A Fistful of Dollars Blu-ray Review/Comparison (originally published 2018)
A lean, cold-eyed, cobra-quick gunfighter (Clint Eastwood) arrives in a grim and dusty border town where two rival bands of smugglers terrorize the impoverished citizens. Though he receives lucrative offers of employment from each gang, his loyalty cannot be bought. He accepts both jobs... and sets in motion a deadly plan to destroy the criminals, pitting one against the other in a series of brilliantly orchestrated setups, showdowns, and deadly confrontations. (From Kino Lorber’s official synopsis)
Get three coffins ready…
…my mistake. Four coffins.
While it may be impossible to link a given film genre to its absolute inception, every cinematic fad has its watershed moment. There were European thrillers before Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), just as there were disaster movies before Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and psycho killer movies before John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), but it took audience interest in these three films to birth the giallo, disaster, and slasher crazes of the ‘70s and ‘80s. To that token, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) was not the first Italian-made western – as far as film historians have gathered, horror/western hybrid La Vampira Indiana (which was, ironically enough, directed by Leone’s father, Vincenzo in 1913) – nor was it the first Italian western to distinguish itself in the 1960s, because it directly proceeded three reasonably popular 1963 westerns – Ricardo Blasco & Mario Ciano’s Gunfight at Red Sands (Italian: Duello nel Texas) and two films by Spanish-born Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent, Implacable Three (Italian: Tres hombres buenos) and Gunfight at High Noon (Italian: El sabor de la venganza). In fact, it was such an unassuming production that, in a money-saving ploy, it was shot back-to-back on the same sets as Mario Caiano’s Pistols Don’t Argue (Italian: Le pistole non discutono). But Leone’s film was something special and it went on to set the tone and flavor for hundreds of films to follow, thanks especially to its status as an international hit.
Prior to Fistful of Dollars, Leone had been working his way up through the Italian system, beginning with camera assistance on Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and second-unit directing on William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), before taking over direction on troubled Mario Bonnard productions They Stole a Tram (Italian: Hanno rubato un tram 1954) and The Last Days of Pompeii (Italian: Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1959). After a few more second-unit and writing jobs on additional peplum/sword & sandal epics, he finally stepped out from the rabble with this truly distinctive take on Hollywood westerns, inadvertently supplanting those films as the dominant cultural fad. The key to his success was possibly tied to star Clint Eastwood’s unique charisma, but was likely more the result of Leone’s extraordinarily modern style. These flashy, rock ‘n roll-inspired characteristics alienated the critics, who originally dubbed the Italian westerns that followed “spaghetti” in attempt to degrade them, but it spoke to younger audiences, as well as budding filmmakers, who saw great potential in its rebellious approach to traditional western storytelling and would later use it as the platform for even more subversive and blatantly political films.
Fistful of Dollars was, as many know, based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a 1961 pop samurai feature that itself drew inspiration from American westerns and was also based loosely on Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest (pub: 1929) and The Glass Key (pub: 1931). Despite the shared source, Kurosawa and co-writer Ryûzô Kikushima successful sued Leone’s producers and took 15% of Fistful of Dollars’ international gross (Kurosawa later claimed he made more money from Leone’s film than his own). Red Harvest was ‘officially’ adapted in 1930 as Roadhouse Nights, directed by Hobart Henley, and the basis for the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and Miller’s Crossing (1990), The Glass Key was the basis for Frank Tuttle’s 1935 film and Stuart Heisler’s 1942 films of the same name, and Yojimbo was later reworked as Last Man Standing (1996), directed by Walter Hill. The basic story and eventual script was hashed out by Leone, Jaime Comas Gil, Víctor Andrés Catena, Adriano Bolzoni, Tonino Valerii, Duccio Tessari, and Fernando Di Leo under the working title The Magnificent Stranger. That may sound excessive, considering that the plot was being borrowed and that there was relatively little dialogue, but such a cluttered writing staff is par for the course for many Italian productions from the era, as well as Leone’s subsequent films. What is interesting, however, is that so many of these writers went on to redefine the Italian film landscape in the years to come, despite a lack of onscreen credit.
Bolzoni helped set a further dramatic precedent for the genre while co-writing Sergio Corbucci’s Minnesota Clay (1964) and The Mercenary (Italian: Il mercenario, 1968), Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescant (aka: Kill and Pray and Let Them Rest, 1967), and Giuseppe Vari’s Shoot the Living and Pray for the Dead (Italian: Prega il morto e ammazza il vivo, 1971). Valerii co-wrote and directed big-ticket westerns Day of Anger (Italian: I giorni dell'ira; aka: Gunlaw, 1967), The Price of Power (Italian: Il prezzo del potere, 1969), and A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die (Italian: Una ragione per vivere e una per morire, 1972), before reteaming with Leone for My Name is Nobody in 1973 (Italian: Il mio nome è Nessuno). Tessari wrote and directed two Ringo movies with Giuliano Gemma, followed by a fantastic giallo trilogy; Death Occurred Last Night (Italian: La morte risale a ieri sera, 1970), The Bloodstained Butterfly (Italian: Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate, 1971), and Puzzle (Italian: L’uomo senza memoria, 1974). Di Leo, meanwhile, went on to set the tone for the poliziotteschi genre that replaced the spaghettis when he wrote and directed the likes of Caliber 9 (Italian: Milano calibro 9, 1972), The Italian Connection (Italian: La mala ordina, 1972), and Shoot First, Die Later (Italian: Il poliziotto è marcio, 1974), among others.
The Yojimbo formula ended up becoming one of a handful of default storylines throughout European westerns. It popped up in some capacity throughout Corbucci’s similarly groundbreaking Django (1966), Duccio Tessari’s A Pistol for Ringo (Italian: Una pistola per Ringo, 1965; as stated, also written/directed by Tessari), Maurizio Pradeaux’s Ramon the Mexican (Italian: Ramon il Messicano, 1966), Leopoldo Savona’s El Rojo (1966), Luigi Vanzi’s A Stranger in Town (Italian: Un Dollaro tra I Denti; aka: A Dollar Between the Teeth, 1967), almost all of Stranger star Tony Anthony’s other westerns, Enzo G. Castellari’s Any Gun Can Play (Italy: Vado... l'ammazzo e torno, 1967), and Robert Hossein’s Cemetery without Crosses (Italian: Une corde, un colt…, 1969), among others. There were also spoofs, beginning with Michele Lupo’s Fistful of Knuckles (Italian: Per un pugno nell'occhio; aka: For a Fist in the Eye, 1965) and followed decades later by Takashi Miike’s catchall homage to the genre, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), which brought the Yojimbo story back home to Japan for a Western/Eastern mash-up. Leone and company also reused some concepts for their follow-up, For a Few Dollars More (Italy: Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965), but the most unique approach was likely Giulio Questi’s Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot! (Italian: Se sei vivo spara, 1967), which turned the narrative on its head by implying that the godforsaken town at the center of the feud is the literal, biblical Hell.
Fistful of Dollars also established a challenged antihero tradition in spaghetti westerns. The similarly themed ‘challenged pacifist’ was a common character trend throughout revisionist westerns, appearing in early subgenre entries, like William A. Wellman’s Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and George Stevens’ Shane (1953), from which Tessari and Di Leo certainly drew inspiration. This trope was created in reaction to early pulp westerns, where protagonists tended to be thinly drawn stereotypes that were guided by inherently heroic traits. Following the Man with No Name’s model (which, again, was taken from Yojimbo), Italy’s spaghetti protagonists matured and the challenged pacifist morphed into a more self-centered and single-minded character, who either entered a conflict for monetary gain or elaborate revenge. An antihero’s growth is tied less to his inability to suppress his humanity than his inability to suppress his cynicism. Thus, Eastwood’s the Man with No Name – or Joe, as he is explicitly named throughout the film – ends up having slightly less in common with Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro, who is presented (arguably) as more of a neutral guardian angel, than he does with future revisionist western types, such as Sam Peckinpah’s titular Wild Bunch (1969) and Eastwood’s own Dirty Harry (1971).
Fistful of Dollars has been released many, many times on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. Every five years or so, there is some kind of upgrade to the footage and it can be difficult to keep up. For the sake of comparison, I have included screen caps from this newest Kino release (top), MGM’s original transfer (as seen on every MGM-branded release, middle), and the Ripley's Home Video remaster (as seen on the Italian and Japanese discs, bottom). The only significant Blu-ray I don’t have access to is the German Universum Film version, which, by many accounts, is similar to the RHV release, but slightly darker and differently framed. The long story short here is that RHV’s disc is still the superior version, but that, despite some issues, the Kino transfer is still an upgrade over MGM’s mushy efforts.
Kino was handed a 4K remaster of the original film materials from L'Immagine Ritrovata, the same Italian company that handled MGM’s similarly yellow & teal tweaked The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Kino was most likely given the finished, pre-graded product and not raw 4K footage, so their attempts to de-yellow L'Immagine’s material (something they also attempted for with their GBU release) are hampered by pre-set levels. This explains the transfer’s two most prominent problems: uneven color-timing and crushed, sometimes even milky black levels. If I’m honest, these issues might even outweigh the transfer’s advantages over the MGM disc. Yes, it is significantly sharper, print damage has been neatly scrubbed without overloading textures with DNR, and there are few, if any, issues with CRT and compression noise, but it’s impossible to overlook the lack of consistency between shots. Some outdoor, sun-kissed scenes are positively overloaded with gold and brown (skewing almost greenish at times), to the point that skies appear tan (in the best cases, teal) and desert foliage is pale. Light interiors feature Kino’s more coherent attempts to mitigate their over-warmth, leading to pinker skin tones and reasonably blue costumes and set pieces, but, boy, oh boy are the day-for-night action exteriors crushed into darkness. This extremely high contrast creates additional problems for the highlights, which end up sporting the transfer’s only significant digital artifacts in the form of blow-out. Still, the otherwise remarkable RHV transfer is actually even darker in these situations, so at least the Kino remaster wins one battle (and I quite like the vivid hues that appear in a few of the other night shots).
Another problem here – though one I hadn’t noticed until I compared the caps – is that Kino’s framing almost matches the old MGM transfer, while the RHV transfer reveals more information on the right and left of the frame. It’s not a massive difference (in general, the new transfer sits between the other two), but I’m willing to assume that, based on Leone’s affection for the scope ratio, the slightly wider version is the more correct one.
Kino’s new disc includes only the English dub in mono and the MGM 5.1 remix. Both tracks are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio sound. Here’s the part of the audio review where I remind everyone that spaghetti westerns and, in turn, most Italian films of the period were shot without on-set synced sound. They were dubbed in post and the international casts were often speaking their preferred languages. In this regard, there is no ‘original’ language track and one’s preference between tracks will depend more on their preference of dub performance and effects mixing, since some non-Italian dubs have been known to delete a number of incidental sounds. In Fistful of Dollars’ sake, I find the English dub preferable, in large part because Eastwood dubs himself. That said, it would be nice to have the Italian and Spanish dubs available.
The uncompressed nature of the tracks gives the re-release an advantage over the original MGM disc, which only had a mono, lossy Dolby Digital option. However, it sounds to me like Kino is reusing MGM’s ‘downmixed’ 5.1 track, rather than the original mono tracks. I can’t be positive, because I no longer own any pre-5.1 remix versions of the film, but some of the sound effects do seem a bit too ‘modern’ to my ears. The good news is that the folks that remixed this particular track didn’t go as wild as the folks that remixed The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which was littered with awkward catalogue effects and truly awful stereo/surround cues. This is a pretty respectful and understated remix that helps clarify layers and spreads out Ennio Morricone’s indelible music. What it sometimes lacks in authenticity, it tends to make up for in cleanliness. Morricone’s original score was arguably even more revolutionary than Leone’s visuals in the grand scheme of filmmaking. This was technically his second shot at a western score, following the aforementioned Gunfight at Red Sands and Pistols Don’t Argue, but it was first to buck and reform popular western music trends for the rock ‘n roll generation.
Commentary with film historian Tim Lucas – The first exclusive Kino extra is this commentary with Italian cinema specialist, Video Watchdog editor, and author of Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (Video Watchdog, 2007). Lucas is, as always, well-prepped and fills the time well with factoids and context.
Commentary by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling – The second commentary with Leone/spaghetti western scholar and author of Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy (Harry N. Abrams, 2005), along with other Leone biographies/studies (books and commentaries), was originally included on DVD special edition releases and has popped up on most Blu-ray discs. This remains the final word on Fistful of Dollars commentaries, despite Lucas’ best efforts.
Interview with actress Marianne Koch (32:57, HD) – I’m not sure if this Michael Siegle interview/featurette is a Kino exclusive (since the footage from the film is certainly not taken from this new transfer), but it is certainly new to North American audiences. Koch talks about being cast in the film to appease German producers, the occasional culture shock she experienced in Italy, working with Leone, Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonté, and the crew, and issues communicating with the multicultural cast (including Americans, Italians, Spaniards, and other Germans).
Trailers From Hell with John Badham (3:58, HD) – The Saturday Night Fever (1977) director briefly praises Leone’s film as part of this ongoing web series.
Original outtakes (2:41, HD)
Animated image galleries – A Fistful in Pictures (14:52), Promoting A Fistful of Dollars (15:48), A Fistful of Dollars - On the Set (3:57)
Restored opening title United Artists logo
MGM archival extras:
The Christopher Frayling Archives: Fistful of Dollars (18:40, HD) – The author shows us a small selection from his huge collection of poster/production art, scripts, and photos.
A New Kind of Hero (22:54, SD) – Here, Frayling breaks down a lot of his commentary track here into bite-sized pieces with visual aides.
A Few Weeks in Spain: Clint Eastwood on the Experience of Making the Film (8:33, SD) – The star (mostly) fondly remembers making Fistful of Dollars.
Tre Voci: Fistful of Dollars (11:12, SD) – Producer Alberto Grimaldi, screenwriter Sergio Donati, and American actor Mickey Knox discuss westerns and Leone’s contributions to Italian cinema.
Not ready for Primetime (6:20, SD) – Filmmaker Monte Hellman (China 9, Liberty 37, 1978) talks about a prologue he directed for the film’s American television premiere. It seems that network executives wanted to morally justify the film’s violence, so they hired Hellman to make a short introduction in which Joe (played by a body double) is released from prison by a sheriff (played by Harry Dean Stanton) in exchange for “cleaning out” the town of San Miguel.
Network prologue with Harry Dean Stanton (7:44, HD) – The aforementioned prologue, directed by Hellman.
Location Comparisons: Then & Now (5:22, HD) – A quick tour of the Almeria locations recorded in 2004.
10 radio spots
Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More double-bill trailer
Trailers for all five Sergio Leone Westerns
The images on this page are taken from the Kino Lorber Blu-ray (top), the original MGM Blu-ray (middle), and the Ripley's Home Video Blu-ray (bottom) and and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.
Stefano Piselli & Riccardo Morrocchi, Western All’Italian: The Specialists, pub: 1998
Howard Hughes Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult, I.B. Tauris, 2011; Once Upon a Time in the Italian West, I. B. Tauris, 2004