This essential Spaghetti-Western has been given deluxe treatment by MGM.
Sergio Leone didn't invent the spaghetti-western -- or, as the Japanese first dubbed this genre, the macaroni-western. But he brought them subtle humour and style. And he brought them their single most important attribute -- Clint Eastwood.
His great trilogy -- A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly have all undergone painstaking reconstruction, and have all been slated for release here in deluxe two-disc sets.
If you have existing copies, discard them. These new editions are indispensable, both for the wealth of extras, and the new, pristine print-image.
I had previously bought the sensational Region One edition of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; it's good to report that the Region Four editions of the earlier two movies in the trilogy are fully up to that high quality.
In a way, A Fistful of Dollars is the weakest of the three movies. By the time Leone made its sequel, the budget had grown, and his own professional freedom had grown with it. And by the time of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Leone had moved into truly epic country -- that long, sprawling movie has a true stamp of cinematic grandeur.
But though Fistful lacks the length or the budget of the others, it does offer us Clint Eastwood in his first identification with a character that has stayed with him throughout his career. How much of the Eastwood persona was invented by the actor, and how much by the director is unclear .... but their alchemy gave us the hip, cool, icy-calm character who retains all his potency even today.
In this movie, Clint, known as The Man With No Name, is neither hero nor anti-hero. He moves through a hostile world hearing a call no-one else is tuned into. Is he out for just survival? Does he possess a strange moral code all his own? We're not sure ... but we know there are depths in this amazing character we just will never be allowed to plumb. Nor, probably, would we want to.....
In this, as in the others in the trilogy, Leone gives us a West with the emphasis on Wild. Life is brutal, and often short. Killings are sometimes macabre, sometimes sadistic, sometimes random. The innocent are just as likely to die as the guilty.
But Leone's style and mordant wit leavens what would otherwise become just a catalogue of brutality. The end result is as individual as anything Leone's cinema hero Kurosawa attained (Kurosawa's Yojimbo was a huge influence on Leone, and on Eastwood for that matter) and though the derivation is clear, the end-result is personal and unique.
American Westerns were never quite the same after Leone got to work. Violence increased, especially from Sam Peckinpah, but somehow, Leone managed to tap a special mythic quality which made these tales quite special. The American western genre had given us some sublime movies, including The Hanging Tree, High Noon and The Big Country -- but it was -- still is -- exhilarating to see someone like Leone rip the genre from its roots and reinvent it so thoroughly and joyously.
At least one report on the Web suggest that this transfer suffers from a strange overly-blue cast over the image, especially in exterior scenes.
The problem was with the reviewer. There is no falsity of image-hue here. The restoration is immaculate -- and is all the more impressive since MGM was unable to gain brand-new film elements from Italy, but had to rely on scouring for best existing sources elsewhere.
The widescreen anamorphic image exhibits no damage of any kind -- it leaps off the screen in its brilliant depiction of its Spanish landscapes, while the moody dark-hued interiors are wonderfully delineated. This is A Fistful of Dollars as it deserves to be seen.
The most controversial aspect of this release is the decision taken by MGM to abandon the original mono soundtrack and press on with its own re-engineering of it into 5.1 Surround, presented here with both Dolby and DTS options.
The language is English in both cases, which is preferable over Italian since we get to hear Clint voicing his own part. Both soundtracks are first-class, with the DTS giving us perhaps some more precision, and with the Dolby offering, as is often the case, a slightly warmer, richer ambience. That could reflect Dolby's suitability for my relatively-warm British speakers.
It is a shame the original mono soundtrack isn't offered as an option, but the available soundtracks are wonderfully full, especially for Morricone's great soundtrack (a feature of the entire trilogy). The stereo effects are a tad too exaggerated at times -- the switch from left or centre to right seems sometimes too extreme as characters move off-screen -- though this would seem just right in a large projection set-up. Perhaps MGM should have offered a mono version of its reconstructed soundtrack, just to keep everyone happy.....