo`s debt to the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni`s The Servant of Two Masters (1745), since the director had failed to secure the rights from Kurosawa. His project - Il magnifico straniero (The Magnificent Stranger) - altered the style and the moral of Yojimbo massively, but the plot parallels pointed to obvious plagiarism. Kurosawa sued, winning a cut of the film`s takings and delaying its release in Britain and America for over two years. In Italy, however, the renamed Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) was a smash hit.
The European Western was no new phenomenon. As early as 1910, Giacomo Puccini`s La fanciulla del West had followed the French Lumiere brothers` early Western shorts, and Leone`s parents had made La vampira indiana in 1913. His father Vincenzo Leone (stage name Roberto Roberti) was a major figure in the post First World War Italian film industry, but found it hard to marry his Communist beliefs with an industry increasingly taken over by Mussolini`s Fascist state. Sergio Leone, born in 1929, grew up amongst cinéastes, and his early years in Rome were spent fascinated by the adventures of Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. American comics and films inspired a romantic dream of a vast wilderness, free of the miseries of European politics, but when the young Leone encountered real Americans (as they liberated Rome in 1943) he experienced his first disillusionment with the American Dream: 'I could see nothing that I had seen in Hemingway, Dos Passos or Chandler [ ] Nothing [ ] of the great prairies, or of the demi-gods of my childhood.'2 Still, Leone remained in love with the Western genre`s compelling myths, if no longer with Hollywood`s dubious readings of history (he had realised that authoritative versions of history were not to be trusted after his schooling under Mussolini`s regime). His mythology would be inspired by the pupi Siciliani puppet morality plays of his youth, and the picaresque Commedia dell` arte - a world of tricksters and ritual.
Disillusioning early assistant work under Raoul Walsh, William Wyler and Robert Aldrich at last convinced the ambitious young Leone that the beloved Western genre was unsafe in the hands of Americans ('The Western is finished'3 Walsh told him on the set of Helen of Troy (1954)). The German Westerns` success alerted many European directors to a niche in the market, and the producer Samuel Bronston had constructed lavish sets in the cost-effective Spanish deserts in 1959. Leone`s Western project was funded reluctantly by Giorgio Papi`s and Arrigo Columbo`s Jolly Film Company, and filmed side by side with Mario Caiano`s Bullets Don`t Argue, sharing costumes, crew and locations (in Spain).
The Italian Western was assumed to be a dead genre in 1964 (the twenty five made in 1963 had imitated Hollywood and were seen as an odd craze), so in order to sell the film, the credits were Americanised (Leone becoming 'Bob Robertson' in recognition of his father`s stage name), and the leading man, it was dictated, had to be American. Leone approached Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, before having to settle for the clean-cut star of C.B.S.`s Western series Rawhide - one Clint Eastwood.
While A Fistful of Dollars displays embryonic features that were to become Leone trademarks (flamboyant close-ups, eccentric dialogue and a surreal desert environment to name but a few), it also employs many parodic elaborations on well recognised Western clichés. From the opening shot of a poncho-clad 'Shane' emerging from the landscape to the final deserted post-showdown main street (with no High Noon-esque cowed citizenry) we are firmly placed in the Western milieu, but established conventions are continually undercut. John Baxter`s tin star is an empty symbol, and his bombastic assertion that Joe (Eastwood) will be 'strung up' for killing four men is immediately undermined by the muzzle of Joe`s Colt .45. Hollywood`s cherished badge of honour - worn with pride by Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine and potently tossed aside by Gary Cooper in High Noon - is now tucked away in the pocket of a corrupt gun runner. Baxter`s assumption that it can tame a murderer on its merit as an icon of authority is tragically beside the point, since in Leone`s universe nothing 'Hollywood' is sacred - even the U.S. Cavalry serve only to offer cover for double-crossing and slaughter. Silvanito, the inn-keeper, understands perfectly: 'It`s like playing cowboys and Indians.'
Silvanito`s observation does however underline the fact that Leone was always a great admirer of Ford, Hawks, Stevens et al. An erudite scholar of the Western, Leone knew how to manipulate the codes of the genre to his own ends, while remaining in the 'West' as recognised by audiences world-wide. In many ways, Hollywood`s trends had invited this new interpretation - Eastwood`s stranger more or less follows Will Wright`s 'classical' formula, while his mercenary acts of violence indicate the onset of the 'professional' plot. Leone recognised his debt to Shane, and the cynicism of such 1950s Westerns as Aldrich`s Vera Cruz (1954) and Edward Dmytrick`s Warlock (1959) laid a trail of double-crossing mistrust leading straight to Leone`s door. A Fistful of Dollars, however, was a radical departure in terms of style and morality.
Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonté) at first resembles the familiar Hollywood 'greaser' villain - the stereotyped Mexican bandit who shoots unarmed men (and women) and persecutes innocent families. As is common in Leone`s cinema, however, appearances are deceptive. Ramon swears by a concrete sense of honour, usually associated with a hero, exemplified by his 'old Mexican proverb' - 'When a man with a .45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with the pistol will be a dead man.' It is this very pride in his accuracy and honour that is his downfall, since Joe taunts him into aiming for his (armoured) heart when a shot to the head would dispatch him easily. Leone is taking his first steps towards transforming the traditional showdown into elaborate ritual here, as Joe manufactures a fair duel between the last two surviving combatants.
Joe emerges to face Ramon
This is where Leone comes into his own. While many European Westerns had attempted to imitate Hollywood, he sought to create 'fairytales for grown-ups,'4 merging his own quirky readings of Western history with the stock rituals of the Commedia dell' arte (this I shall return to). His refreshing approach to a genre starting to atrophy in America exploded many cherished symbols of the West, leading many to read into his work a 'demythologising of a tradition that extends back to [James Fenimore] Cooper'5 (Lee Clark Mitchell). Such opinions assume Leone`s universe to be a mythological vacuum, merely emptying all mythic space, but nothing could be further from the truth.
While debunking Hollywood`s myths of redemptive violence in the name of progress, Leone breathes life into the mythic resonance of the Western, ironically, by cluttering his world with the iconography of death. Hangings, funerals and cemeteries had always figured prominently in the Western`s violent towns, but Leone`s Catholic imagery raises this theme to an obsessive level, to the extent that the only two scenes with no Yojimbo precedent whatsoever - the cemetery and the cavalry massacre - overtly emphasise it.
A Fistful of Dollars is a cinematic morgue from the very start - before he has even entered San Miguel, Eastwood rides past a noose and a dead horse rider, and once he is in the town he is variously warned 'You will get rich here or you will be killed' and 'We spend our time here in between funerals and burials.' The only evidence of any life in the town, other than the protagonists, is a group of widows scurrying indoors. The body count even starts in the opening credits, where silhouetted Mexicans and cowboys are gunned down to Ennio Morricone`s haunting theme. Leone`s black humour is also evident early on, when we discover that the only man whose business is a success in San Miguel is the coffin-maker, who is so experienced he can measure a man up with a glance. Silvanito`s advice to Joe that he would make a good pallbearer is merely common sense in a town that peddles only in death - the Rojos are liquor smugglers, yet their produce is used only to burn down houses!
All too often, critics have been allowed to get away with myopic condemnations of Leone`s fascination with death: 'downright sadism [ ] mean, nasty and ugly'6 (Walter Clapham), 'pious and repellent'7 (The New York Times). As exercises in missing the point, such criticisms take some beating - Leone quite explicitly explores the fine balance between life and death throughout.
Again, Silvanito delivers wise words, when Joe cracks a joke about ghosts: 'No, no, no, no. Don`t joke about these ideas. Ghosts are better left where they are.' The boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead is almost non-existent in A Fistful of Dollars - the dead horse rider at the start seems alive, Joe manipulates two dead soldiers to look alive ('The dead can be very useful sometimes'), Ramon 'kills' said soldiers as they hover between the two planes and Joe lies in a coffin, half dead after a beating from the Rojos, and observes the Baxters being slaughtered. Ramon manipulates the bodies of the cavalry to look as if they killed each other, and Silvanito, on the verge of death, opens his eyes as Joe arrives to kill the Rojos. As Ramon wisely observes, 'Life can be so precious.' Leone would develop a fascination with the moment of death in his later Westerns, and Ramon`s passing from this world to the next is narrated by the camera adopting his point of view as he reels back, fatally wounded, after Joe himself has been repeatedly shot, only to rise up again and again. The deserted street at the end is not just a genre-twisting gimmick - San Miguel really is a ghost town.
Joe prepares Ramon for his destiny .
..and Ramon stares death in the face
Mitchell sees in this dominant imagery a parody of the 'living dead'8 bastions of masculine restraint that pervade the Hollywood Western - Eastwood`s mute impassivity demonstrating that the only discernible difference between the cold self-control of the Westerner and real rigor mortis comes with being above or below the ground. This would be consistent with Leone`s mischievous take on Hollywood conventions, and Joe`s narrow avoidance of being buried in his coffin hiding place supports this, but Leone is not just satirically demythologising the Western: the ethereal instability of A Fistful of Dollars lends a whole new mythical significance to the genre - in the figure of St. Michael.
Joe`s continual hovering between life and death, his supernatural marksmanship and endurance, and his mysterious arrival and departure all amount to far more than mere lampooning of well-worn Hollywood conventions. The town that has lost its sense of morality bears the name of its punisher - San Miguel, the archangel who smote Satan in the battle for Heaven, and whose holy duty it is to rescue the innocent from evil, and to call men`s souls away from Earth at the moment of death. Leone is quoted as saying Joe is 'an incarnation of the Angel Gabriel,'9 (in Christian tradition, Gabriel and Michael have shared the roles of angel of mercy and of judgement). The message is clear - Joe is not of this world.
Leone`s world possesses a strict Catholic morality, whereby family loyalty is utmost. The innocent 'holy' family - Julio, Marisol and Jesus - are terrorised by Ramon, whose own family loyalties have led to clan warfare. Joe`s calling as a protector of the innocent is explicit, his apparently mercenary motives disappearing when he donates his money to Marisol`s family, telling her 'I knew someone like you once, and there was no-one there to help.' The symbolism of an innocent family fleeing from terror into the desert hardly requires the inn-keeper Silvanito`s decoding: 'In these parts of the world the story is very old. A happy little family, and trouble comes along.' Once Joe has liberated the family, he returns to San Miguel, when a true mercenary would leave, since no more money can be made. He has a higher purpose.
Robert Cumbow identifies10 an almost obsessive pattern of trios in A Fistful of Dollars (and this would continue throughout Leone`s work) - three families form the basis of the plot, each having three chief characters. There are three professional men outside the families - the coffin-maker, the inn-keeper and the bell-ringer - and the three traditional roots of evil in the Western - guns, liquor and gold - dominate the running of San Miguel. Cumbow reads into this a symbolism of the Holy Trinity, but more significantly, Joe continually insists on remaining 'in the middle' between extremes. His omnipresence ('Strange, how you always manage to be in the right place at the right time' - Consuelo Baxter) becomes uncanny - overhearing Esteban Rojo planning to kill him early on, listening under the boardwalk as the Rojos search for him, appearing from nowhere in the Baxters` house. His studied neutrality amounts to a supernatural enactment of the scales of judgement, to the extent that at one point he adjudicates that Marisol must return to Ramon, after much silent contemplation.
Juan de Dios, the bell-ringer, tolls his bell to alert the coffin-maker of impending trade, and the ominous chimes repeatedly occur to punctuate Joe`s entrances. Finally, Joe inflicts hell and brimstone on both families, as their houses burn and their number are slaughtered as a result of his intervention. The angel of judgement appears from a cloud of smoke to send Ramon, finally, to his fate. One suspects Consuelo Baxter`s dying wish is granted: 'I hope you rot in Hell!'
Leone had achieved an apotheosis of the lone hero beyond even Shane`s mystical man of the land, and injected his own eccentric, highly stylised imagery. His film would have to wait for American release thanks to Kurosawa`s lawsuit, but its success in Italy paved the way for a much anticipated sequel.
A Fistful of
Dollars had revitalised the Italian Western, and the hordes of imitations
(by such directors as Franco Giraldi, Enzo Barboni and Duccio Tessari)
attracted the at first derogatory label 'Spaghetti' Westerns. Leone
was unhappy about being branded the father of the genre ('How many sons
of bitches do you think I`ve spawned?'11 ),
but a lucrative offer from producer Alberto Grimaldi to fund a sequel
was too good an opportunity to miss. With a larger budget, Leone was
now able to indulge his passion for the quirky details of Western history:
'The real West was a world of violence, fear and instinct [
you were honourable - like the heroes of traditional Westerns - you
would find yourself in the cemetery in no time at all'12
(Leone speaking in 1973). Leone`s reading of Frontier history was extremely
selective and sensationalised, as Cumbow observes:
[he] is not
concerned with placing events in a "real" context - social,
To do Leone justice, it must be said that Hollywood rarely concerned itself with the reality of the West, and his reading is self-consciously mythical and parodic. His eccentric vision of the West allowed him to explore aspects of it rarely before seen, such as the South West border towns and the role of the bounty hunter.
Once again Leone`s project - Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More, 1965) - owed much to Hollywood precedents. The lonely bounty hunter had been portrayed in Budd Boetticher`s Ride Lonesome (1959), and by James Stewart and Henry Fonda in Mann`s The Naked Spur (1952) and The Tin Star (1957) respectively. Leone takes much from the 1950s and 60s professional Westerns (especially Vera Cruz) and Colonel Mortimer`s (Lee Van Cleef`s) pursuit of Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) has much in common with Will Wright`s definition of the 'vengeance' plot (leaving society to pursue personal vengeance for a loved one where the law has failed). Leone`s vision, however, again contains none of the progressive violence of Hollywood. He was only just getting started in his quest to reconfigure the entire genre. Christopher Frayling summarises his attitude succinctly: 'Leone liked to "read" the West as if he was a kind of reverse alchemist, turning gold into base metal. And there was plenty of raw material to choose from.'14
For a Few Dollars More is a key film in Leone`s oeuvre, boldly exploding Hollywood clichés whilst laying the thematic foundations for the 're-mythologising' universe that would find full fruition in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). The minimalist, low-budget mysticism of A Fistful of Dollars makes way for a fuller pastiche of the Western, complete with crowded saloons, daring bank robberies and jail-breaks.
Once again, a lone rider approaches to open Leone`s film, but this is no Shane, Ethan Edwards or even Joe. Instead, he is gunned down by a marksman before we have even seen his face. The jarring credit sequence, punctuated by gunshots, now shows us Italian names, and the film`s epigraph sets the moral tone for a world run by the law of the bounty hunter - 'Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had a price.' From the outset, For a Few Dollars More is quite brashly not a Hollywood Western. This confident self-assertion continues into Colonel Mortimer`s introductory sequence - the Bible being read by an apparent reverend on a train hides the face of one of the Hollywood Western`s archetypal 'baddies' - Lee Van Cleef. Industrial 'iron horse' progress in the name of God this is not - Mortimer puts down his Bible and contemptuously stops the train where he wants to get off - Tucumcari. If 'progress' is inexorably advancing, it has not reached Leone`s world - yet.
Later, another sacred Hollywood Western cliché is openly mocked - the linear shoot-out. In El Paso, Monco (Eastwood) and Mortimer face each other in a typical 'Western' street, and proceed to dirty each other`s boots and shoot each other`s hats in a petulant display of prowess. The watching children recognise what is happening - 'just like the games we know.' Two grown men are squabbling in John Ford`s playground, but it is the ridiculousness of the linear showdown that Leone is mocking (as he does again later in Agua Caliente when three menacing bandits are routed by Monco and Mortimer shooting apples off a tree.
This often comic undermining of tradition (punctuated by eccentric twangs on a Jew`s harp) shows that this film serves a different purpose in Leone`s overall deconstructing-to-rebuild approach to the Western myth than did A Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood now plays a double-crossing mercenary - no righteous angel this time - suggesting that the all-encompassing moniker applied to his three characters of the eventual trilogy - 'The Man With No Name' - is too presumptuous in thinking he is the same man in all three films. There are, however, areas of thematic continuity from the first film.
Firstly, the Catholic emphasis on family remains dominant. Mortimer`s entire quest, it is eventually revealed, is to avenge his sister, who committed suicide while being raped by Indio, and Indio sets himself up as a villain early on by killing the wife and child of the man who betrayed him. We must of course remember that family ties had always been central to the Western`s moral codes, but Leone polarises his world so that the only discernible difference between 'good' and 'bad' is a character`s actions in destroying or defending the family. Eventually, Mortimer turns out to be virtuous in refusing the reward money once he has avenged his sister (just as Joe had hidden motives beyond money in A Fistful of Dollars), but until then he, like Monco, is a ruthless bounty hunter who at the very start mercilessly guns down a young outlaw for financial reward.
Death still pervades Leone`s cinema, and in a self-referential sequence at Agua Caliente, he mockingly echoes the opening of A Fistful of Dollars. Before the ponchoed Eastwood once again rides into a deserted town of scurrying widows, Indio informs him 'it looks just like a morgue, and look out - it could be one so easily.' In a film full of well-inhabited towns this is a clear parody of Leone`s previous film, so conspicuously deserted. Of course, such a ghost town provides Leone with a perfect arena in which to enact his flamboyant denouement. Once he has finished mocking Hollywood, the crowded towns of crooked sheriffs and outlaws are moved to one side, so that myth may be reconstructed in open, empty space.
Once again, the final shoot-out is highly ritualised, and once again Eastwood`s character manufactures a fair fight. This showdown introduces Leone`s obsession with a circular space in which his characters, literally, stare death in the face. The circle suggested to Leone an arena of life and death, in which the most primal instincts of humanity would be acted out. The duel then becomes a form of bull fight, or corrida, and For a Few Dollars More shows us an embryonic version of the later films` transcendental contests, to be discussed in detail. For now, we see the two combatants - Mortimer and his nemesis Indio - enter the ring as Morricone`s stirring music builds to a crescendo and Monco adjudicates with the chiming watch of Mortimer. The ritual of 'When the chimes end, pick up your gun' has continued throughout the film whenever Indio performs a ritual execution, overtly drawing out the moments before a man`s death. The extreme close-ups of eyes, hands and feet, the twitching trigger fingers and the inordinately drawn out face-offs were to become Leone trademarks. The actual shots being fired seem almost irrelevant, since the gladiators have long since faced their destinies while waiting for the inevitable moment. Leone explains his fascination with the moment of death thus: 'It`s a terrible pity you can`t make time stand still. There are moments that you want to relive over and over, very slowly, moments that you never want to end.'15 His shoot-outs display a stirring realisation of this wish.
'Now we start'. Manco referees the corrida
For a Few Dollars More displays many other areas of continuity leading to the full blossoming of Leone`s 'West' in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The final image of a cartload of lucrative dead bodies underlines the fact that 'death, sometimes, had a price,' and points the way towards the ruthless way of life in the next film, where people`s lives are again valued by the prices on their heads, to the extent that gold, instead of a body, is buried in a grave. As Indio`s hunchback companion (played by Klaus Kinski) hisses: it`s a small world, 'and very, very bad.'
Leone`s 'very, very bad' world also begins to explore the victims of such ideologically laden traditions as 'manifest destiny' and the inexorable progress of civilisation here. The decrepit Prophet (Josef Egger) has had his life ruined by the rail company`s bullying (a comic precursor to the railroad brutality of Once Upon a Time in the West), and he gives us an early indication that 'progress' is insane - 'these days everybody`s in a hurry [ ] with your damn good for nothin` trains.' The 'little people' are trampled underfoot.
Leone had thus
set the scene for his two masterworks. His narrative world of
uneasy alliances and double-crossing, his stylistic world of
rapid montage and extravagantly deep focus, and his thematic
world of uncertain identity ('Who are you?' Indio asks Mortimer - a
question that would resonate throughout Once Upon a Time in the West)
and the brutality of progress were established. For a Few Dollars
More broke all box office records in Italy, and at last Leone would
be provided with all the tools he required to build his myth.