A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
A landmark in the western genre, A Fistful of Dollars was Sergio Leone's first entry in the "Dollars Trilogy" and sparked the explosion of the Spaghetti Western sub-genre. Though not the first western film made in Europe, it is nevertheless credited with reinvigorating interest in the genre and is an early example of using graphic violence and believable (though less classically-heroic) characters in a genre then overcrowded with crooning, white-hat cowboys. It is not the greatest western film ever made, although it is quite good; of the many great and iconic western films we've been given, none easily could claim to be as singularly important as A Fistful of Dollars.
Leone introduced his Man With No Name with A Fistful of Dollars: this is the story of an anti-hero, a man looking out only for himself. He's not a bad guy, necessarily; he's simply learned that being a good guy doesn't pay so well. Right from the start, Clint Eastwood's Joe (well, OK, technically he does have a nickname) ignores situations that won't affect him directly. There's a bit of a change in his moral compass later in the film (although one could argue he's more involved by that point), but ultimately the decisions he makes are largely self-serving. This was taboo for American entertainment in the early 1960s, and had been (for the most part) disallowed on the silver screen since the pre-Code Hollywood days. Even the television broadcast premiere of the film included a separately-produced introductory story in an attempt to moralize Joe's actions.
Of course, the stigmas and the censorship and the requisite morality aimed at the film industry would begin to fade away as the cultural revolution of the late-'60s gained traction. There's quite a lot to the story of our modern era, and I'll not attempt to summarize here; but it should be noted, at the very least, that A Fistful of Dollars played an important role in the evolution of what is and what isn't "acceptable" in American cinema. It wasn't the first, but it was one of the few that grabbed its audience and provoked a communal plea: "Give us more!"
Sergio Leone should also be credited here with introducing the world, effectively, to a master of music composition: the unequaled Ennio Morricone. Morricone would go on to score many of Leone's (and others') films, and a good number of his themes are easily recognized (although some people might not realize where they first heard them). Quentin Tarantino has famously used Morricone's themes in several of his own films, and commissioned the composer for his 2015 film The Hateful Eight (which won Morricone his first Academy Award). Personally, I can think of no other composer whose work I adore more than Ennio Morricone's. Seeing him credited in A Fistful of Dollars under the pseudonym "Dan Savio" is a quiet clue to what Leone gave the world with his film.
There's also much to note on the composition of the film itself; A Fistful of Dollars is based on (or plagiarized from, depending on who you ask) Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo from 1961, and was Leone's attempt to marry the themes of Hollywood westerns with the storytelling and style of Italian film-making. His use of close-ups is also often noted as being in contrast to the way Hollywood was using them; close-ups here are focused spotlights on the characters themselves, rather than only to show their reactions to things happening in the wider shots. For most viewers today, these differences in style and execution might not seem obvious - partly because films like this have had such an influence on the way movies are made now.
Eastwood didn't speak Italian; Leone didn't speak English: the actors and crew spoke a potluck of English, Italian, and Spanish. A Fistful of Dollars was filmed without an audio track; all dialogue and sound effects were dubbed later. It's not difficult to notice the actors on-screen speaking different languages, no matter what you're hearing. It really is a testament to the Leone as a director to have kept it all together, to have made it work.
Most of the supporting cast members are forgettable. The landscape is clearly European. The blood is too red, the violence subdued by today's standards. The lip-syncing can be distracting and the whole thing lacks polish and a certain precision. It's probably the most unrealistic western to ever be labeled "realistic." Still, it really does pull you into a living world, one full of dirty characters with surprisingly honest (if not admirable) motivations.
Rating: 4/5 Stars
A Fistful of Dollars isn't the first of anything, really, although it was one of the few to bring so many fresh ideas to the masses. I absolutely recommend seeing this, and seeing it a few times. It's an important film in the history of the genre, and one you can enjoy today despite its dents and scratches. An iconic work from a man who would become a legend, this is a film you've almost already seen, owing to its towering influence on the genre.