Friday, January 14, 2011
A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari) -- feuds, two masters, and peace
Director: Sergio Leone, 1964. (R)
The first of Clint Eastwood's three movies made under Sergio Leone's direction, this is also typically credited as the first spaghetti western. (Although others were made before, this is the first to find extensive release in the States.) It is also the first of the loosely connected "Man with No Name" trilogy of films, and arguably the weakest.
A spaghetti western is, of course, a western filmed in Europe, usually Italy, where the locations resemble the south or west of the United States. Filled with European actors, the plots usually center on the Mexican border, as the hispanic actors are easily mistaken for Mexicans.
This is the case here. Eastwood plays an iconic cowboy drifter, the man with no name (although he is referred to as Joe towards the end). Riding his mule into San Miguel, a Mexican village near the US border, this drifter sees a hanging tree and an apparently peaceful visage. But when the bell tolls, and the locals scurry inside their homes, he realizes trouble may not be far away.
Talking to Silvanito (Jose Calvo), the local bar owner, the cowboy discovers this is a town with two bosses. At one end of town are the Baxters, headed up by John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), while at the other end are the Rojos, the crueler Mexicans. Sandwiched in between, the townsfolk live in fear, while the man making money is the undertaker. The cowboy decides he can get rich in this town by working for both sides, serving two bosses.
In reality, no one can serve two bosses. Jesus said this in his sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7). He went on, "Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money" (Matt. 6:24). The cowboy wanted to serve two rough human masters so that he could make money. In actuality, he was simply serving one master, money. We must choose if we will serve our mighty deity (Jesus) or the mighty dollar. Only one can take precedence.
As the movie progresses, the cowboy first ingratiates himself with the Rojos and then the Baxters, never being quite honest, yet never quite lying. All for the sake of cold hard cash and a fistful of dollars.
A Fistful of Dollars also marks the first time Leone partnered with his old friend Ennio Morricone, the talented composer. Reluctant at first, Leone was won over by Morricone's haunting score that combined lonely whistling, solo guitar, trumpets and other unusual combinations. This score, along with Leone's nascent visual style, using close-ups contrasted with long-shots, serves to define this western trilogy.
At one point, the cowboy comments, "When a man's got money in his pocket he begins to appreciate peace." And he can appreciate this, since he has accumulated considerable cash for doing very little, riding the fence rather than riding his mule. But what is peace?
The town itself looks idyllic at the start. Poor, perhaps, but at peace. Yet this is no real peace; it is a stand-off, a cessation in hostilities between the two rival factions. There is no mutual harmony between them. And the film makes that clear, as the cowboy begins a killing spree.
But the cowboy's concept of peace is itself marred. He believes that riches bring peace because, presumably, he can simply leave this town and find paradise somewhere else. Yet, as we all know, money does not guarantee peace. It may stave off hunger and purchase a promise of security. But it ultimately proves ephemeral, not delivering serenity.
Towards the end, the man with no name sacrificially helps one poor family caught in the middle of the feud. Like Christ, he gives them peace, an offer that is free and graciously given. But the end brings a classic showdown that is anything but peaceful. Like Christ rising from the dead, the cowboy rises from the dust to bring justice to the town that has been subject to injustice. Justice or vengeance, the cowboy departs stoically unaffected, leaving a changed town behind. Will we remain untouched?
Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM