Thoughts On: A Fistful Of Dollars - The Orchestrated Canvas


A Fistful Of Dollars - The Orchestrated Canvas

Thoughts On: A Fistful Of Dollars

We're three into our western series now following the release of my new ebook/screenplay Apologetic? I've already covered Unforgiven and High Noon, so make sure you check out those. Also, like westerns? Check out the sample to my very own western inspired fantasy right here...

Or to just read the whole thing remembering it's free on Smashwords...

Thanks. That over, let's get on with it...

Joe--The Man With No Name--plays two gangs fighting for control over a small Mexican town, walking a thinning line, eyes fixed on money.

I'm going to be covering Leone's whole Dollar Trilogy over the next few posts and each one is connected by themes of greed, need, want, desire and all surrounding money--hence 'Dollar Trilogy'. So, to start off, I won't be talking about themes much, but much rather Leone's style. Style can account for more or less everything with some films. We need only to look at Michael Bay here. His plots are convoluted at best - and not in a good way - his logic isn't always sound, his tone and humour isn't very mature, less so imaginative (offensive to some) and messages? Yeah, I don't know about that. But, his movies entertain and damn do they make money. This is because of his style. Everything explodes off of the screen with colour, flare, sound, movement, energy. I don't mean to compare Bay here too directly to Leone here, merely say he is an auteur. I said this before in comparing him to Fellini and, indeed, the same can be said in respect to Goddard, Herzog, Tarantino, von Trier, Ozu... the list goes on. It's because of these director's styles that we are drawn to their pictures. Style is so important in cinema because it is nuance. In a certain sense you could say that Hollywood is the biggest auteur of all. The classical Hollywood approach to film is what has almost always ruled over cinema. It's what made it great. It's what the whole world knows. To say that Hollywood is an auteur kind of defeats purpose the term - I completely get that. But, the point I'm trying to make here is that style is what sells. The Hollywood style is what audiences over time have come to understand as part of what Scorsese would call film language. Style is important as it lets an audience know where they stand. When you go into a Michael Bay movie you know the camera is going to swirl around the protagonist at a low angle as they look off into the distance, wind blowing, surrounded by rubble, drenched in fake sweat, music pounding--American flag making it's 40th cameo in the flitting background. As much as some people may criticise that, it's what brings the audience in - to be honest, we all enjoy it, just given the right context. The Lego Movie is a perfect example here. A Michael Bay-esque style works because it excites, but more than that, critics and audience members can't be mad when the camera swirls around a 1 1/2 inch plastic toy. What this all ultimately translates to is dialect. If camera movement, positioning, framing, is language, then style is dialect. In the same way German has a hard, authoritative sound or French can melt hearts, Bay gets teenage boys jumping out of their seats and Tarkovsky has you sat back in a trance, in utter awe.

Films, in this sense, talk to us. Hollywood is an auteur because it has a unique style that almost lends it's name to a film - making Hollywood a kind of ghost writer. The way in which this ghost writer talks, rather, whispers to us defines our conception of filmic language. We are comfortable knowing that in a 40s MGM picture before we go into any interior sets we get an exterior shot, a wide angle, some form of establishing shot. We then move to mids, doubles, close-ups, inserts and singles, with controlled reversed angling that you can almost tap out without watching the screen. This is the power of style. It's the magic of language. It's also why the French New Wave had the impact on cinema it did. In the same way each generation has it's slang, the different epochs of cinema have their different dictions. Leone represents a huge turn, a massive revitalisation, of the western. In short, The Dollars Trilogy gave us the Spaghetti Western. And this all comes down to a new dialect being mapped out. To explain this I think we must first accept that there's nothing new in cinema--despite the auteur. We can see this best in Griffith or even Welles. Both men took everything that was great, that was revolutionary, from their age of cinema and funnelled it into masterpieces. Leone's style (to my eye) comes from two types of classical filmic styles. There's obviously the massive influence that Howard Hawks or John Ford had on him. They are the reasons Leone made films - he loved the old Hollywood westerns. But, I also see a lot of Hitchcock in Leone's style. What I primarily see is Hitchcock's ethos concerning a cinematic orchestration. He talked about this extensively, going as far to use his own films as examples. Anyone, familiar with Hitchcock and his T.V shows surely knows of this. It's the use of images in the same way one uses notes to form a piece of music. A mid-shot of curiosity starting up the steps for a bit of strings as set up. A small figure in a bird's-eye cut away for beat of near silence - a bass line working below. And then--BAM--a huge close-up with a knife slashing across a face (Psycho) as a huge bellow from the trumpets.

This is a broad piece of film theory that can be seen in all facets of cinema (obviously small images are juxtaposed with big ones) but with Hitchcock and Leone this idea is utilised knowingly and for direct effect. Hitchcock used it as a suspenseful device. Leone does something quite different. His films are very musical, they are drenched in operatic influence - we can see this in the acting, editing and use of score. Leone even went as far as to have Ennio Morricone pre-record the score to Once Upon A Time In The West to produce one of the most awe inspiring shots in all of cinema. I'm talking about the tracking shot following Jill away from the stopped train, bags in hand, over to the station where she disappears inside, music rising, rising, the camera staying exterior, rising, rising, everything coalescing with an almost euphoric release of the wide angle, capturing movement, life, the hustle and bustle of the town below from above the roof, of the growing industrialisation - that which Jill must wrestle with for the remainder of the movie. More on that in a few days though. This moment in film, a perfect example of Leone's style, went as far to baffle Kubrick. He was on the phone asking Leone (translators) how he managed it. This is the man who practically composed 2001: A Space Odyssey and struggled doing so for years previous to Leone's release. The foundations of this perfect piece of cinema can be traced back through Leone's previous three films from the, again, euphoric rise to the wide angle of the graveyard in The Good The Bad The Ugly, to the final shoot-out scene in For A Few Dollars More to that classic shot of the tiny figure stood between the huge pair of boots in A Fistful Of Dollars. What makes these images, these moments, so special is the way they almost sound, the way they talk to us. To have your dreaded advisory, the guy who's going to try and kill you, be a tiny figure between your huge boots says a lot. It says 'do you feel lucky? Well?... do ya'... PUNK!?'. Yeah, I know I just warped cinematic time and space with that one, but there's no better way to say it. However, Leone's cinema can be this boisterous not just because of Hitchcockian theory, but because of further incluences.

The loud and daring aspects of Leone's style can be compared to Bay's. A Michael Bay film is like a Leone picture smashed against The West Side Story (one of Bay's favorite films). There's Leone's bold imagery and the movement captured in West Side Story with little dance, CGI robots, and big explosions. Leone's style is, however, much more mature than Bay's. This comes with his influences stemming from the old Hollywood westerns, from directors such as Howard Hawks - but more importantly his (and his camera operators') love of Italian paintings. Now, I'm not going to pretend I know much about this. I'm not even going to paraphrase Google here. Suffice to say that Leone's influence from Italian artwork can be seen in his very own canvas. It's almost like Leone doesn't see film, but still images. You get this impression from his long shots of perfectly framed landscape. You see this also in his fascination with human features. Some of the greatest close-ups in all cinema come from the likes of Intermezzo, Notorious, Casablanca, Rear Window, Gone With The Wind, Lost In Translation and Whiplash. This is because of Melissa Benoist, Scarlett Johansson (opening shot anyone?--I joke--but only kind of) Grace Kelly, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman and, damn, Ingrid Bergman. Forgive me, but that opinion comes from the slightly lonely, slightly sad, slightly weird, cinema geek in me. The point is: beauty. But, Leone's close-ups defy this idea. I think it's safe to say that not all those extras Leone loves to push really close in on are much in the way of a Grace Kelly. He depicts the weird and wonderful in an almost elegant way though. This plays into his decisions to leave a wide shot on open desert linger, his inclination towards letting a horse come to the camera from what seems like miles out--in the same respect he'll watch them canter off just as far. He sets tone with his big notes and small notes - they are under and overtones that build atmosphere. He'll give us an almost blank canvas and then fill it with the trillion crevices of a crooked nose to control our depth perception. This is all about a physical communication between what's on screen and the audience. With the wide shot we sit back to marvel, peering into the distance, up at the sky. Cut to the close-up of the ugly guy and our eyes draw back--as might we in our seats. In the same respect, the tiny figure between the huge boots draws us to the edge of our seats. And then the flash to the extreme close-up of the gun being drawn has us jumping out of it with the B-B-B-BANG. When the dust and ourselves settle... the aftermath is revealed.

Leone's camera moves and cuts like a person feels--but not in a Spielberg/Saving Private Ryan way. In Spielberg's classic we are, of course, a soldier. We aren't so much in a Leone picture. We are an observer of little consequence. We literally are a camera, but held by someone with as much enthusiasm for what is happening on screen as we are. Leone's camera is almost mesmerized by what it sees. Its eyes flash wide, moving toward the gun belt, peeping over shoulders, past the big faces - just like we want to. This is the core difference between a Bay picture and a Leone picture in my opinion. Bay is trying to recreate joy for his audience of teenage boys--which is completely fine - admirable even (not to say he's a great influence, but, whatever). However,  Leone merely has to capture his own joy. We see this also in Tarantino pictures. When you think back to the things you love, say for instance, about samurai films, you think of the blood squirting, the low angles with slack shoulders, samurai sword hovering millimetres from the ground, waiting to bite. Maybe it wasn't filmed liked that - but that's how we like to remember them. To see this all we have to do here is compare the final battle of Seven Samurai to the Crazy 88 massacre in Kill Bill. Similar ideas. Different execution (no pun intended). This is because Kill Bill is supposed to be a fun exploitation-ish film, whilst Seven Samurai can be considered a mature look at Japanese tradition, culture and history. This idea of contortion manifests itself with A Fistful Of Dollars also--this being a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Yojimbo's plot concerning honour and deceit must have triggered memories and emotions in Leone linked to westerns. He then takes influences from Kurosawa's expert blocking, keeps his acting style (a bit over the top) and merges it with a teenage wet dream of what a western is. What is that? It's black figures, horses, hats, guns, coats. bandannas, backed by blood red, hooves thundering, then... B-BANG... PEW-PEW-PEW... B-BANG-B-BANG... figures twisted, already writhing, falling to the ground, gripping the bullet sized holes in their chests. That goddamn intro - that's what that is. Leone's style has its roots in this sensationalism and when coupled with Hitchcockian theory, the idea of paintings, atmosphere, music, we begin to have his style.

There's one more thing to add though and that is sound design. This is the utmost craziest thing about what we consider some of the greatest films of all time. The dialogue track. The filming of Leone's pictures occurred in multiple languages. When you start squinting, trying to figure out why the words and mouth movement don't match up, it's because you're watching English come past lips speaking German, Italian, Spanish and other languages. Everything was synced in post-production (as was the way of the time in Italy). But, Leone didn't work from a script. He just knew his stories. He knew them so well that he only really needed a few takes per scene - most of the time only one. He'd only shoot multiple takes for the studio - just in case the film was lost or damaged. This is where his films where imbued with nuance. This is probably where his style flourished. He worked from instinct and the pictures he envisioned. This translated to one huge movement, an orchestrated, close to chaotic, recital of a song gone over and over in the head of an impassioned director. This starts to wrap everything back up. Nuance and style are intrinsically linked. This is why it's fine for you to scoff when I say that Hollywood is an 'auteur'. The term was coined to object to the lack of nuance in the pictures produced by mainstream production companies. Films being made by committee funnels all vision through a plan - such being standards of practice. Without a universal key to making movies, but a creative mind (the auteur) we get something new, true nuance - the closest thing we can have to originality. Style is an interpretation of what we love in the guise of what we are capable of. This is why Hitchcock, Italian artists, opera, Hawks and Ford are in a Spaghetti Western. Because Leone put them there.

On a last note, I just want to remind you that the next three post will be For A Few Dollars More, The Good The Bad The Ugly and then Once Upon A Time In The West. So, stayed tuned. But, in the meanwhile why not check out my very own western inspired fantasy, Apologetic? A free sample is available here...

Or to check out the whole story (free on Smashwords) here we go...

Thanks and be sure not miss the next few posts, especially if you enjoyed this one, by subscribing to the blog and finding the link on the side somewhere.

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