John Wayne was still strutting with that broad-shouldered laconism and dusting streets with McCarthy-era Americana when Sergio Leone bred A Fistful of Dollars out of his dreams to be Kurosawa. Wayne once said that Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon was “the least American thing I’ve ever seen” because the hero asks callous and religious townsfolk for help and they forsake him. He was probably thinking of the rugged bootstraps he put on in Rio Bravo, in which he refuses because of duty and self-preservation to let anyone take care of the town, besides himself and his masculine in-crowd. I’m positive that A Fistful of Dollars, a film in which the American plays rival gangs against each other at the expense of the locals, had not yet come out when he ranked the universe in order of ascending patriotism. High Noon is a recruitment video by comparison.
Its startling non-nationality comes about because some of its styles negate each other. The stalwart cowboy gets subverted by being combined with Leone’s interest in samurai movies (A Fistful of Dollars is essentially a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), which more often feature the warrior classes discovering greater meaning in giving their lives for humanity than getting while the getting’s good or winning the girl. The good people of Leone’s little town need less to be saved than they would in a Hawks’ fantasy slinger, consisting less of well-bred corseted dames and sardonic southern doctors than Italian stock actors masquerading as Mexicans dubbed by Americans in a remake of a Japanese film. Really, they just want to be left alone.
The result is a fantasy of movie logic that contains within it some special mystery, some lavish neo-chanbara (“sword-fighting”) crossed with that appearance of frontier Americans that young boys saw within the Wayne construct (but which, I’d venture a guess, it would not have been American for him to acknowledge). Beady Clint Eastwood (has any actor been more appropriately named?) would have shot John T. Chance for fifty bucks. He would have shot him for grinning at him the wrong way. He never shaves, never tells the truth, and never cries about it. Recently, Eastwood said at Cannes that we’re “the pussy generation.” But I think the Eastwood of 1968, perched on a dusky horizon, with heat flustering his un-ironic poncho and dampening his ferocious brow, would have said this even of Wayne and Cooper.
The simple change in music from the old cowboy movies to this one announces the neo-real on the Western’s horizon. Trumpet snarls and primal flutes replace harmonicas and banjos, and assign Eastwood folklore older than the frontier. He seems transformed beyond the pleasantly revised colonist-pioneer, the good ol’ jailhouse ramblers and dashing dudes, and into something ancient and native. He wanders into the border town not as a stranger “not from these ere parts,” but like a force of nature that was here before there were any adobes at all to stand in his way.
This new style actually touches on that crooning hang-out Wayne spoke so highly of – the song of impending doom in Rio Bravo, “El deguello,” is the missing link between the old and the Leone. Leone starts at Wayne’s darkest day, as though the Western’s true inner spirit was not a hangout but a song of death. It was not the American Western that Leone wished to abolish, it seems, but rather Wayne himself that he wished to excise from it.
Eastwood is meaner than the villains in most Hawks movies and like them (though often unlike Wayne) he has a soft spot for women. Wayne is brusque with the dancers that catch him in their eye, or the young dalliers of local families that get caught up in his action – imagine him sneering at Angie Dickinson or battling Katherine Hepburn or grabbing Michele Carey by the wrist and standing over her, towering and broad as a bookcase.
By contrast, women melt the Man with No Name. Eastwood unwisely subjects himself to torture to get the mob boss’s captive safely out of town with her family. He shoots four men for a few bucks but gives up a fortune in gold to make sure a woman is okay in the head when she falls. His reluctant chivalry is his heroic glimmer amidst a lot of staring, from a face creased like well-tanned leather. There is love in that same stare (though I would not say “romance”), even as Eastwood turns from it, more afraid of the danger of those emotions in his cutthroat world than, as Wayne would have said in no uncertain terms, the fear of being tied down and fenced in to a home and family.
For all that, Eastwood doesn’t so much do different things than Wayne would have done – he just under-does them. Shootouts are like eons-long chess games, men sidling, striking matches, chewing cigars, staring across waves of heat through greasy hat-brims. A scene in which a badly-beaten Eastwood drags himself on the ground to the underside of the porch takes as long, the shot unbroken, as it actually takes for him to do so. The cloying views on pain and standoffish deal-making only serve to turn A Fistful of Dollars into that much more of a statement, like it’s the outrageous retelling of a much less impressive string of events.
What events? Situations occur, following others, but there is no plot. I don’t suppose it’s sorely missed. Its special allure is that no one seems like they’re about to step off the studio lot and resume being actors. It seems like the nameless man will walk off, camera unmoving, and just disappear. We’ll stare after him, wondering, “Who was that?” There is some magnetic glamor to the pure Leone hero that belongs only to the mythic in movies, like he remembers how icons used to look painted on walls instead of magazine covers, like they don’t have to get the girl or sell bonds to save the day. Who would’ve thought the thinly-veiled Italian outback was the place to find him?