The first of Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars stars Clint Eastwood in one of his most iconic roles, a fast-drawing, occasional-talking man who seems more a force of nature than a human being. He and his gun make an immediate impression on the small town of San Miguel, which has been crippled under the strain of a war between two criminal gangs. The film, a largely faithful remake of Akira Kurosawa’s original samurai picture, Yojimbo, is different in more than just the historical setting. Where Kurosawa’s film takes a detached, though at times, darkly comic view of the violence wrought by the nameless samurai, Leone’s film dwells on the sadistic pleasure the Rojo gang finds in decimating their opponents.
Two scenes, similar in effect, stand out in this regard: an early scene where Ramon Rojo murders an entire French army unit with a single machine gun, and a later scene where Ramon and a few members of his gang light the Baxter house afire and stand outside with guns drawn, shooting down their opponents as they flee the encroaching flames. In each scene, Leone not only shows the helpless group mowed down by bullets, but he highlights the faces of the shooters in close-up as they perpetrate their crimes. The joy and excitement is strikingly evident in their faces as they fire away, believing those moments to be decisive victories in their battle for control of the criminal enterprises in the region.
Leone highlights the shooters in each scene by repeatedly cutting back and forth between their faces and the carnage left in their wake. But what is the cumulative impact of sequences like these, sequences that use brisk cutting to combine looks of pleasure with falling and flailing bodies amid the spray of bullets?
On the face of it, it seems fairly ambiguous, which is exactly the problem. We know the Rojo gang, and Ramon in particular, are a violent and terrible group of people who take advantage of others for their own gain. That fact alone may create the necessary distance between the viewer and the Rojo gang so that we can pass judgment on their actions.
However, the Rojo gang is clearly not alone in their predilection for self-serving behavior. The opposing Baxter family, the military units, and even the (anti)hero all fall into that category as well. On top of that, when Leone chooses a way of shooting (!) these two scenes that uses quick cuts to combine moments of pleasure with moments of violence, the result is a couple of adrenaline pumping scenes, scenes that work more on feeling than on narrative. In that sense, Leone’s film, unlike Kurosawa’s, doesn’t seem to give the viewer any distance from which to judge the Rojo gang. These scenes muddy the waters, giving viewers an opportunity to enter into the violent minds of killers from afar.
This formal combination of intense pleasure and visceral violence has become standard operating procedure in action films these days, but at the time of Leone’s film, the tactic was relatively new. Eastwood’s anti-hero also offers little in the way of a strong presence for goodness, rather functioning as a power greater than the Rojos, come to exact some kind of neutral, karmic justice. The film even underplays the Rojo’s interaction with the village woman, someone they presumably kidnapped for more than her abilities at cooking and cleaning.
So where the film can distance the viewer from the evil of the Rojos, or play up the goodness of Eastwood, it refuses. In fact, it seems to take pains to move all the action downward on a spectrum of good and evil. The world in the film is one of great evil, of power exercised and checked, and where little or no good exists outside of self-interest. This cloudy moral universe means the viewer ends up having little basis within the film on which to make a strong judgment against the Rojos, even or especially within those scenes that highlight their sadistic thirst for vengeance and blood.
So while the film remains an unquestionably strong entertainment more than thirty years after its release, its disturbing use of subjective and sadistic violence means Leone’s film leaves a bitter aftertaste.