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Film Club: A Fistful of Dollars (Leone, 1964)

A Fistful of DollarsIf there is a Kurosawa remake more watched than the original, Sergio Leone’s 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (“Per un pungo di dollari”) may well be it. And it’s our film club title for the month of August.

Sergio Leone infamously took Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and turned it into a western, launching his international career in the process. Kurosawa and Toho were never asked for the adaptation rights and were not happy, successfully suing Leone and receiving a cut from the money that the film made internationally. Kurosawa is in fact said to have made more money from A Fistful of Dollars than he ever did from Yojimbo.

Whatever you may think of the morality of Leone’s actions, A Fistful of Dollars is not a bad film. It is, in fact, a brilliant film, and stands well on its own next to Yojimbo, even if it is at times an almost shot-by-shot remake (while at other times deviating from the source). Clint Eastwood’s screen charisma as the “Man with No Name”, while different from Toshiro Mifune’s, is fascinating, and the story works very well when adapted into the western setting.

For a more in-depth comparison of the two films, as well as the later Last Man Standing, I suggest taking a look at the earlier thread Yojimbo: ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ and ‘Last Man Standing’. Our other previous discussion on the film can be found from behind the A Fistful of Dollars tag.

A recent interview with Clint Eastwood is also well worth watching.

A Fistful of Dollars is widely available on home video. Also consider the various box sets that collect Leone’s full “dollars trilogy”, which include also For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

In September, we move on to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro. For the full schedule, see the film club page.

So, where were you when you first saw A Fistful of Dollars? And did you see it before or after Yojimbo?


Discussion

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lawless

*waves* I regret my recent absence. I did take the time to rewatch Yojimbo and the commentary. I saw A Fistful of Dollars for the first time long after I’d first seen Yojimbo, although I don’t remember if I saw just before seeing Yojimbo for the second time or right after. I already knew that Dollars was an unauthorized remake of Yojimbo. Nevertheless, it’s the only remake of a Kurosawa movie that taken is the equal of the original, taken as a whole. It also has independent significance as being the launching pad for spaghetti Westerns. It might not be the first, but as I understand it, it was the first to hit it big in the US and internationally.

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Amnesty11

Hi everyone! Vili, the message about this movie hit my inbox and nudged me towards starting up again with the club. Happy to be back, I’ll watch this this weekend along with Yojimbo. Hope everyone is well!

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Vili Maunula

Great to have you back, guys! I’ve missed you. I hope that both of you are doing great.

How are your Japanese studies progressing, Amnesty? I’ve been doing a vocabulary crunch this summer, but damn how the words just don’t stick!

Lawless, it’s interesting to hear that you saw Yojimbo first, as my assumption when I asked the question was that most westerners who have seen both films would actually have seen Leone’s first. That’s the case with me. I think that I actually saw A Fistful of Dollars at least twice before I saw Yojimbo. And even then, I don’t think that I really linked the two until much later, when I started to really get into Kurosawa.

Then again, so far it seems that I’m dead wrong with my assumption, since my wife had never even seen A Fistful of Dollars until she started it with me last weekend. To be honest, she still hasn’t really seen it since she walked out about half an hour into it, saying “it’s not bad, but it’s Yojimbo, which I have translated, so I know the story, and while Eastwood is great, he is not Mifune, so I’ll be upstairs if you need me”.

Perhaps it just wasn’t a good day for A Fistful of Dollars. I actually thought the very opposite when I started it, since we have been basking in +38 C (+100 F) temperatures here, and I thought that the similarly hot and dry landscape of the film would be a perfect fit. But as I mentioned in the Yojimbo thread, I actually struggled to finish it.

For some reason, the dubbing really annoyed me. I wonder if there is a release out there with just the original voices. But if I have understood correctly, A Fistful of Dollars was actually filmed silent, and everything we hear was dubbed into it afterwards.

It does get progressively better towards the end, though. Eastwood emerging from the dust cloud created by the dynamite blast is absolutely brilliant.

I did like the film, just not as much as I remembered that I would. I have a feeling that Kurosawa is slightly to blame here — like my wife said, Fistful is very much like Yojimbo, and just like Eastwood isn’t quite Mifune (not yet, at least), Leone wasn’t quite Kurosawa. Perhaps the brilliance of Yojimbo, which I of course saw only recently, set the bar too high for me.

I’m looking forward to hearing your reactions!

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Amnesty11

Vili,

Your wife sounds like someone I would like to hang out with. Eastwood vs. Mifune. No question.

My Japanese studies have been slow since I started grad school last December. (MFA in writing, not Japanese…) I try to crunch vocab too, and I have a weekly class, but without having someone to speak with on a very regular basis (like I did in Japan), you’re right, it doesn’t “stick.” I might have to get a Japanese boyfriend or something.

As far these two movies go, since I’ve not seen either, do you (or anyone? {Lawless, *hi!*}) have a recommendation which to watch first?

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bartali

Thanks, for the email reminder regarding the Film Club. I haven’t check the website for a while but I recently re-watched Yojimbo and I plan on re-watching A Fist Full of Dollars this weekend if I can find it. I am looking forward to the film and everyone’s insights and comments.

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Vili Maunula

I’m looking forward to hearing your take on the films, bartali!

Amnesty, I would suggest starting with Yojimbo. I think that it is more fun to watch A Fistful of Dollars afterwards, making note of the differences and similarities.

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Ugetsu

Great to see so many people joining in here. I think the quietness over our Yojimbo month was a lot down to there being little new to say about the film – there were some great contributions previously. Sometimes, a film just speaks for itself, and Yojimbo is one of those.

Its been a little while since I watched Fistful of Dollars (sadly I missed the opportunity to see it in the cinema here, I couldn’t get free the one evening it was shown), but I was happy to say I enjoyed it almost as much as when I first saw it as a teenager. While for me, Magnificent Seven was ruined on my last viewing by having seen Seven Samurai before it – the latter being such a clearly superior film in every way, I think Fistful of Dollars stands up as a great film, even allowing for so much of it being a virtual shot by shot remake. I think Leone still managed to introduce some very interesting elements to it – and as Martinez noted in her book, unlike almost all critics and writers on Kurosawa it seems that Leone realised that the Mifune character had something mythic about him – he is as much a cunning and playful marebito as a man.

As for which one to view first, if you are lucky enough to see either for the first time, then I think it is logical to watch Yojimbo first, but I’m not sure it really matters.

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Amnesty11

Ugetsu brings up a good point.

Last year when we watched Seven Samurai, it was the second time for the film club. I re-read all the reviews from the previous viewing and felt I had little to contribute that hadn’t already been said. I can’t even remember if I did comment (knowing me, I did anyway – I’m too lazy to go back and check). Going forward, would it be all right with you Vili if those of us who are new or who haven’t seen certain films before can comment without taking into account all that’s been said before? I know that’s a bit of a loaded question…but this club has the potential to be like Trip Advisor There are two kinds of answers to questions on that forum. The first is an earnest attempt by the forum member to have folks answer the question, no matter how many times it has been posted: “Help with my itinerary!!” People respond kindly, helping the traveler to make plans.

The second type of answer comes from people who write “this has already been answered – please post your question in the search function.”

I guess my point is that I want to feel free to write as someone who is newly coming into the experience of a film, and let my naiveté take me where it will amongst people who have already viewed and dialogued about the film before. Does this makes sense? However, that might be tedious for people who have spent a lot of time a couple of years back dissecting the film. Please let me know how you want to approach this Vili. I’m happy to spend time reviewing the thoughts posted from the film club’s first viewing if that’s what you want us to do.

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Vili Maunula

Amnesty: Going forward, would it be all right with you Vili if those of us who are new or who haven’t seen certain films before can comment without taking into account all that’s been said before?

Absolutely. Although you wouldn’t really need to ask me — it’s not “my film club”, it’s our film club, and I’m just the guy who turns the lights on and off, so it’s really up to all of us how we want to do this thing. 🙂

But in any case, so much has been written about all of these films — here and elsewhere — that no one can have read all of it. Besides, often a fresh take on things without the baggage of previous discussion can unearth new and interesting ideas. Of course, if I know that someone has already extensively written about a topic, I will point a person to that discussion, but it is not to dismiss the question and definitely not to scold them for not searching (especially as the search function here isn’t the best :oops:), but just to help.

So, fire away!

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Ugetsu

I’d echo Vili on this, Amnesty. I think the site would get boring very quickly if everything which had been posted in the last few years was seen as ‘read’. I think its great to hear peoples immediate reactions to films, shorn of having spent too much time reading Richie, etc. And I think there is a lot of value to seemingly ‘naive’ questions, they sometimes get to the heart of things.

And on a slightly related point, since I started on this site I’ve been reading various bits of cinema theory – its a subject I knew precisely zero about before this. One of the things which strikes me is the almost pathological determination to say something ‘unique’ and ‘distinct’ and always has to have a specific theoretical basis. It strikes me as a sign of a lack of confidence within the field of studies. I much prefer the approach of a forum such as this, where people with a variety of backgrounds and knowledge bases can just riff off each other and say what they feel without being afraid of being attacked for ignorance or some ideological crime.

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Amnesty11

Ok folks. I truly expected to watch about 30 minutes of this film and then switch over to the Sherlock series which I’m woefully behind on. Since I watched Yojimbo last weekend, I thought it might even be a little tedious to watch this. Let alone the fact that I’m a.) not an Eastwood fan and b.) not a Western fan.

Could my expectations have been any lower?

So of course, I enjoyed it thoroughly. The dubbing was the biggest hangup I had, and of course the brown “Mexican makeup.” I thought Eastwood was delightful (which is somewhat of a feat in itself considering how I feel about Eastwood’s politics) — not as charming as Mifune, but charming in his own silent cowboy way. His bemusement was winning.

And kudos to Leone for mastering most of the shots while throwing in his own flourishes (crazyass closeups, great camerawork, excellent horseman riding and stunts. Loved the final scene where the screen is full of Ramone’s then Eastwood’s boots. That must have been a killer effect on a big screen in technicolor! )

The cartoon aspect of it was annoying — for instance all the various shootings in it were silly and prolonged. And the goofy, laughing, evil brothers were sometimes ridiculous. But for whatever reason, I was riveted to the movie tonight. I think maybe part of that was to see if Leone would continue to steal almost every shot, (apparently he ran Kurosawa’s film in a small box on the set while setting up his shots) and to see how he would pull that off in this Western setting. I even love Eastwood’s sarape. (Is that the right word?) It gave him a samurai look, which I thought was fairly brilliant of Leone.

Is it as good as Yojimbo? Naah. Kurosawa has more depth, more humor, more of a sense of irony about the world, about life, about the universe. Leone didn’t pull that off – it didn’t seem to be part of the idea of the film. FFOD really did feel like a superhero cartoon, whereas Yojimbo was a bit more of an ethics lesson and a peek into the window of human nature at it’s base. (For instance in Yojimbo Mifune and his cohort the barkeep are always peeking through slats to view the world, to view flawed humanity – Eastwood’s character only watches through slats once or twice in the film – most remarkably while laying in a coffin (and Mifune did the same). Eastwood overhears things, but that’s by hanging around an open window or hidden corner. I don’t think it’s the same message as peeking through something to listen in.

Bottom line, I would always rather watch Mifune/Kurosawa than Eastwood/Leone. But Eastwood (and Leone) surprised me and I think I got a better evening of entertainment tonight than I bargained for.

Sherlock will have to wait.

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Ugetsu

Great comparison, Amnesty, I agree with all your points. It is a sign of Leones genius that he could add so much interest to what was in effect a blatant commercial rip-off of Yojimbo. I think you are quite right though that Kurosawa simply gives his films more depth and interest. I think Yojimbo is a film you could take to a desert island as your only dvd and still not get tired of it.

I think one crucial difference between the films is on one quick scene. Where the rescued wife asks Clintwood ‘why did you do this for us?’ and he replies. ‘I once knew a woman like you – there was nobody there to help her’. I think its a great line and a great scene, but it fundamentally changes the story, and I think not for the better. It instantly gives a backstory (and a potentially very interesting one, maybe someday someone will make an ‘origins’ story for The Man with No Name 🙄 ). But it also takes away the mystery of the film, the sense of the character being a force of nature, a spirit, who rolls through the town and turns it upside down.

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Amnesty11

Good point Ugetsu. I didn’t post on the Yojimbo thread, I know I should but I’ve been swamped..I find the evolution of the Yojimbo character so fascinating. The first scene, we see him throwing fate to the wind. He picks up a stick, throws it up, and chooses the path it points towards. He seems lost to me. He hitches up his kimono in that kind of scruffy way, not someone who has confidence, someone who is unsure but willing. He happens on (as fate would have it!) the fight or heated conversation between the two outlying town dwellers. He learns enough to know that maybe he can head that way and see what’s in it for him. When he enters town, he quickly assesses everything, almost instantaneously. This guy is a genius. We think he is going to make as much money as he can for himself and hit the road, taking advantage of everyone (except the honest barkeep) around him. But he evolves, we come to learn that there is more pleasure for him in ridding society of evil then of taking money. I believe that he actually grows in the film, maybe in it for the money to begin with, but then has a change of heart, gains compassion and understanding as time goes on.

With the Leone version, we don’t have that first moment of uncertainty. We have Eastwood spying the child and the mom in the very first scene. (And I remarked to myself that I couldn’t believe the mother would stand there unflinching when the little boy was shot at, even if not harmed. Totally unrealistic.) So there’s the set up. Something happened to his mother or his sister or his aunt that gives him the motivation to get involved. We know from the outset that he has a heart, that he’s not in it for the money. I agree, that’s a big flaw in this film. I saw that as totally American, even tho Leone is not! Hit us over the head with a big idea so we don’t have to think very hard and we don’t have to sit through character’s growing right before our very eyes, we don’t have to figure anything out at all, we just have to show up. Typical. Well, that’s a blanket statement, of course! But you know what I mean.

Also, I was worried about the couple walking off into the Mexican dessert and she didn’t have any shoes on. She is NOT going to last long, I thought to myself. She could have at least borrowed some dead man’s shoes for the journey… 🙂

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I think one crucial difference between the films is on one quick scene. Where the rescued wife asks Clintwood ‘why did you do this for us?’ and he replies. ‘I once knew a woman like you – there was nobody there to help her’. I think its a great line and a great scene, but it fundamentally changes the story, and I think not for the better.

This doesn’t bother me. It’s true that by giving a hint of a back story for the Man with No Name, the hero is less ephemeral and mysterious, yet he is perhaps also more relatable and human. This line is of course combined with Eastwood’s character witnessing the situation with the young family at the very beginning of the film, which in Yojimbo is introduced only later. In Yojimbo, the bookending story is that of the young peasant boy who at the beginning of the film left his parents to join the ruffians, and whom Mifune’s character saves. A family man, our hero, saving two families.

The endings are actually very different in the two films. In A Fistful of Dollars, the threat has been dealt with and the town can now carry on rebuilding towards a better society. It is a happy ending and the hero has done a good deed.

On the surface, the situation at the end of Yojimbo is the same, yet the way Kurosawa depicts it is very different. The town, as Mifune’s hero leaves it, is a very depressing place. There is blood everywhere, Unosuke’s prolonged death is not pretty, and all the uncomfortable desperation is underlined by the extended scene with the insane officer’s drumming. For me, it is a deeply depressing ending, only made more depressing by the hero’s light hearted “see ya” and shrug of shoulders. Counter points, and all that.

A Fistful of Dollars suggests that violence is a possible solution to a problem, but Kurosawa — I would think intentionally — leaves me unconvinced that this is the case in Yojimbo.

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Ugetsu

Vili – I hadn’t thought of the ending that way, and I agree completely. Leones ending is far more ‘optimistic’ on one sense, although of course its also a ‘conventional’ ending, typical of the time. I think the irony and cynicism of Yojimbo makes it in many ways a very modern film, I may be wrong but I can’t think of many examples of films from the US or Europe which had that level of irony in a conventional action film before the 1970’s at least.

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lawless

I finally gave up on the ghost on rewatching When A Woman Ascends The Stairs with commentary in order to get to A Fistful of Dollars. It’s not quite as great as I remember it being, but I think that’s mostly due to the conventions within which Leone was operating. It is definitely the best Kurosawa adaptation out there; in fact, I’d suggest that it is to Yojimbo what Throne of Blood is to Macbeth: an excellent adaptation that convincingly translates the story from one culture to another.

As for the differences: As is mentioned in the earlier thread, between the way the town is structured and the way the story is structured, A Fistful of Dollars seems more plausible and less mythic, as if it could have really happened that way. It’s not as stylized as Yojimbo, in which the town is so peculiar and so isolated that it almost seems like it’s set in a hellish alternate dimension. Want proof of the isolation? As far as we can tell, there are no women in town other than the woman weaving on the outskirts of town, the geisha/prostitutes, Mother Seibei, and the captive woman. In other words, there is no normal, everyday family life. In A Fistful of Dollars, however, the town is immediately introduced as a place where “all the women are widows.”

There are certainly aspects of each that are memorable. For Yojimbo, that includes the initial scene of the dog carrying the hand, the giant, the destruction of the captive woman’s house, and the final battle. For A Fistful of Dollars, that includes the use of the barrels, Eastwood crawling all over the place to remain hidden, and the classic Morricone score, which is a little more effective than the score to Yojimbo, which struck me as overly intrusive until I got accustomed to it.

I agree with Vili that showing the captive woman and her son in the beginning of the movie is a structural improvement over them popping up unannounced midstream. I don’t see it as sentimentalizing at all until their reunion during the prisoner exchange. It also underlines the fact that this is a real town with real people and families in it, not just those complicit in each side’s criminal acts.

Oddly enough, A Fistful of Dollars struck me as more violent, perhaps because of how much noise and dust the guns and rifles kick up and perhaps because of the blunter, more brutal nature of gunpowder based weaponry in comparison to swords and knives.

As for the actors, I will commit the ultimate in heresy here and say that I find Eastwood’s too cool for school Man With No Name the equal of Mifune’s Sanjuro. They’re two different characters; if anything, despite Eastwood’s professed motivation for saving the woman and her family, his character comes across as more of a cipher and a traditional anti-hero, if there is such a thing. In the end, we discover that neither of them are in it for the money, although Eastwood’s character initially seems the more rapacious of the two.

Sanjuro the trickster figure is clearly there to make trouble, and he derives a lot of enjoyment from it. He’s also upfront about wanting to clean house, almost as if he’s Hercules cleaning the Aegean stables, and, as Vili points out in an earlier post, leaving a shattered town behind that we have no reason to believe will be able to continue to function in its present state. Whereas with A Fistful of Dollars, the “good” townspeople can now come out of hiding and run things after being freed of the yoke of oppression.

BTW, Clint Eastwood provided his own costumes, including the cigar, hat, and poncho/serape, that’s how cheap the production was.

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Vili Maunula

lawless: As far as we can tell, there are no women in town other than the woman weaving on the outskirts of town, the geisha/prostitutes, Mother Seibei, and the captive woman. In other words, there is no normal, everyday family life. In A Fistful of Dollars, however, the town is immediately introduced as a place where “all the women are widows.”

Speaking of women, the difference between Orin (Seibei’s wife) and Donna Baxter is quite interesting. In A Fistful of Dollars the character comes across as sort of reasonable, understanding and somewhat motherly. Orin really has none of these qualities. She is not only as corrupted as the men in town, but perhaps even more so. And while Donna Baxter is elegant, almost regal in her appearance and body language, Orin in comparison is quite peasant like and at times verging on the pathetic.

lawless: I agree with Vili that showing the captive woman and her son in the beginning of the movie is a structural improvement over them popping up unannounced midstream.

I may have said that at some point (have I?), but thinking of it now, I wouldn’t actually call it an improvement, just a difference in focus. In Kurosawa, once again, the moral of the story is aimed at the younger generation, and the young peasant boy works as a good substitute for the audience. A Fistful of Dollars has fewer didactic ambitions and therefore focuses on the more conventional love story setup. I think both work really well.

lawless: Oddly enough, A Fistful of Dollars struck me as more violent, perhaps because of how much noise and dust the guns and rifles kick up and perhaps because of the blunter, more brutal nature of gunpowder based weaponry in comparison to swords and knives.

This is really interesting to hear! For me, A Fistful of Dollars is nowhere near as violent as Yojimbo, and the gunfire actually feels a little comical at times. It’s fascinating how different our reactions here are.

lawless: BTW, Clint Eastwood provided his own costumes, including the cigar, hat, and poncho/serape, that’s how cheap the production was.

I didn’t know that!

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lawless

Vili wrote:

Speaking of women, the difference between Orin (Seibei’s wife) and Donna Baxter is quite interesting. In A Fistful of Dollars the character comes across as sort of reasonable, understanding and somewhat motherly. Orin really has none of these qualities. She is not only as corrupted as the men in town, but perhaps even more so. And while Donna Baxter is elegant, almost regal in her appearance and body language, Orin in comparison is quite peasant like and at times verging on the pathetic.

Very true, and indicative of the sexual tension that exists in A Fistful of Dollars that doesn’t exist in Yojimbo. The closest Yojimbo gets to this occurs when Orin offers Sanjuro the services of the brothel’s denizens, whom Kurosawa depicts realistically rather than romantically, and he turns her down. Even the sake brewer who keeps Nui captive seems more motivated by obsession and lust than anything approaching romance.

As you’ve suggested elsewhere, Orin comes across as more ruthless, and possibly more in charge, than Seibei. She certainly doesn’t let her maternal feelings get in the way of castigating her son for being soft. Yet if anything he seems to be a mama’s boy, as exemplified by his appeal to his mother just before he’s killed. (Or is it as he’s dying?)

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