Breezy western debut that created five legends: announced the arrival of a new directorial force in Sergio Leone; bestowed screen stardom on Clint Eastwood; instantly created a new mini-genre in the Spaghetti western; provided a platform for the distinctive music of Ennio Morricone; and best of all from the producers’ perspective made a mountain at the box office. You could add in a cavalier attitude to corpses and adding a notch to the development of that 1960s standby, the anti-hero. From now on the good guy could be a bad guy or so morally ambiguous as not to make a difference.
Look no further than the opening scene to note the alternative Leone approach to the western. An anonymous stranger (Clint Eastwood) arriving in town, observes, while drinking water from a well, a gang torment a small boy by firing bullets at his feet. Indifference to the taboo subject of violence to children became a Leone trademark, most evident when children are slaughtered in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Most astonishing of all here, the stranger, ostensibly our hero, does not intervene despite, as we shall soon discover, being a ferocious shot.
Instead he learns that the child is being kept from his imprisoned mother Marisol (Marianne Koch), who has been taken from her husband Julio (Daniel Martin) by Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte). Rather than directly intervene a a good hero should, the stranger decides to profit from the situation. Realizing there are two opposition factions in town, the Rojos and the Baxters, he decides to play them off against each other, taking money in turn from each, demonstrating his credentials by shooting four men. That the Baxter clan includes the town sheriff (Wolfgang Lukschy) shows how powerful the Rojos have become.
In fact the stranger doesn’t orchestrate a straightforward shoot-em-up as you might expect but cleverly gets them to kill each other first of all by arranging for both families to confront each other in a makeshift cemetery where the stranger has deposited the bodies of two men, the supposed survivors of a massacre of Mexican soldiers escorting a gold shipment. The Rojos win this round.
After appearing as nothing but a ruthless opportunist, the stranger now turns into a hero, freeing Marisol, reuniting her with husband and son, and giving them money to go away. This kind act does not go unnoticed, the stranger captured and tortured, the Baxters massacred on the assumption he was acting on their behalf. The stranger escapes in a coffin, fashions himself some chest armour in a tin mine, and confronts the remaining Rojos in an old-fashioned, though with a typical Leone twist, gunfight.
Setting aside the body count, which enraged traditionalists, including the vast majority of critics who would later endorse the even more violent blood-letting of The Wild Bunch (1969), the trio of Leone, Eastwood and Morricone put their innovative stamp on the western.
Stylistically, it was in a class of its own (until, at last, Leone outdid himself with the further adventures of The Man with No Name and Once Upon a Time in the West). The operatic elements which feature so strongly in his later work, are here confined to the plethora of close-ups, more like portraits and extremely well-lit, the circular camera movement for the climax (again, more evident in Once Upon a Time in the West), and the stillness before the shoot-out, the way tension builds through nothing happening for a considerable amount of time, not through characters shifting to more advantageous position, but simply while the camera sits and broods.
Leone cut out exposition, generally a large part of the beginning of any western, the stranger having no emotional involvement in the situation. A normal western would focus on the forcibly estranged husband attempting to free the imprisoned wife, perhaps as in The Magnificent Seven (1960) hiring someone to do it for him. The stranger, in effect, sets out to profit from misery.
And he doesn’t say much. A character this monosyllabic would be a supporting actor in a traditional western, perhaps fulfilling a comic role or given some elaborate emotional back story for why words were so precious he wouldn’t spend them.
And he’s definitely iconic. In a later scene, Leone has Eastwood materializing out of the swirling dust in a scene that would easily have fitted the traditional western. But for the most part, he relies on audience reaction to a character who dresses in far from traditional fashion, most notably with his poncho and cigars. The western hero didn’t squint either. He walked not situations with his eyes open, indicative of his boldness and ability to face any situation.
Leone avoids classic western confrontation, the one-on-one scenes that usually occur close to the start where the hero either exhibits prowess or is humiliated. In what might be called “the Chicago Way” not only does nobody come to a gunfight with a knife, the bad guys come mob-handed.
Sure, that means the hero is shown to be even more deadly with a pistol, but it also permits Leone to extend the action by focusing not just on two opposing characters but a number of different faces. There are some other motifs at play in Leone’s debut – women are not all as submissive as Marisol, Consuelo, the Baxter matriarch, on hiring the stranger, says “I’m rich enough to appreciate the men my money can buy,” her power and wealth finding later echo in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Last but not least, is the Morricone sound. There had been great western themes before, plaintive as in High Noon (1952) and The Alamo (1960) or stirring like The Big Country (1958) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), but this appeared to arrive from a different orchestral planet.
If ever a movie could claim ownership of the title “a star is born” it’s this one. Perhaps it has remained so special because the triumvirate of Leone, Eastwood and Morricone had such illustrious careers, this merely a starting point rather than, as if often the case when Hollywood anoints a new star, the highlight.