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A Fistful of Dollars

by Glenn Erickson May 15, 2018

 

Sergio Leone’s breakthrough international sensation has returned, in a 4k restoration from Italy that’s bound to continue the controversy over odd choices of color. In every other aspect this umpteenth edition of the first murderous adventure of The Man With No Name is the best yet, with a clean image and good new extras.


A Fistful of Dollars
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1964 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 99 min. / Per un pugno di dollari; Fistful of Dollars / Street Date May 22, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volontè, Wolfgang Lukschy, Seighardt Rupp, Joe Egger, Aldo Sambrell, Mario Brega.
Cinematography: Massimo Dallamano
Art Direction: Carlo Simi
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by A. Bonzzoni, Jaime Comas Gil, Victor Andrés Catena, Sergio Leone
Produced by Arrigo Colombo, Giorgio Papi
Directed by
Sergio Leone (Bob Robertson)

 

This is a long-awaited title, not because there aren’t umpteen previous versions out there, but because this new restoration job by the Italians promised something better, a definitive improvement on MGM’s many DVD and Blu releases. I’ve seen in person the problems MGM had with this particular show, both on film and on video. The quality notes in this review are covered further below.

There’s hardly a reason to reassess the Leone Dollars films, which have remained favorites in America from the moment that United Artists imported them, several years after they had become hits in Europe. UA’s monster success with James Bond cued a major ad blitz, with special artwork and a campaign strategy customized to appeal to American action fans. Clint Eastwood shot to top popularity and stayed there permanently; his ‘Man With No Name’ character became the best-known Western hero this side of John Wayne.

Fans that doted on the picture were fascinated to find out that the first film A Fistful of Dollars was actually the result of a three-way cultural exchange of pop cinema trends between Italy, Japan and the U.S.. Japanese crime & costume action directors fashioned their own hyper-violent and stylized responses to American genre pictures, especially after director John Sturges re-imagined Akira Kurosawa’s classic epic Seven Samurai as a western, making gunfight choreography the most important element. Knowing that Europeans were bigger fans of American westerns than anyone, the ex-assistant director Sergio Leone fell in with a couple of producers stealing adapting Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as an American-style western for the Italian market. Leone added a style and attitude of his own, borrowing a sense of freebooting cynicism from Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, and conceiving of story in terms of a poker game, in which every hand is a new violent action set piece.

Eastwood saves A Fistful of Dollars by investing Leone’s mercenary action hero with grit and stature. His ‘Joe’ bluffs his way through situations with a knowing, self-assured smile and an ability to stay cool when others are emotional. As in a poker game, Joe never shows what he’s feeling. He injects himself into a bloody feud between two bordertown gangs, the Baxters and the Rojos, hiring himself in turn to each side while provoking more violence. His goal appears to be stolen gold, but he also has the more honorable motive of saving Marisol, a damsel in distress (Marianne Koch of Georges Franju’s Spotlight on a Murderer).

 

Had Clint Eastwood previously been given the opportunity to contribute to a movie, as he was here? The Man With No Name is really the actor’s own creation — his interpretation of the script is a far cry from the basically happy-go-lucky character he played on TV’s Rawhide. Eastwood’s hero is the apotheosis of the lethal gunslinger that little boys (Sergio Leone among them) have adored ever since Matt Dillon made his first triple-play gun-down. Joe talks in a raspy whisper, snarls with a cheroot in his mouth and shoots his six-gun like nothing human. Leone plays up the mythic aspect of this magic gunfighter. For the finale, Joe makes a ghostlike entrance out of a cloud of dust. For a moment, his opponent thinks he must be superhuman, or a ghost.

Rarely have so many elements come together so well, ‘the first time out.’ Despite his tiny budget Leone was able to muster key talent like the excellent art director Carlo Simi and composer Ennio Morricone, whose contribution to the series would equal Leone’s own. When Per un pugno di dollari scored a local hit, and took off like wildfire in theaters around the world the director became fully established in the Roman filmmaking scene. The Italian western would take over from the sword ‘n’ sandal epic as Italy’s most successful filmic export.

A Fistful of Dollars was the perfect movie for the Vietnam years, when the byword wasn’t honor or morality but the rule of force. The Man With No Name cares not for the finer points of politics, and recognizes only the practical power presented at the point of a gun. He’s the ultimate opportunist, a prince among fools; knowing that confusion rewards the loner who keeps his head, he creates the chaos that allows him to subvert his enemies. Joe can decimate San Miguel because he so thoroughly destabilizes it. That he pauses to aid Marisol seems the one character quality that doesn’t quite fit, a nod to the Sir Galahad virtues of sentimental westerns of yore. Subsequent oaters of the Italian school would quickly leave such niceties far behind.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of A Fistful of Dollars is a welcome release despite a major, nagging issue. MGM’s older DVDs and Blu-rays for this particular Leone title were never all that attractive; John Kirk told me that MGM was not able to access the key Techniscope film elements from the film’s Italian rights-holders. [The other two ‘Dollars’ films and Duck You Sucker had a different Italian producer, Alberto Grimaldi.] MGM’s 2002 restoration of Fistful was a good job, but it was by necessity sourced from film elements that had been given to United Artists back in the ‘sixties. Certain major flaws were built-in. Some scenes bore dark scratches and others had an annoying contrast pulse problem, a sort of slow flicker. Home Video releases before 2003 bore a terrible English soundtrack as well, with what sounded like a sixty-cycle hum. John Kirk cleared away some of these problems, but was still stuck with the inferior original element.

What makes this new disc special is that it is the first Region A release of the Italian L’Immagine Ritrovata restoration done a couple of years ago. Just as with the earlier disc of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the Italian timers have given the entire film a yellow-green cast. (See top photo, the close-up of Eastwood against the sky; it’s from the Ritrovata page.) On this disc, at least, the whole show looks a bit contrasty — whites are more burned out overall. For sharpness and clarity, this Ritrovata version is better, and the framing might be more accurate as well. The older MGM disc had more pleasing colors but also its share of slightly overexposed scenes . . . for all we know, there were problems with the original photography as well.

The featurettes on this disc use film excerpts from the old MGM version, which will allow buyers to make their own comparison. More greenish-yellow has been added to everything, including skies. The colors in Joe’s first big gun-down scene are much colder than in the MGM transfers — it doesn’t even look like a sunny day. I haven’t seen the earlier European discs using the new Ritrovata color timing. Knowing that U.S. fans were mostly negative on Ritrovata’s GBU, Kino tried to dial back the yellow values, with mixed results. It does not look as if they did the same thing with Fistful.

It’s all too easy for armchair critics (and some obnoxious online trolls) to second-guess learned experts working with original elements. Film restorers and colorists have no reason to ‘sabotage’ anything. My normal response is to defer to these more experienced professionals. L’Immagine Ritrovata have sworn time and again that their colors for the Leone pictures match original Technicolor prints. I’ve never seen an IB Tech print of Fistful. But I saw GBU twice on a screen, and my memories match the bright, very warm colors of the MGM versions, not the jaundiced look of the new Italian remasters. Were Italian IB Tech prints timed differently?

I wonder what will happen if and when the Italians move on to the middle Dollars picture For a Few Dollars More? The MGM transfers already look magnificent. I’d like to see a longer version with some of the deletions re-interpolated, but what might they do with the color?

 

I still like this disc because for the same reason I still like the oddly-colored UK ‘restoration’ of everyone’s favorite Hammer thriller Horror of Dracula — everything except the color issue is a major improvement. With the materials MGM had at its disposal, Fistful was pale & grainy, a battered item just a couple of notches better than the average abused and neglected sword and sandal picture. It now holds together better as a major directing achievement. Leone’s work here looks more impressive than in some of his later, epic-length pictures.

This new disc also delivers a bounty of extras, which is important to me because I edited a bunch of them, and I haven’t seen them for ten years. Other reviewers I respect wisely shy away from reviewing their own work (hi Nate!) but I’m finally coming around to realizing that some of my best editing was put into the deluxe docus for the four Leone films, as well as pictures like To Live and Die in L.A. and West Side Story.

The first thing new that we notice is that the film begins with an original United Artists logo, a design I now only remember from a few record albums. The items new to me come from European producer Mike Siegel, known widely for his many documentaries and featurettes on Sam Peckinpah’s features. A very welcome interview with actress Marianne Koch is one of the best things I’ve seen Siegel do. Perhaps the actress herself makes the difference, for her long talk about Eastwood, Leone and the filming experience is a pleasure to watch. Her film acting years were just a prelude to a long career as a doctor. It’s nice to hear some of the Leone and Eastwood legends corroborated by somebody who was actually there. Ms. Koch confirms that Eastwood impressed nobody on the set, but blew everyone away in dailies — his seemingly doing ‘nothing’ resulted in a powerful screen presence. Ms. Koch also insists that Leone was an intellectual and offered her interesting discussions on many subjects. As she comes off as a definite ‘smartest person in the room’ type, she has certainly increased my regard for Leone.

Siegel’s lengthy interview with Marianne Koch uses film clips that are also colored differently than the ‘final’ L’Immagine Ritrovata color values, and are more in keeping with the film’s traditional transfers. But the clips also exhibit the frame error/halting problems of an imperfect conversion to HD.

Mike Siegel’s impressive archive always offers up surprises. We’re given amusing new outtakes and stage waits saved from the original camera negative, allowing us to see flashes of director Leone being active on the set. Siegel also contributes three new animated image galleries for ads and on-set photos. When we did our featurette docus fifteen years ago, most on-set photos were tied up with uncooperative Italian sources.

In a different category of extra is a full commentary by Tim Lucas, who has become an ubiquitous presence on films that interest CineSavant. Tim’s take digs into a great deal of biographical detail I didn’t know, and he gives an analysis of the show from his unique point of view, sometimes relating individual shots to other films and filmmakers on a cause-and-effect basis. I’ve long been familiar with various fan viewpoints on Eastwood, and have probably read too much of the English critical take on the series, so it’s refreshing to hear this very personal, very informed response.

 

The older MGM Home Video featurettes have been handsomely reproduced, looking better than they did in SD. We were lucky to get such a relaxed interview with Mr. Eastwood; I think he had just received some good news about one of his new movies and was in a fine mood for the sit-down. Eastwood also liked that my producer first talked to him about his interest in Jazz music, not his old movies. I was able to obtain autographs for my research collaborators, so I was pleased.

The Sir Christopher Frayling commentaries we recorded are now the gold standard for the academic viewpoint on Leone. We even went back with Frayling and ‘contributed’ a full GBU commentary, that waited for several years to come out on a later disc. I only regret that we had no way to investigate some of the fine leads given us by our expert contributors of the time — Ulrich Angersbach, Tom Betts, Lee Broughton, the late Don Bruce, Ulrich Bruckner, William Horner, Cenk Kiral, and reliable Bill Shaffer.

Monte Hellman was surprised to show up for his interview and find that he was only going to be asked about the one-day fix-up job he did for the first broadcast of Fistful on ABC TV in 1977 or thereabouts. He can’t have been pleased but was very gracious about it. I’m glad that MGM allowed us to make a piece about the way fan-collector and Film Ratings executive Howard Fridkin had recorded the TV prologue on an early Betamax machine. The original film element for the prologue has since been recovered, by the way, but I don’t know of any plans to restore it.

Speaking of restorations, I was wondering if the rumored extra shots of the Baxter-Rojo dinner were going to appear on this disc. I didn’t see anything like that in this new Italian-sourced version of A Fistful of Dollars, so must conclude that they were part of an unreferenced German or French version. Seeing this new edition reminds me that Leone’s previous feature The Colossus of Rhodes is due soon from The Warner Archive Collection.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


A Fistful of Dollars
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good ?
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentaries by Tim Lucas, and Sir Christopher Frayling, interview with Marianne Koch, ‘Trailers From Hell’ with John Badham, Original Outtakes, three animated image galleries (35 min total), Restored UA opening Logo; Old MGM featurettes A New Kind of Hero, A Few Weeks in Spain: Clint Eastwood on the Experience of Making the Film, Tre Voci: Three Friends Remember Sergio Leone, Not Ready for Primetime: with Monte Hellman, The Network Prologue with Harry Dean Stanton, Location Comparisons and The Christopher Frayling Archives: A Fistful of Dollars. Ten Radio Spots, Double Bill Trailer, Trailers for All Five Sergio Leone Westerns.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 13, 2018
(5727fist)
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Here’s John Badham on the Leone classic:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.