[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 9 No. 2, March-April, 1973]
Early in 1967, United Artists undertook a massive publicity campaign to sell the country on a recent acquisition that had broken box-office records in its native Italy and might, just might do the same in the States. After all, its inspiration was Americanâ€”what more American than the Western? And its star was American: Clint Eastwoodâ€”true, the all-but-forgotten second lead of a TV series long sold into syndication, but the genuine article all the same. He sported a bit of stubble now, and had perfected a disinterested visual snarl that Rowdy Yates rarely had call to flash. And then there was the topography, animal and mineral. It would be hard to find corners of the American West more convincing than (and as undespoiled as) the Spanish canyons and deserts that served as exteriors alongside the CinecittÃ interiors. And the faces of the supporting castâ€”swarthy, oily, Fellinily grotesque, latitudes and longitudes and generations and cultures away from any Central Casting selectionsâ€”became landscapes themselves in huge, flyspecked closeup. The music capped and integrated the rest: memories of the Mascot-Monogram stock libraries filtered through a modern and European sensibility, the result an idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock; it was startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur, and it somehow complemented the bizarre exoticism of the film, the familiar made fresh, new, and neurotically contemporary. A Fistful of Dollars swept the nation and “spaghetti Western” became a catchword.
A Fistful of Dollars won general audiences for its stylish embellishments of the new sadism and a narrower, more discerning audience for the perverse originality of the man whose talent embraced most if not all of the preceding categoriesâ€”director Sergio Leone. Leone was original, and then again he wasn’t: almost scene for scene, his movie was an uncredited swipe of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A lone gunman (Eastwood) rides into a border town where two equally reprehensible gangs are vying for control. He demonstrates his lethal competence to the satisfaction of both sides but will work for neither very long. Instead he arranges deception after deception calculated to keep the rivals at one another’s throats until all have been annihilated.