Fifty years ago next month, an obscure young Italian director released a cheap and nasty action movie that changed the western forever. A Fistful of Dollars was a bit hit in Italy in 1964, but remained largely ignored by the wider world until a re-dubbed version was released in 1967, and became a popular sensation.
Condemned by many for its graphic violence and amoral tone, Sergio Leone's film launched the movie career of Clint Eastwood and created the craze for so-called spaghetti westerns. It also revitalised an all-American genre that was dead on its knees, and is now regarded as a kind of minor classic that Leone would later eclipse with his spaghetti sequels For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Both those films also starred Eastwood, who has always been careful to credit Leone as a key influence. And proper order too, because until A Fistful of Dollars came along, Clint was stuck in a dead-end TV series and going precisely nowhere.
The son of a pioneering silent director and a movie actress, Sergio Leone had grown up watching American films, and was hugely influenced by the great Hollywood westerns of directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks. After learning the ropes working as Vittorio de Sica's assistant on The Bicycle Thieves, Leone began writing scripts and working as an assistant director in the 1950s.
He worked mainly on the hugely popular 'sword and sandal' historical epics, but by the early 1960s these had fallen dramatically from fashion, and Leone was left restlessly searching for new inspirations. He found them at a screening of Akira Kurosawa's recently released period action film, Yojimbo (1961).
Leone was entranced by Kurosawa's story of a cynical and taciturn lone samurai who walks into a town terrorised by two warring gangs and proceeds to play them off against each other. He later found out that Yojimbo was partly based on Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest, and decided the story could make a magnificent western.
But not just any old western. Leone had become disenchanted with the sterility of 1950s westerns, with their carefully manicured heroes, pantomime villains and preachy, anodyne stories of good and evil. He was looking for something more venal, and believable, and within a week of seeing Yojimbo he'd rattled out a rough script for a project he called 'The Magnificent Stranger'.
His finished screenplay stuck closely to Kurosawa's original story, so closely in fact that the great Japanese director and his studio, Toho, later successfully sued Leone for breach of copyright. Kurosawa wryly claimed that he made more money out of A Fistful of Dollars than he ever did from Yojimbo.
Like Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars would be unsentimental, violent, stylised and place an esoteric soundtrack to the fore, but the Italian's film was even bleaker and more hard-hitting, and included plenty of touches that were uniquely Sergio's own.
Leone realised how vital Toshiro Mifune's taciturn charisma had been to Yojimbo's success, and was determined to cast a major Hollywood star in his film.
He wanted Henry Fonda but the production company couldn't afford him: Ty Hardin, Steve Reeves and James Coburn were all offered the part of the Man With No Name, and all politely declined, as did Charles Bronson, who called Leone's story "the worst script I have ever seen".
When Leone approached dashing, blond, all-American B-movie actor Richard Harrison, he didn't fancy the idea either but suggested TV actor Clint Eastwood, who looked convincing on a horse and might be right for the part.
Since 1959, Clint had been playing the drippy do-gooder Rowdy Yates in the CBS western drama Rawhide, and was getting pretty sick of it. "In Rawhide," he would later explain, "I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat, the hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody. I decided it was time to be an anti-hero."
When Eastwood arrived in Spain to start shooting in the spring of 1964, he began to fully appreciate the challenge that lay ahead of him. As this was an Italian/German/Spanish co-production, English speakers were thin on the ground, which led to all sorts of confusion. A gruelling 11-week schedule involved location shoots on the baking plains of Almeria, and the film would be shot silent, as was the convention in Italian cinema at that time, and overdubbed afterwards back in Rome.
In fact, Eastwood did not add his own voice to the film until almost three years later, when A Fistful of Dollars was finally released in America. But maybe this silent filming method suited Eastwood, a rather limited actor at that time who'd often been accused of stiffness and hissing his lines through his teeth.
Liberated from the script to some extent, he was free to concentrate on the look and bearing of his enigmatic character. "I wanted to play it with an economy of words," he later said, "and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement."
And Eastwood played a key role in creating his character's appearance, buying The Man With No Name's black jeans and hat in Hollywood, and borrowing spurs, a gun-belt and a cobra-handled Colt 45 pistol from the Rawhide set. The Man With No Name's poncho was costume designer Carlo Simi's idea. It was bought in Spain, and greatly increased the drama of gunfights as Eastwood would whip it back to reveal his pistol whenever trouble brewed.
Being obliged to chew constantly on a cheap cigar disgusted Eastwood, who was a non-smoker, but helped put him in an appropriately mean mood. Unlike the squeaky clean Rowdy Yates, The Man With No Name was unkempt and unshaven, and looked as if he hadn't had a bath in a month. He spoke only when absolutely necessary, and viewed the world through a permanent, angry squint. That squint would become an Eastwood trademark, but was apparently arrived at accidentally, and caused by the glare of the Spanish sun and Leone's high-wattage arc lamps.
Eastwood's anti-hero was a new kind of cowboy, an unblinking killer who was not that different from the villains he took on. And Leone's film took place in a bleak and heartless wild west in which moral lines were totally blurred and absolutely no one was safe.Follow @IndoEnts
Leone and his cinematographer Massimo Dallamano swept their cameras across the parched Almerian plains in a style reminiscent of John Ford, but when it came to fight scenes Leone would close in on the protagonists' faces, shifting from Eastwood to his enemies, and zoning in on their beady, hate-filled eyes. He also filmed the shooter from over the shoulder, breaking with western conventions and giving his violence a chilling immediacy.
Exaggerated sound effects were added afterwards to enhance the stylised, heightened mood, and Leone asked his old school-friend Ennio Morricone to write the film's score. Morricone's spare, edgy music reinforced the message that this would be no cosy Roy Rogers-style sing-along, and Leone liked it so much he lengthened scenes to accommodate entire tracks.
It opened in Italy in September of 1964 and quickly became the highest grossing Italian film to that point. But the legal dispute with Kurosawa and Toho slowed down an international roll-out, and it didn't arrive in America until January of 1967. Worried about how an Italian western would be perceived in the US, Leone changed his name on the credits to 'Bob Robertson', and Morricone became 'Dan Savio'. But they needn't have worried, because while the critics were incensed by the film's operatic theatricality, bloodiness and apparent amorality, the American public absolutely loved it, and were delighted to discover that two sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, had already been completed.
Thanks to Leone, the western genre was given a temporary reprieve, and within a few years Clint Eastwood was directing them himself. By the end of the 1960s he'd become a huge star, and the new John Wayne, though American critics would take a long time to warm to him, and constantly criticised the violent content of his films.
He and Leone had a falling out in the 1980s when the Italian was making his gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, with Robert De Niro. During an interview, Leone made an offhand comment about how De Niro was "a real actor", unlike Eastwood, a remark that's said to have greatly offended Clint.
But the two made amends before Leone's death in 1990 at the age of just 60, and Eastwood later dedicated his Oscar-winning 1992 western Unforgiven to his two film-making mentors, Don Siegel and Sergio Leone.
World War I is all the rage at the minute, for obvious reasons, and this imaginative initiative from the British Film Institute will give cinema-goers a real chance to experience the public mood as Europe went to war.
Playing all this week at Dublin's IFI, A Night at the Cinema in 1914 recreates a typical evening at the pictures, with short films, comedies, cartoons and newsreels accompanied by a specially composed score from pianist Stephen Horne.
In 1914 cinema was still a new, dynamic and very democratic art form, and during the war would play a key role in maintaining public morale. This selection of films from the period includes an action-packed episode of the American adventure serial, The Perils of Pauline, moving footage of troops celebrating Christmas at the Front,and an early sighting of Charles Chaplin, who would be an international superstar by war's end.
Propaganda, of course, would become a key part of the wartime cinematic diet, and A Night at the Cinema in 1914 also features a not-very-subtle anti-German cartoon. For times and booking, visit www.ifi.ie