Sergio Leone didn't invent the so-called "Spaghetti Western," but it's this trilogy and Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968) that people think of when they hear the term. Fair enough. Leone took a B-movie genre that emerged in 1961 and, engaging Clint Eastwood and composer Ennio Morricone, developed a new style, new feel, and new myth for the Old West.
The early Spaghetti Westerns were low-budget films made in Italian that were badly dubbed and shot in Spain with bare-bones camerawork. They emerged at a time when Italian filmmakers were also cranking out Hercules movies and other tales of classical mythology. It's the myth that interested them, and also Leone--who retained some of the cinematographic conventions and, working with a much higher budget, proceeded to put on his own distinctive stamp.
In the Hollywood Westerns of the 1940s and ‘50s, it was always good guys versus bad. There was no gray area, and the Western hero was often an outsider--a stranger who came to a town in trouble and used his skills to save the meek and the weak from the domination of cattle barons, town bosses, crooked sheriffs, gunslingers, marauding bandits, or Indians on the warpath. The mystery wasn't whether he was good or not. You could see it in his eyes and the way he related to people that he had a respect for common folks and a highly developed sense of right and wrong--even if his idea of the "law" was more in keeping with the lawless West than those who would try to civilize it.
In "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), Eastwood's character still retains elements of the Western hero as deus ex machine. From the minute he rides into town and sees a young boy run from one house to another, then pushed down by a man who proceeds to shoot at the boy's feet, you can tell that this Man with No Name is sympathetic. His past is still mysterious, but it's also a mystery when and if he'll do something to help. He's by no means indifferent, but in Leone's West, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and sometimes that means doing nothing. When a saloonkeeper (José Calvo) tells him that in this town people end up very rich or very dead, you don't have to squint to see that the Man with No Name plans on being one of the rich ones . . . and if in the process he's able to help some of the people besides himself, so be it.
That opening sequence with two houses and a boy caught in the middle is a visual metaphor for the situation in which No Name finds himself--or rather, plans to plant himself: squarely in the middle of the two powerbrokers in town, one group a bunch of gun traders led by the crooked town sheriff, John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), and the other a bunch of liquor traders led by the Rojo brothers (Antonio Prieto, Sieghardt Rupp, Gian Maria Volante). The first question No Name asks the saloonkeeper says it all: who's the strongest? That would be Ramon Rojo (Volante), who, it turns out, is also responsible for breaking up the family we saw in the opening sequence, taking the boys mother (Marianne Koch as Marisol) for himself after claiming her husband cheated him in cards. In playing the two groups off of each other, No Name devises a strategy that targets Ramon. Why would he help them, Marisol wants to know. "Because I knew someone like you once. And there was no one there to help."
Leone's Westerns are moody and heavily atmospheric, and this one set the plate for two more Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns to follow: "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."
"A Fistful of Dollars" is presented in 2.35:1 Techniscope widescreen in Technicolor, and it has a nice amount of detail, especially in two-shots and close-ups. However, long shots and panoramic views of the landscape in particular are subject to atmospheric noise, and there are some flaws in the film stock that weren't cleaned up in the remastering process--flickers of dirt and such. It's that way with the other two films in the No Name trilogy. Some of the exterior scenes can look a little soft. But it still beats the DVD, quick draw or slow.
"A Fistful of Dollars" was transferred to a 50-gig disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology (36.5 MBPS). It features an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio that's robust in spots but glorified doctored-up mono in others. The subwoofer never really gets too involved, and sometimes the channeling seems odd. Sometimes the 5.1 mix tries too hard. When you have two people talking in a two-shot the sound is at one level, but when the camera cuts to a close-up of one of those people during the conversation, the other person's voice is muffled and shunted to a side speaker. It can be a little annoying at first, until you get the feel for the way the soundtrack has been mixed.
"A Fistful of Dollars" is also available in French DTS 5.1 and English and Spanish Mono, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French. Extras:
Here are the bonus features from the three discs, which are housed in a single-width jewel case:
--The Christopher Frayling Archives: "A Fistful of Dollars"
--Commentary by Film Historian Christopher Frayling
--A New Kind of Hero
--A Few Weeks in Spain: Clint Eastwood on the Experience of Making the Film
--Tre Voci: "A Fistful of Dollars"
--Not Ready for Primetime: Renowned Filmmaker Monte Hellman discusses the Television Broadcast of "A Fistful of Dollars"
--The Network Prologue with Actor Harry Dean Stanton
--Location Comparisons: Then to Now
--10 Radio Spots
--2 Theatrical Trailers
All of the features are in standard definition except for the Frayling Archives extras, which find the historian talking about each film while showing us objects from his collection. Some of the highlights: In "A New Kind of Hero," Frayling talks about how "A Fistful of Dollars" is similar to Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" but with elements that make it a totally different film. Frayling's commentary track is also better than average, and of course it's always good hearing from Eastwood. Location comparisons are also interesting. The rest of the bonus features are okay, but mostly promo-oriented.
Westerns were never the same after Sergio Leone. Suddenly anti-heroes were "in," and "A Fistful of Dollars" really started it all, making Eastwood a star in the process.