Reviews of Classic Movies: 'A Fistful of Dollars'


There’s a trend in action movies today where fight sequences, chase scenes and CG calamities crowd the screen with hyper-speed motion and incomprehensible editing. When a hero and a bad guy face off, the technique is to cut quickly between blurry images, and we’re supposed to understand that a fight took place.

I sometimes wonder how this trend got started. After all, director Sergio Leone showed in the 1960s how action scenes can be stretched to almost interminable lengths and still be exciting. Extreme close-ups of hands and faces prolong the tension, and the audience is riveted to the screen. Leone’s first major use of this technique came in his breakout film A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, and I’d argue Fistful is a perfect antidote to today’s overblown action scenes. It’s a classic Western that should be on any emerging film buff’s must-watch list.

A Fistful of Dollars introduces us to Clint Eastwood’s iconic character, The Man With No Name. A drifting gunslinger, The Man (referred to as Joe in one scene, and by other names in later films) rides into a backwater Mexican town run by two rival gangs. The Man sees an opportunity in the town, and begins hiring himself out as a mercenary to both sides.

Ramon and Esteban Rojo lead one of the two rival gangs in the film

At first, it might seem that The Man is only interested in money. But the deeper he gets into the feud between the liquor-smuggling Rojos and the gun-running Baxters, a certain morality appears in his character. He isn’t a hero on a noble quest, but he helps people when he can. Compared to the shining, morally superior protagonists we find in many modern films, The Man With No Name is refreshing and puzzling.  He kills without justification, he manipulates people for profit, and we still cheer him on.

The Man With No Name inhabits a very specific canvas. It’s a Wild West landscape that’s been referenced in countless films since the release of A Fistful of Dollars; a parched, desolate place filled with evil men and punishing conditions. I sometimes feel that what we see in Leone’s films could only be captured by Leone himself; as if he alone knew the right locations and camera tricks to capture what we see in A Fistful of Dollars. And just like a painter, Leone fills his canvas with little details that only the most observant will notice.

Of course, this lionized portrait of Leone glosses over the rougher parts of A Fistful of Dollars. Don’t expect high production values or even professional film techniques. For all the artistic value of A Fistful of Dollars, the film is riddled with bad voice dubbing and dodgy special effects. Produced on a paltry $200,000 budget, Leone was limited to shooting many night scenes in broad daylight, and using a "day for night" filter to achieve the desired look. If A Fistful of Dollars were released today, it might go straight to DVD.

Strangely, it’s the rough quality of the film that allows it to endure. Despite the technical errors, reprehensible characters and random violence, A Fistful of Dollars is far more real than many action films of today. There’s almost a documentary feel to the film, as if Leone went back in time to follow these gunslingers around and record their arguments and shootouts. There’s a hard logic in the actions of The Man With No Name, to the extent that we can imagine making the same decisions if we were in his position.

Leone's style includes the frequent use of extreme close-ups

Even if Westerns aren’t your thing, A Fistful of Dollars is worth a viewing, if only to better understand the influences of modern filmmakers. Directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and even Eastwood himself owe their sense of timing and their evocative use of images to Leone’s style. By going back and taking in A Fistful of Dollars, viewers can better appreciate how films of the 1960s fit in with the larger “arc” of the medium, and better understand how movies arrived where they are today.  A Fistful of Dollars gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

Have you seen A Fistful of Dollars, or any of Leone’s other works? What did you think? Do you think the upcoming crop of movie directors could learn something from Leone? Join the conversation in the comments section, or on Film Riot, the film community on! If you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers, and check out my other reviews here:


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