February 18, 2008

A fistful of Dollars

Often rightly described as the first of the Spaghetti westerns, a Fistful of Dollars began the careers of so many greats in modern cinema. From Clint Eastwood's mesmeric performance to Sergio Leone's debut as a Western director, this is a film where history runs red on the screen. Its influences were profound- whether on its participant's own careers or on the careers of film makers like Sam Peckinpah who took the operatic nature of violence and advanced it another level- and to some extent Eastwood's taciturn character in the film defines the Western drama for years to come. The man with no name (though the town gravedigger calls him Joe) has no family, no friends and never tells anyone about himself. He just strides across the screen infusing it with authority and making the other characters- desperadoes included- crouch in his charisma. Only in the scene where Eastwood is tortured is there any doubt that 'with the cavalry arriving in town, and the American so quick on the draw' Eastwood controls every scene he is in. Repeatedly refusing to tell others where they stand in the story that he creates- he forsees most conclusions and creates most of the plot.

The plot is simple- with themes going back to Shakespeare and beyond- it is largely derived from a Japanese film Yojimbo made by Akira Kurosawa. The town of San Miguel is split in two between two mafiosi like gangs (one even presided over by a formidable matriarch). The Baxters and the Rojas have been at each other's throats for years: they despise each other and have been at war. The plot goes on with the man with no name standing between them- attempting via a heist performed on the US army- to manipulate them to destroy each other. He has no particular reason to do this, no particular love or hatred for the town (at one point he shows some sympathy but its shortlived), the man with no name seeks destruction for its own sake and his character is a vacant canvass upon which we put the images that we would like to see. Gnarled features and a perpetual cigar hanging from lips, with a hand used to holding a pistol, the man with no name is a force of nature that blows everything off course.

So what is this film about. It is not about character- though Leone's closeups are incredible- it is about politics. The film is a fable about the creation of states and the creation of order within a community. At the beggining of the film one of the Desperadoes comments that he wants to create peace which is why he has hired the man with no name. Of course the point is that the man with no name works for noone- he has no loyalty accept to himself and ends up destroying every other kind of power in the land save for that of the self. He sends both of the mafiosi cliques to their deaths through their suspisions of each other and by the end of the film, the last shots show an emptied town. However its not quite an empty town. The last lines of the film 'you mean the Mexican government on one side, the American maybe on the other and me smack in the middle' parallel earlier lines that the man with no name says about the Rojas and the Baxters, but with one difference the new situation is 'too dangerous' even for the greatest psychopath of them all. Order has been created in the final frames because the power of the mafiosi has been destroyed and replaced with the power of the states.

Another way of looking at that is to look at the role of the modern in the film. Throughout it all the characters make indications that the modern world is here to stay. They use Winchester rifles and take target shots at the armour of Conquistadors. The state is here the ultimate in modernity: Winchester Rifles can be defeated with pistols and the armour of Conquistadors can repel bullets- but what Leone is saying here is something greater that the most powerful invention of modern life is not technological but political. The state can be defeated by neither a quick hand nor an armoured chest, the state has the power to control far in advance of any gang of mafiosi and a man with no name cannot exist save beyond the frontier. In that sense Leone creates a much more vicious and primitive West than some of his colleagues in direction at the time, and he also demonstrates how the power of the state, more than any technological force, changes society and creates the possibility of perpetual peace.