Archive for the ‘Sergio Leone’ Category

Hardware (1990)

Richard Stanley is a drastically-underrated director and Sergio Leone enthusiast from South Africa whose work is ripe for rediscovery.  I’d seen his 1992 film DUST DEVIL before, but not his debut feature, HARDWARE, which I happened to finally get around to during the same weekend I saw the new DREDD movie.

Hardware (1990)

From where I’m sitting, there aren’t many movies as true to the post-punk 2000 AD aesthetic as these two movies, DREDD and HARDWARE, although my friends in the UK will definitely have more trustworthy opinions on the matter.  HARDWARE is based on a short strip from 2000 AD, the same series from whence Judge Dredd arrived.  It actually is derived from a Judge Dredd storyline!

Hardware (1990)

Hardware (1990)

This is the basic pitch:  A trenchcoat-rocking soldier named Moses (Dylan McDermott) purchases the wreckage of a robot found in a post-apocalyptic desert, and brings it back to his sculptor/artist girlfriend Jill (Stacy Travis). While Mo is out, the robot activates and attempts to murder Jill in her apartment.  It may visually call to mind the Terminator of 1984, but this guy’s got some even nastier moves than that cyber-Arnold had.

Hardware (1990)

The deceptively-cheap movie — it’s stylish and relentless and looks like plenty more than a million bucks — is almost entirely about this battle, although it makes time for awesomely bizarre and/or disturbing performances by John Lynch (BLACK DEATH), Mark Northover (WILLOW!), and most unshakably, William Hootkins (STAR WARS, BATMAN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) as maybe the grossest movie pervert ever.  Iggy Pop and Lemmy also briefly contribute their talents, but with all that craziness surrounding, it all comes down to Jill and her fight to stay alive under attack by that freaky, ferocious robot.  It plays out, under Stanley’s direction, as an intensely tangible experience, despite springing out of a totally bonkers sci-fi set-up.

HARDWARE is available for purchase from Severin Films.

Hardware (1990)

This piece originally appeared on Rupert Pupkin Speaks.

@jonnyabomb

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The other day I was describing PHENOMENA to a buddy who’s similarly enamored of horror flicks, and when I kept emphasizing how wonderful a movie it is, he thought I was fucking with him, since I apparently had a devious smile on my face the entire time. It made me smile just to think about it, but smile weirdly, because the movie is insane. Let me say it here in black-and-white without quotation marks: I sincerely, absolutely believe that PHENOMENA is a brilliant horror film. You can find vastly differing opinions elsewhere, but this essay is about mine.

PHENOMENA, originally released in the United States as CREEPERS (the reason for which will soon be apparent), is the work of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento. I’ve had only limited exposure to Argento’s filmography. I’ve seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at least a dozen times, of course, but Argento was one of several writers on that film, not the director. And I’ve seen DAWN OF THE DEAD a couple dozen times, but Argento’s main contributions to that film as far as I know were in the way of musical compositions and support to his friend George Romero.

The only Argento film upon which I can hold forth in any meaningful way (besides this one) is 1977’s SUSPIRIA, but SUSPIRIA is far from the only notable film in his arsenal. Argento’s primary milieu is within the genre of film known as giallo. PLEASE NOTE: I do not and would not claim to be any kind of authority on giallo cinema. I will explain it as best as I know how, but for a more comprehensive look, please visit my friends at Paracinema. They even have a piece on PHENOMENA, which I will finally read as soon as I’m done writing mine! I’m sure theirs is smarter, as you’ll see soon enough. But let’s try to sound academic as long as possible before bringing up the monkey.

So, Giallo: It literally means “yellow” and it’s an evocative reference to the yellowed pages of pulp novels. Giallo is a kind of pulp tale, but rather than more traditional pulp topics such as noir or sci-fi, giallo quickly diverged into its own thing. Generally speaking, giallo films tend to be lurid, bloody psychological thrillers. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, only with a significant level-up on the gore. Giallos may or may not have supernatural elements, but the color red (ironic, due to the name) is a near-constant. Stabbings abound. Quite honestly, I stayed away from the giallo genre for a long time because, despite its encouraging tendency to feature female protagonists, giallo as a result and by nature also features a preponderance of graphic and vicious violence towards women. I’m a guy who prefers monster movies to knife-murders, and — unfairly or not — I’d always figured giallos to be the artier precursor to slashers, like the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. That assumption is not entirely incorrect, but of course it’d be foolish to write off an entire genre, particularly one so influential.

Directors like Mario Bava, Massimo Dallamano, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci were the most prominent practitioners of giallo films, though genre journeymen more famous for other types of movies, such as Enzo Castellari, Antonio Margheriti, and Fernando Di Leo, also worked in the arena. That’s how significant a movement it was. Of all giallo directors, Dario Argento is the one whose name is arguably most synonymous with the genre. His films THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), DEEP RED (1975), TENEBRAE (1982), and OPERA (1987), among others, are giallo hallmarks. The aforementioned SUSPIRIA (1977) is a giallo film with somewhat more of a supernatural angle than usual. 1985’s PHENOMENA is even more of a departure.

PHENOMENA is a deep, dark fairy tale. It’s a completely unrestrained work. It defies convention, throws peerlessly bizarre protagonists into the mix, and veers tonally all over the map. Clearly, if Argento and his co-writer Franco Ferrini had an idea, they put it in. No doubt this is what puts off some of the film’s detractors, but for me, the audaciousness is thrilling and inspiring. Let’s do a recap and you’ll see what I mean:

The film opens on a cloudy late afternoon in the rolling, lushly green hills of Switzerland. Right off the bat, what Argento manages to do with wind is eerie and evocative, and the primal unsettling quality of wind through trees is a recurring part of the film. The instrumental score by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin (the Italian prog-rock band who also did the score for Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD) and Simon Boswell is weird and unforgettable and also a kind of secondary character who wanders throughout the film. So by the time any human characters enter the frame, the tone for PHENOMENA is set. A busload of young tourists is herded onto a bus by their chaperone, and as the bus is driving off, one schoolgirl is left behind. She chases the bus, but as it disappears, she realizes how very alone she is. The girl is played by a young actress named Fiore Argento, and if the surname sounds familiar, that’s no accident. Argento had no reservations about featuring his nearest and dearest in his films, often in ways that might give meeker hearts pause. More on that in a moment.

In an epically eerie sequence, the girl wanders through the hillside until she finds a small isolated cottage. With literally nowhere else to go, she ventures inside, calling out for help. There’s something chained inside the house. It breaks free, slashes at the girl, and chases her outside. We don’t see what the girl sees, although we do see some angles from the vantage point of her pursuer. The girl runs to a cave near a waterfall, and is run through with a pike. The attack continues until it’s clear the girl is dead, at which point something falls into the waterfall and is washed away by the rapids far below. In case it wasn’t immediately clear, the object is the girl’s head.

The next time we see that head, it’s dessicated almost down to the bone, with maggots and worms and all manners of creepy-crawlies doing what they do upon it. The skull is encased in glass, in the laboratory of a wheelchair-bound forensic entemologist named John McGregor. McGregor is describing his work to the two police investigators who have come to see him: He’s a scientist who uses insects to determine the method and manner of a victim’s demise — basically, if the TV show CSI were like this movie, I’d watch the TV show CSI. Here’s why: McGregor is played by Donald Pleasence, the veteran British character actor who is probably best known to horror fans from his role in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. He serves a similar function here. I should also mention that McGregor has an assistant named Inga who happens to be a chimpanzee. By assistant, I mean that Inga helps McGregor with his experiments and helps him talk out theories and also pushes his wheelchair for him. If you’re still reading, I appreciate it and I will understand fully if you want to stop now and run off to watch the movie for yourself. It’s worth doing.

Into the movie comes young Jennifer, the teenaged protagonist of the film. She’s played by a then-14-year-old Jennifer Connelly in her first starring role, having previously made her debut appearance in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Jennifer Connelly is shockingly beautiful in this movie — I say this not at all in any creepy way, that’s not the effect her appearance provokes — she’s like a fairy-tale princess, the kind you want to see no harm befall. Your eyes go right to her in every scene, but not in any kind of lustful way — she’s simply a striking figure, almost a special effect, and exactly the kind of visual anchor that an unhinged narrative like this one requires.

Jennifer — Argento allegedly gave Connelly’s character the same first name in order to help her get invested in the story — is headed to a Swiss boarding school, having been shipped off by a famous actor father who doesn’t seem to care much about her. Her chaperone is Frau Brückner, a local employee of her father, played by Daria Nicolodi, another frequent collaborator of Argento and the mother of his famous daughter, Asia. (Both of whom are actors Argento has used repeatedly in his films, to go back to an earlier point.) Jennifer is dropped off at school and nearly immediately ostracized by the other girls. There are two things you need to know about Jennifer: She sleepwalks at night, and she can commune with insects. She has psychic abilities that give her disturbing images of the future and torment her sleep.

So one night, while walking in her sleep, Jennifer is awakened by a schoolmate being murdered out in the surrounding woods. It seems that the killer from the opening scene isn’t done preying upon young victims. Jennifer gets lost in the woods, but is rescued by Inga, who introduces Jennifer to McGregor. With their shared affinity for insects, Jennifer and McGregor become fast friends and soon enough they team up to investigate the murders on their own. Since McGregor is house-bound, he sends out Jennifer with a fly in a box to aid in the investigation. Jennifer and the fly find the cottage from the opening scene, which leads to more disturbing revelations.

In other words, what I am telling you is that, in addition to a chimpanzee lab assistant, this movie also has a fly detective. And songs by famed metal bands Iron Maiden and Motorhead. And a little person with Patau syndrome. And I’m not even done recapping yet, but I’m going to stop there, because believe it or not, PHENOMENA has even more twists and turns and seemingly random factors that all collide and result in a uniquely fizzy combustion of weird inspiration. I don’t want to reveal any more than I already have.

PHENOMENA is an everything movie. Most people are understandably content with just one or two flavors, and such a mad mixture of elements is too much for them. Most movies would begin and end with the string of murders at a Swiss boarding school, or with the sleepwalking girl with psychic powers. The apocalyptic swarms of flies and the chimpanzee protagonist may be five or six too many layers of awesome for the conventional filmgoing mind to handle. But PHENOMENA is the only movie I know of in which a chimpanzee protagonist and an apocalyptic swarm of flies team up with Jennifer Connelly and Donald Pleasence in order to defeat a deranged murderer — if you know of any others PLEASE let me know — and that is the reason it gets a blue ribbon from me.

Throw everything at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

Looking over the list of my top fifty favorite movies today, it seem like a good time to expand a little bit on my writings on Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  Some days it’s my second favorite movie of all time, after Leone’s own THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, and most critical writings on the movie call it Leone’s masterpiece.  Clint Eastwood played the lead in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, he shared top billing with Lee Van Cleef in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and they made it a trio in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY.  With ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, you have four main characters this time around, each time with their own personal musical cues courtesy of Leone’s most important collaborator, Ennio Morricone, and each one of the quartet  is among the most eternally memorable incarnations of the archetypes they are meant to represent:

The movie’s lonesome stranger, in a role originally offered to Clint Eastwood, is played by cinema’s other great stoneface, Charles Bronson.  His character is known only as Harmonica, and the reason why is a brilliant reveal which I wouldn’t dream of ruining. 

The charismatic rogue, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, is called Cheyenne and played by Jason Robards.  This is arguably the coolest character of all goddamned time, in my opinion.  The tragic romantic figure that the younger Robards was so good at playing is imbued with a terrific (and tremendously quotable) sense of humor in Leone’s hands.

The whore with the heart of gold, Jill, is played by Claudia Cardinale.  For my money, Claudia Cardinale in this movie is as beautiful as a human woman can look.  She’s great for a lot of other reasons, some of them I listed here when I named her my number one of all time, but you can’t argue with that face.

Frank, the bad man in the black hat, is played by all-American good guy Henry Fonda, and seriously speaking, he is one of the greatest villains ever.  I’m sorry to keep using generic platitudes, but that’s the kind of blindly expansive adoration that this movie elicits from me.  Frank has a cruelly and coldly sadistic introduction, and he maintains that level of villainy throughout the movie.

As you can tell from the title, Leone thought of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST as “a fairy tale for adults,” and the fact that each one of these classic Western movie archetypes are simultaneously so broad and so memorable is proof that Leone succeeded.  This is a definitive Western, and a legitimately perfect movie.  It probably helps to go in on it with a working knowledge of Westerns, just so that you can see how Leone so definitively aced it, but I figure it’d be just as good even if you can’t tell a Colt from a Derringer from a Remington.

For plenty more about movies all the time, find me on Twitter@jonnyabomb

And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

4.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).

9.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).

21. RAISING ARIZONA (1987).

22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

28.  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

29.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).

30.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).

33.  GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997).

34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

39. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).

46.  THE PROFESSIONALS (1966).

47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).

49.  EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973).

50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

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And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Masterpiece.  Masterpiece.  Masterpiece.  Masterpiece.  I almost don’t want to write about Unforgiven, not because it’s been written about to death but because I could write about it all day (and you’ve seen the length of some of the articles I write, so you can believe me.)  It’s one of my top five favorite movies, it is among the zeniths of arguably the greatest career in American movies, and it has what is in my opinion one of the greatest scripts ever brought to screen.

The truth is that almost anybody could have made a good movie with the script (originally titled “The Cut-Whore Killings”) by David Webb Peoples, but of course Clint was the best man for the job, because he brought the full weight of his literally-legendary cinematic persona to it.  He also brought out the humor in it, which is something I notice that people scarcely mention about Unforgiven.  Clint’s humor is such a part of his films.  Clint’s brand of humor is a light touch – gentle and breezy, so subtle you could miss it sometimes.  Why would you ever think that the guy with that squinty glare was joking?  It’s easy to overlook.  But you’d never care about William Munny’s friendship with Ned Logan, and you’d never feel the way you do about what happens to Ned and what Will does about it, if you didn’t have those light moments of humor that pass like gusts throughout the early going.

Unforgiven showcases what is maybe Clint’s greatest acting performance, as understated as ever but with vast reserves of rage and loss just beneath the surface.  Every other actor in the movie rises to that level — particularly Gene Hackman, who won the Academy Award for his performance as the charmingly down-home yet viciously despotic Little Bill Daggett.  Morgan Freeman is wonderful as always as William Munny’s trusted friend, Ned Logan, bringing a needed warmth to the movie.  I’ve read examinations of Unforgiven that accuse the film of dodging the issue of race in the old West, since the presence of Morgan Freeman automatically makes it pertinent.  I don’t buy those critiques.  Ned’s eventual fate has everything to do with race, whether or not it was originally written that way, and despite the fact that the matter of race is never overtly stated or discussed.  Unforgiven chooses to portray the matter using the most subtle method possible — with casting.  What happens to Ned would be horrible if it happened to anyone.  But when it happens to Morgan Freeman, there is a historic context that doesn’t need to be spoken.

Everything about Unforgiven evinces this theme, which I personally find so appealing as a mission statement:  Emotional power can still be derived from subtety and understatement.  Eastwood’s insistence on choosing and staying loyal to like-minded collaborators has everything to do with the lasting impact that is taken away from every viewing of Unforgiven.   The score by jazz composer Lennie Niehaus is spare but unforgettable.  The production design by Eastwood’s longtime collaborator Henry Bumstead is absorbing and utterly, invisibly convincing.  The most invisible cinematic art of all is editing, and the work done on this film by editor Joel Cox should not be overlooked.  (And it wasn’t, by the Academy Awards that year.)

And then there’s Jack Green’s cinematography in Unforgiven – it’s probably my favorite look of any movie ever.  I wish that every movie looked like Unforgiven, but then I guess they wouldn’t be Unforgiven.  It’s an important thing to talk about, how a movie looks.  So many people write about movies, but never talk about what they look like.  They talk about the script, which you can’t see, but not the photography, which you can.  They talk about the most obvious virtues, like actors and their appearances, but not the next most obvious, and that’s the reason why stars look as good as they do.  Movies are moving pictures, that’s what they are.  Few pictures move me like Unforgiven, and yeah, in this case I know for a fact it’s because of how good the script is, and how good the actors are, but I also know that it has plenty to do with how it looks.  And that’s a credit to Jack Green.  For his work alone, Unforgiven demands to be looked at on as big a screen as possible.

Unforgiven screens tonight FOR FREE! in Brooklyn Bridge Park

And you can find more from me here:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

 

 

Film Forum’s phenomenal “Spaghetti” Westerns series comes to a close tonight.  It’s been an amazing month of well-known and adored consensus-classics, seldom-screened rarities, and near-forgotten oddities.  As expected, I didn’t have nearly enough time to get downtown — as you may have noticed, I haven’t even had much time this month to write about movies, let alone see them.  Here are my expanded notes on A Fistful Of Dollars and Django, and please be on the lookout for my upcoming piece on Sergio Sollima’s vastly-underseen 1966 classic, The Big Gundown, to which I am trying to pay the kind of tribute it deserves. 

Tonight the festival ended with a quadruple-header of Duck, You Sucker!, Death Rides A Horse, Django, and my personal favorite anything, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.  I’ve written about this big, beautiful, belligerent odyssey before, and if you haven’t read that yet, please take a minute to do so…

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What can you say about your favorite movie?  This one is mine.

There is literally nothing I can write about The Good The Bad & The Ugly that hasn’t already been written, and by more famous names.  It’s not exactly an underrated movie.  It’s certainly the most straight-ahead entertaining Great Movie that regularly makes the greatest-ever lists.  (It clocked in prominently on my own all-time top-50.)

Watching it again last Monday, I was struck by the fact that it’s not a movie with much of an agenda beyond pure storytelling.  It’s not a grand statement on humanity or history.  It’s a story.  As the poster’s tagline (one of the best ever written), “For three men, the Civil War wasn’t hell.  It was PRACTICE!”  Sure, for some characters in this demented picaresque, war is hell, but for the three leads, those monosyllabic archetypes in the title, war is just an appropriately chaotic backdrop for their self-involved quest.  The whole thing is about three guys looking for buried treasure! 

Good, Bad, Ugly:  Does it really matter? They all have the same damn goal.

The Good The Bad & The Ugly is a callback to the previous Leone classic, For A Few Dollars More, in that it stars the blond/brunet tandem of Clint Eastwood (The Good) and Lee Van Cleef (The Bad), although it escalates the setting and the scale (and the running time) to an operatic degree.  What’s really fascinating to me about this movie the more I watch it is that Eli Wallach (The Ugly) is truly the star of the movie.  The movie begins and ends with him, and he seems to have the most screen time by a wide margin.  After the first introductory scenes of The Good and The Bad, I don’t think either of them have a scene that doesn’t also include The Ugly.  He not only has a first and last name, but a ton of middle names (Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez) AND an alias (a.k.a. The Rat), and he is the only one with the backstory (a life of crime begun to aid sick parents, which has now alienated him from his brother the priest).  Meanwhile, Clint’s character has a name but probably one that Tuco gave him – “Blondie” – and Van Cleef is referred to as “Angel-Eyes” – which is hilarious if it was also given him by Tuco, but either way is still an alias.  The Good The Bad & The Ugly is really Tuco’s movie.

Again, the underrated scriptwriting of Leone and his staff and the accurately-praised career-highlight score of Morricone, along with the cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli, have everything to do with the perfection of The Good The Bad & The Ugly, but the importance of the casting of Eli Wallach to the tone of the movie should not be underestimated.  He brings a wealth of serious training to the role, but also a go-for-broke sense of humor.  There’s a real mischievous sparkle in Tuco’s eye – he’s a quintessential survivor and a classic rogue.  Wallach really commits to this role – you couldn’t call him handsome in this movie, and his accent is as solid as any gringo has ever pulled off.  And he’s funny.  God DAMN.  Holy shit.  This movie is so damn funny, without ever losing its mythic grandeur.

It’s weird though – for a movie that defines its three main characters in such rigid terms, “good,” “bad,” and “ugly,” the morality (or faltering degree of such) isn’t remotely as rigid.  Clint’s character doesn’t do much good for anyone outside of offering and lighting a couple of cigars, and even Angel-Eyes, as unrelentingly violent as he can be, clearly operates under a certain code of behavior.  Tuco doesn’t seem to have any rules or boundaries or philosophy – just greed, gluttony, and self-preservation – but at least we have a faint suggestion of how he became that way, so even he isn’t strictly “Ugly.”  So it’s not a morality play.  It’s just a story.  It’s just a story, but it’s the one I’d watch all the way through, any time of night or day, right now if I could.

Try me.

Take a shot at my noose on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

NYC’s Film Forum is doing a massive retrospective on “spaghetti” Westerns all month.  A Fistful Of Dollars is first up, as it should be.  Here’s what I first wrote about one of my favorite movies ever when I did my own “Field Guide To ‘Spaghetti’ Westerns.” 

A Fistful Of Dollars wasn’t the very first entry in the genre they call “Spaghetti Western,” but it sure as hell was the spark that lit the firing pin.  Sergio Leone is arguably the greatest and certainly the best known and most influential of the “Spaghetti” directors.  He started out working on historical epics, and was somewhat hilariously credited as “Bob Robertson” on the American release of this, his first Western, but the name Sergio Leone is now synonymous with the genre.

Leone’s inspired approach was right there in Fistful – his absolute mastery of the widescreen frame, his deliberate and confident pacing, and his enlisting of his most important collaborator, composer Ennio Morricone, whose name will recur on just about every movie on the list you’re about to read.  Morricone is the most innovative and experimental of the great film composers – there is literally nothing in movies like a Morricone score.  Leone reportedly played selections from Morricone’s scores on the set – a brilliant inspiration that was unprecedented then, and completely unheard of today.

The plot of Fistful is an appropriation of the story from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – a taciturn stranger strolls into a town that is ruled by a feud between two warring families, and plays them against each other for his own gain.  In this movie the families are recast as the Baxters and the Rojos, which adds a dash of racial tension to the mix, but not really.  Leone wasn’t really concerned with social implications, and besides, the Rojos are mostly played by Italians – including popular “Spaghetti” fixture Gian Maria Volonte.

Of course, the main legacy of A Fistful Of Dollars, beyond its world-changing score and the fact that it remains entertainment of the highest order, is that it brought us Clint Eastwood.  Leone took a guy who was wrapping up eight years on a TV show that is now largely forgotten but for its theme song (Rawhide) and cast him perfectly as the mysterious lead, who despite the famous “Man With No Name” ad campaign, does have a name here.  It’s “Joe.”  Of course there isn’t a last name, or anything resembling a backstory.  Whether Joe’s sparse dialogue was a function of character or a response to the international nature of the production, he sure doesn’t talk too much, and when he does, it either means a mountain, or it reflects a sense of the blackest humor.  This introduced the main Eastwood persona that has proven a durable basis for five unprecedented decades of the greatest career in movies.

If you’re looking for an entry point, this movie is the best possible choice.

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