The first in the Dollars Trilogy, and the one which marks the beginning of the Spaghetti Western’s extreme success; A Fistful of Dollars is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying film. It’s actually tightly plotted, a detail that Leone’s later masterpieces abandoned somewhat. It keeps its story simple; The Man with No Name, although he acquires the temporary name of Joe here, rides into town to learn of a gang rivalry that’s tearing the place apart, he smells money and decides to work the two sides against each other in such a way that will line his pockets whilst they shoot holes in one another. There’s little else you need to know about the plot, it’s straightforward and effective, and despite its simplicity it allowed Eastwood to develop the quiet antihero which would make him a cinematic legend.
Aside from Eastwood’s character there are a lot of other highly influential elements to this film which would go on to be used throughout Leone’s Westerns, and which have also been copied, borrowed, and parodied ever since. Ennio Morricone’s score for example; although his most famous I would suggest is the one he created for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, this one too is both highly recognisable and extremely effective. Its haunting notes and exciting riffs do wonders for the film; it would have been great anyway, but there is no denying just how much the score contributes to the end result, and how it lifts the film into a whole new spectrum. Also, the extreme close ups that were often used by Leone in order to create an operatic feeling are established here, and the technique is as effective in this film as it would come to be in the future.
A Fistful of Dollars did launch the excellent trilogy, it infused many traditions with new life whilst simultaneously creating its own iconic identity, and it did so entirely under its own steam. There is a temptation I think to treat this as the first, and arguably weakest, of the three films, one which sets things up for the next two to develop into cultural landmarks – but this simply isn’t true. It was a huge success at the time of its release, becoming what was then Italy’s most successful film, whilst also doing phenomenally well elsewhere. It’s held up perfectly over time; despite now being forty nine years old it remains as exciting and visually thrilling as it was back in the sixties, as it takes Western film tradition and reenergises its spurs and guns to create something fresh and incredibly entertaining.