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What to watch: ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964)

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“Get three coffins ready,” says a cigarillo-chewing, serape-clad Clint Eastwood. He plays a nameless man talking to the town’s undertaker. Eastwood approaches a group of baddies, an argument ensues, guns are drawn and the Man with No Name rides back to the undertaker. “My mistake. Four coffins.”

After arriving in the New Mexican town of San Miguel, a man walks up to Eastwood and tries to sell him on the town — and he gives him one hell of a pitch. “Everyone here has become very rich — or else they are dead,” he tells Eastwood. And many people do die in this film: According to the Movie Body Counts website, 98 on-screen deaths take place in this 99-minute runtime, while the All Outta Bubble Gum website records a mere 94 on-screen deaths. But why does everyone kill each other in this tiny town, you may ask? It all comes down to a feud between two rival smuggling clans: the Rojos and the Baxters. Eastwood is pretty quick on the draw and uses this skill to play both sides off each other, going from gunfight to gunfight until he happens to clean up the town altogether.

It’s important to remember that this is an Italian film — the very first “Spaghetti Western.” It was not shot on the llanos of New Mexico, but in the countryside of old Spain and the studios of ’60s Rome. The film is the work of iconic director Sergio Leone, the father of the Spaghetti Western. As such, the film is slower and less talky than your average American film. Leone knows that the eyes tell the most. He lingers between wide shots of the Western-like landscapes of southern Spain and extreme close-ups before the guns are fired. And Leone knows he can lean on the score of the late great Ennio Morricone. Morricone manages not just to compose a theme; he writes in this score the emptiness of the Western landscape, the peril that awaits the viewer, the creatures of this hostile terrain — be they poisonous scorpions or ruthless bandits.

Despite being Italian, “A Fistful of Dollars” is the Western in its thickest, purest form. Every scene is either a shootout or exposition necessary for the next one. No hoedowns in a saloon, no speechifying from pioneer dads on rocking chairs about hard work and frontier values. Just shootouts, scenes leading to shootouts and more shootouts.

“A Fistful of Dollars” is a fun but brutal watch. Those two don’t often go together — it’s like pairing a fine Italian wine with a Big Mac. But when it comes to gut-punching films that inspired an entire cinematic movement, then it doesn’t get much better.

“A Fistful of Dollars” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Contact Mark Huerta at huertam ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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