Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Fistful of Dollars Blu-ray Review

A lone gunfighter, the man with no name, rides into town on his old mule. He’s a cynical loner with a clouded past and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He’s as fast as the devil with a gun and he kills for money.  But this isn’t the ideal town to ride into. Two rival families are against each other in a cut throat war. The one is led by their powerful mother mostly and the other by a blood thirsty criminal, Ramón, who has kidnapped a local man’s beautiful wife, Marisol.  When the steely blue-eyed mercenary arrives in the dusty border town where these two rival bands of smugglers terrorize the impoverished citizens, he pits the gangs against each other in one of the most influential westerns in cinema history.  Can the stranger remain neutral, or will he end up doing the right thing and helping the town?  Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood blends a quiet steadiness with a palpable ferocity as the iconic gunslinger “The Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s first gritty “spaghetti Western.” 

Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

While once a staple of movie theaters, the western by the 60s was on it’s way out as studios began to stop producing them.  That may have been because the audience had moved on to other genres or perhaps it was because westerns had become so ubiquitous that wore their welcome out.  Many people believe that Sergio Leone’sA Fistful of Dollars was the first “spaghetti western” (named so because they were made by Italians) but that’s not the case as there had been around twenty-five previous releases but none of them were very good.  When Leone made his first one with Dollars, (followed by For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), he was the first to find success and even more importantly, the perfect blend of elements and people to re-invent the western.

Other than his own considerable talents, the main ingredient that made this movie a success was the casting of Clint Eastwood as the man with no name.  Eastwood was well known for his role on Rawhide on television, but he hasn’t broken through to movies yet.  His TV contract prohibited him from making movies within the United States, but he was free to film in Spain where these kind of spaghetti westerns were being filmed.  Spain was 25% cheaper to film in than Italy so the film’s German and Italian producers filmed in Spain to make their money go further.  Looking back, it seems like a risky move for Eastwood to take part in an Italian western being financed with German and Italian money, a director that didn’t speak English, and a cast that mainly spoke their native language since their lines would be dubbed over later.  Fortunately for movie fans everywhere, Eastwood made the gamble and the rest is movie history.
It’s apparent right away that this isn’t the usual type of western as soon as the credits begin with some James Bond inspired rotoscoped silhouettes shown in primary colors amidst Ennio Morricone’s rock and roll western theme and loud gunshots.  This vibrant and adrenalized approach to a western quickly established itself as something new which foreshadowed the other ways Leone and Eastwood modernised the western.  When Eastwood’s character (here known as Joe but also called The Stranger and The Man With No Name), enters the small town of San Miguel it looks like a ghost town.  When he observes a young boy and his father get kicked and yelled at by a large man and does nothing about  it, the audience realizes that the movie’s protagonist isn’t a John Wayne or Gary Cooper style character.  While they’re characters would have stepped in and delivered some justice of their own, Eastwood’s character just watches impassively.
The Stranger soon meets the town’s bell ringer who tells him about the rivalry between the Baxter’s and the Rojo brothers who are battling each other for control of the town.  It isn’t long before the Stranger is harassed by some of the Baxter’s men before meeting the local bartender Silvanito (Jose Calvo) who advises him to leave town while he still can.   The Stranger has other ideas however as he begins to play a dangerous game of pitting the gangs against each other.  When he and Silvanito witness the Rojo brother betray some Mexican soldiers and massacre them in order to steal their gold, the Stranger sees another opportunity to make money.  He sells information that two of the soldiers survived the attack to both gangs which interests the Baxter’s as they want to use the information against the Rojo’s and the Rojo’s want to keep their murderous actions erased.
Once The Stranger puts these events into motion, he is forced to take a moral stand (his first in the movie) when he discovers that the woman Marisol (Marianne Koch) who is being held against her will by Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè) is actually the mother and wife to the young boy and man he witnessed getting beaten previously.  His conscience finally drives him to take action which ends up exposes his double-dealing ways after Ramon discovers his true loyalties.  Of course, it’s just a matter of time before he unleashes his own retribution against the bloodthirsty Rojo brothers and their men.
In this first collaboration with Eastwood, you can see Leone beginning to experiment with camera angles and the film’s sound design which he would eventually develop into his often imitated personal style over time.  Since the movie was filmed in Techniscope which is kind of a poor man’s Superscope and only worked well for long distance shots and close ups, it forced Leone to change his style which prompted him to start doing his trademark close up shots even when there was no dialogue being spoken.  The film’s visual and audio innovations combined with Eastwood’s anti-hero approach to the role jump-started a new kind of western that was a blast of fresh air to an audience that were burned out by the flow of traditional westerns with their customary stereotypes.  As Eastwood would later say, “In Rawhide I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat.  The hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody. I decided it was time to be an anti-hero.”    This film and the two that followed it can arguably be given credit for not only re-inventing the western, but also the male action hero prototype that would influence future movies and actors.

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The film’s 1080p (2.35:1) transfer is quite an improvement over the previous DVD release I own but it’s limited by the effect of the film’s low budget which couldn’t afford better film stock and equipment.  The outdoor scenes look pretty good with some nice detail on display but the night-time scenes suffer from noise.  There is also a layer of grain present which isn’t that distracting but it is apparent.  Colors are decent and flesh tones are mostly natural and consistent but somewhat pale.  In looking at screen-shots from the Italian Blu-ray of this movie, I’m struck by how much more color was pumped into that edition and I think I prefer this region 1 version.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

A Fistful of Dollars DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a lot better than I expected it would be.  By filling out all of the channels it adds a new aural experience for the film that was missing on previous releases.  Sergio Leone liked to boost the audio level of his sound effects and music which is carried over well in this mix as gunshots, horses galloping, and musical cues are very evident in this track.  There’s some nice atmosphere present too on the few occasions in between the gun fights.  The dubbing of the actor’s lines isn’t as seamless as you’d hope for and honestly it’s very distracting and the movie’s main weakness.  The voices selected to replace the original actor’s voices were well selected but it was just awkwardly done.  The dialogue itself however, is clear and easy to understand but I just wish they had the time and money to do it right especially since there’s no option to hear the original language track.

Special Features (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

For an old low budget movie, there’s quite a bit of quality extras on this release.
  • Commentary with Film Historian Sir Christopher Frayling – I wasn’t too sure why he was selected to do the commentary track until I discovered that he wrote Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone and listened to this track which is jam-packed with information about Leone, the film, and just about everything else connected to it.  This commentary runs almost non-stop as he has so much to talk about.  It was interesting to hear tidbits like the fact that Eastwood hates smoking and cigars and tried to convince Leone to let him ditch them for the sequels which Leone denied.
  • The Christopher Frayling Archives: Fistful of Dollars – If you weren’t convinced that Frayling wasn’t a hardcore fan of the films after listening to the commentary track, this featurette should put those thoughts to rest.  We see Frayling’s massive collection of memorabilia, posters, and more for the Man with No Name trilogy.
  • A New Kind of Hero – Frayling offers a good summation on why this movie and it’s subsequent sequels changed movies and westerns in particular changed movies forever.  There is some duplicated information from his commentary included in this but it’s still a worthwhile featurette to see.
  • A Few Weeks in Spain: Clint Eastwood on the Experience of Making the Film – Clint Eastwood was filmed in 2003 to gather his thoughts on his long association with Sergio Leone and the movies that they made together.  This extra is the complete footage taken from that interview that pertains to this movie.  Eastwood talks about his experiences making the movie and how he influenced his character’s wardrobe by bringing his own clothes and boots for the role.
  • Tre Voci: Fistful of Dollars  - Three of Sergio Leone’s personal/professional friends reminisce about their deceased friend and share anecdotes about him.
  • Not Ready for Primetime: Renowned Filmmaker Monte Hellman Disscusses the Television Broadcast of A Fistful of Dollars – Because network TV wouldn’t show the film without footage showing a a moral reason for Eastwood’s character’s actions especially since he escapes without any long lasting consequences, they demanded that a prologue show that he had been forced into service by the authorities to clean up the corrupt town of San Miguel.
  • The Network Prologue with Harry Dean Stanton – Lucky(?) for us, a hardcore fan of the movie recorded the prologue on his newly bought Betamax recorder the one time the movie was shown on broadcast TV.  The prologue is pretty terrible since Eastwood was doubled by someone else with no dialogue from him included, and Harry Dean Stanton kind of embarrases himself as marshall who offers Eastwood’s character a pardone in exchange for cleaning up San Miguel.
  • Location Comparisons: Then to Now – I love these kind of extras that show the filming locations during the period the movie was filmed and how they appear today.  I wish every film had this kind of extra because it’s fascinating to see the changes over they years.
  • 10 Radio Spots
  • Double Bill Trailer
  • Fistful of Dollars Trailer

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars) 

This remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo ended up making Kurosawa more money than his original did after he sued the filmmakers for copyright and he ended up getting 15% of the film’s worldwide gross and also the exclusive right to distribute it in Japan. South Korea, and Taiwan.  Despite that setback, the film was released to great critical and commercial success and it launched a new franchise and pushed western movies towards a darker, more cynical, and violent path that also influenced other genres as well.  Leone and Eastwood would make another two movies that got progressively better and larger in scope, culminating in their masterpiece The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
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