I never particularly liked Westerns until I saw this film, my first 'Spaghetti Western.' Most people credit Sergio Leone for inventing the genre. If it weren't for his so-called Man With No Name trilogy (three films starring Clint Eastwood, of which A Fistful of Dollars is the first) the sub-genre may have never taken flight. What Leone did was take the stagey, polished, over-produced Hollywood Western, drag it through the mud, tear it up around the edges, and make it more violent, more crude, more rock and roll.
While many prefer the later films in the trilogy, Leone’s style is already fully formed and blazing in Fistful. I especially admire Leone’s operatic staging and composition, his inclination to draw suspense out of moments other directors might throw away, and his preference for photographing human faces in extreme closeup — landscapes of skin, pores, and whiskers. You could argue it’s all style over substance. After all, the movie does rest the weight of its appeal on a largely mute hero who wears a cool poncho and saunters to the groovy music of Ennio Morricone.
Leone takes a simple story about a loner who pits two warring bands against each other (an unofficial remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) and lavishes it with more cinematic technique and bravado than audiences expect from a Western. But it isn’t all style. I argue there’s a heart to this movie. When Clint’s morally questionable character rescues a hostage, she asks why he is being so kind. “Because I knew someone like you once,” he says. “There was no one was there to help. Now get moving…” From a man who says so little, these words speak volumes.