A Fistful of Dollars opens with a long, primarily dialogue-free sequence introducing the star—Clint Eastwood—and the setting, the desolate near-border Mexican town of San Miguel. The sequence introduces the town to Eastwood and Eastwood to the viewer. He quietly watches the goings on, principally Marianne Koch’s family troubles. She’s living in a little house under guard; directly across the road is another house where her suffering son and husband live.
It’s an efficient setup and an informative prologue. The film proper starts as Eastwood enters the town and immediately gets in an argument with some local toughs. Somewhat bruised following the altercation, Eastwood finds his way into the only bar in town, run by adorable old man, José Calvo. He lives next door to the coffin maker—another adorable old man, Joseph Egger—the only person in the town making an honest living.
See, there are two bosses in this one town. On one side, there’s Wolfgang Lukschy and Margarita Lozano’s gang of liquor smugglers. Lukschy’s also the sheriff, which doesn’t matter, and Lozano’s the brains of the outfit, which does.
On the other side are the three Rojas Brothers, played by Antonio Prieto, Sieghardt Rupp, and Gian Maria Volontè. Prieto’s the eldest and most business-minded, Rupp’s hot-headed but incompetent, and Volontè savage but calculating. Volonté kidnapped Koch, something we find out even before we meet Volonté. He’s got a fantastic introduction when he finally arrives.
Eastwood spends the movie playing the two sides off one another, gravitating towards the brothers because… Well, Eastwood never explains his plan or when or if it changes. But he goes back and forth between the two outfits, sometimes to double his money, other times to start trouble. There are direct consequences to some of those troubles, so it’s possible Eastwood’s intentional in his meddling. Since he never says anything, it’s impossible to know.
He could just be a bull knocking over the exact right pieces for the film to add up.
Despite having nothing in the way of backstory, Eastwood’s got an entirely different relationship with everyone in the film, whether it’s the brothers, pals Calvo and Egger, matriarch Lozano, or hostage Koch. Since Eastwood’s an exceptional gunslinger, no one ever threatens him, and unless they’ve got him disarmed, he’s never in any danger exactly. His stakes are ostensibly a payday, but—again—it’s unclear a pay-off is what he’s really after.
After Volontè shows up, Dollars sets about putting him and Eastwood on a collision course, even though they’re usually on the same side. Eastwood’s schemes don’t involve him doing any shooting but rather putting the rival gangs in the position to take shots as desired. Calvo usually tags along, bickering, complaining and bringing a bunch of personality to the film. Eastwood’s glares, occasional smiles, and charm go a long way for his character, but the supporting cast—good guys and bad—provide Fistful’s grounding.
It’s even more impressive when you realize the original actors aren’t dubbing their own performances. Calvo and Volontè are the two best syncs, but everyone’s pretty good. Not in terms of lip matching, of course, though director Leone sometimes will keep an actor (or their mouth) out of frame for their deliveries. Rather the vocal performance and the physical one so perfectly matching; Volontè’s bombastic performance, full of swagger and bravado, would play in a silent film. Calvo’s might too. Then the dubbing actors come in and add a whole new layer to the performance, particularly with how they interact with Eastwood.
Even though they all would’ve recorded their audio separately, it works out.
The film’s a technical marvel. Leone shows off with protracted, complicated action sequences, often shooting day for night. It’s okay day for night, but it distracts from how Leone and editors Roberto Cinquini and Alfonso Santacana cut the visuals to match Ennio Morricone’s spectacular score. Leone shows off the most in the third act, while the rest of the film has been spotlighting Morricone and Eastwood. From the first scene. There’s always the music; there’s always Eastwood.
Fistful stumbles a bit in the third act, with Calvo being offscreen for way too long. It truncates his arc, leaving it in an unsatisfactory state.
But it’s a damn fine Western. Leone, Eastwood, Morricone, and Volontè are all doing tremendous, genre-defining work.