Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits the first entry in the unofficial “Man With No Name” trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars.
The “Man With No Name” trilogy — three films directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as an unnamed stranger who rides into and out of trouble — began in 1964 with A Fistful of Dollars. The film sees Eastwood’s character arrive in a small border town and immediately set about playing two feuding factions against each other. It’s a familiar enough tale, more on that below, but it’s made into something iconic as it kicks off the spaghetti western as we know and love them.
The new 4K UHD from KL Studio Classics is the beautiful release you’re hoping for with new color grading of a 4K restoration, and it includes two commentary tracks. One is from Tim Lucas, and the other — the one we’re listening to today — is from film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, the author of a Sergio Leone biography. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for A Fistful of Dollars.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Commentator: Sir Christopher Frayling (film historian)
1. The opening title credits were designed by Luigi Lardani and based in part on the popular James Bond title credits of the time. The shot at 1:13 is a fairly direct reference with “the eye, the iris looking down onto the horseman.”
2. Ennio Morricone’s score stands out from the genre’s usual music as evident right from the start. The title track features gunshots, whip cracks, electric guitar, and more to create “a rock ‘n roll western.”
3. The shooting script opens with a map showing the divide between Mexico and the southern United States in 1872. The lead character (Clint Eastwood) is named Ray… something that was wisely dropped to leave him the man with no name, although the coffin maker does call him Joe in the third act.
4. There weren’t many trees in this part of Spain (standing in for Mexico), so — per Eastwood — when Leone drove past a farm with single tree by the side of the road, he stopped to acquire it. “They stopped the car, got out, said ‘we’re from the highway department and your tree is a danger to passing traffic.'” They took the tree, brought it to their shooting location, and secured it into the ground to hang a noose from it.
5. The man rides into town at 7:05, and it’s a shift from the early location filming to an existing “set” north of Madrid. It was built in 1962 for a series of Zorro films and then redressed for this film. Leone would go on to reuse it in other films, but while those later budgets would allow for extras to be roaming the streets, here the low budget left no room for non-speaking filler.
6. A Fistful of Dollars is a co-production between Italy, Spain, and Germany. While thought by some to be the first Italian western, there had actually been twenty-five or so that preceded it with the same production setup. They were “copy American” westerns, though, meaning Leone’s film was the first to create this new style.
7. You know this already, but the film is very directly based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). Kurosawa had already acknowledged that his samurai films were in some ways a reworking of traditional Hollywood westerns, but A Fistful of Dollars is a very, very clear remake of Yojimbo — “the trouble was that nobody had cleared the rights.” Kurosawa eventually wrote to Leone after seeing the western and said “I like your film very much, it’s a very interesting film, unfortunately it’s my film not your film.” They settled out of court with the Japanese director going on to earn more from this film than from any of his own releases.
8. The original title was The Magnificent Stranger. The shooting script also specified the two competing clans as both being Mexican as opposed to where it stands now with a Mexican group opposed by whites.
9. Eastwood was paid $15,000 for the film with a six-week Spanish “holiday” included. Other actors originally considered for the role, including Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Henry Fonda, and others, all asked for too much money.
10. Morricone was not the first choice to compose the film as they wanted Angelo Lavagnino (The Last Days of Pompeii, 1959), but Leone went to meet with Morricone anyway. He discovered the two had attended primary school together, and after reminiscing they began to discuss a possible score approach. Morricone shared an arrangement he had previously written of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” with electric guitars, choir, and more — and that became the opening track.
11. A whopping 34% of Hollywood productions in 1950 were westerns, but by 1963 that percentage had dropped to just 9%. Leone and Italian producers saw their opening as European audiences who grown up under fascism were still craving the “freedom” and wide open spaces captured in westerns.
12. René Magritte was one of Leone’s favorite artists.
13. Eastwood is mouthing an Italian cigar called a Toscano “which is virtually unsmokable” despite being very anti-smoking himself. The filmmakers felt it was a part of the character, though, so he conceded. He asked Leone if the cigar could be skipped on their next film, but Leone said “of course you will smoke the cigar, it’s playing the lead.”
14. Leone had wanted to use the traditional deguello theme from Rio Bravo (1959) and The Alamo (1960), but he discovered it wasn’t actually as old and traditional as he thought. It had actually been written in the 50s for the films, so Morricone wrote his own starting at 33:03.
15. The cross-cutting between the cemetery shootout and Eastwood’s search for the gold finds an extra layer in its aural syncopation. He taps barrels in the basement at 45:21, and we cut to the same number of gun shots in the cemetery. “It’s pure style, it’s got nothing to do with the real world.”
16. Leone’s English was limited, and his direction of Eastwood usually amounted to standing in a cowboy hat while wearing a pair of toy guns and saying “watch me, Clint!” and miming what he wanted the actor to do.
17. The film features numerous nods towards Christianity and Easter with the dinner gathering at 57:51 being a deliberate reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” painting.
18. William Thomkins was Eastwood’s double and plays a small role in the film as one of the Baxter gang members.
19. “Cause I knew someone like you once, there was no one there to help,” is the only piece of moral motivation given to Eastwood’s character. The original shooting script shifted at this point to offer up a three-page flashback showing an earlier incident in the man’s life.
20. The shot at 1:08:50 of a thug putting out his cigarette on Eastwood’s hand was trimmed from many UK prints back in the 60s for being too cruel.
21. The gunbelt and the pistol grips were borrowed by Eastwood from the Rawhide (1959-1965) set, and he brought them to the production for good luck.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“He’s a big man on a little mule.”
“He’s come from nowhere, he’s going nowhere, and he goes around shooting people.”
“You keep wanting Eastwood to be the goodie, but he never quite behaves like that.”
“Everyone’s pretty bad, but some are worse than others.”
“Italian western heroes like to strike their matches on any available surface, whether it’s his chin, the boot of a hanging man, or a piece of metal.”
You can’t go wrong riffing on a Kurosawa film, and A Fistful of Dollars succeeds in delivering a stylish tale of violence and morality. Frayling’s commentary confirms his extensive knowledge of Leone and the director’s work through details, anecdotes, and more. Fans will want to give a listen to both commentaries, though, as the history behind the film, the filmmakers, and the genre itself is a rich one.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.