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Late in the 19th century, a Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) rides into the small town of San Miguel, immediately finds himself menaced by a group of gunmen, and shoots four of them down. Soon afterwards he learns from the friendly local innkeeper (José Calvo) that the town is dominated by two rival gangs, the Baxters and the Rojos. Playing his cards close to his chest, he forms alliances with both sides of the battle, secretly planning to play them off against each other.

Review by Jake Wilson:
This is, strictly speaking, neither the first Sergio Leone film nor the first spaghetti Western, but it would be nice to believe that a career, a genre, a whole era of modern cinema could begin like this, with the absolute relaxed confidence of Clint Eastwood in a dusty poncho riding into town on his mule and pausing for a second to look up at the sky. A Fistful of Dollars may lack the mournful intensity and Shakespearian comedy of the later Leone classics, but as an action film it holds up brilliantly – the early Bond films, made at the same time, look impossibly quaint by comparison. 

Leone’s style was to become more brazenly artificial with each film he made, but here already the ritualised action sequences are studies in what the novelist and critic G. Cabrera Infante called “the frozen geometry of the movies”. At dramatic high points he typically brings proceedings to a halt in order to visualise a situation from all possible angles, challenging the audience to guess at future developments. Meanwhile, Ennio Morricone’s score swirls on the soundtrack like a preview of the carnage to come. Above all, this kind of intensity in filmmaking is a matter of rhythm; Leone’s precise timing often forces us to pay special attention to the most understated sights and sounds, from a barely suppressed smirk to the click of a cocked pistol. 

This stress on the immediate physical consequences of events, rather than their broader symbolic meanings, can be related to Leone’s philosophical anarchism: where the plots of traditional Westerns frequently turn on tension between the individual and the community, he grants the community no moral authority at all, implying that brute force can only be countered by individual technical proficiency and crafty long-term planning. 

These attributes are personified by Eastwood’s Man With No Name – a hero who’s too easily written off as an amoral cipher, rather than a trickster who fights the good fight (here, defending women and children) in his own devious way. An Odysseus without an Ithaca, like most Leone heroes he’s also a kind of ghost, his humanity erased by unspoken trauma; implicitly, this trauma is exorcised at the film’s climax when he rises all but literally from the dead, emerging from the smoke to dispense savage justice.

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(Germany/Spain /Italy, 1964)

Per un pugno di dollari

CAST: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volonté, Wolfgang Lukschy, Sieghardt Rupp, Antonio Prieto, José Calvo

PRODUCER: Arrigo Colombo, Giorgio Papi

DIRECTOR: Sergio Leone

SCRIPT: Jaime Comas Gil, Víctor Andrés Catena, Fernando Di Leo, Clint Eastwood, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Duccio Tessari (story by A. Bonzzoni, Victor Andres Catena, Sergio Leone)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Massimo Dallamano, Federico G. Larraya

EDITOR: Roberto Cinquini, Alfonso Santacana

MUSIC: Ennio Morricone

PRODUCTION DESIGN: (Art Direction) Carlo Simi

OTHER: Language - Italian

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Melbourne: February 19, 2004; Sydney: tba

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