A Fistful of Dollars (1964) ****

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.

Who the heck is this Bob Robertson? A pseudonym for Sergio Leone, as if Robertson was particularly any better known than the debut director. Daniel Martin, oddly enough, is correct, but John Wells, Carol Brown and Benny Reeves are all made up.

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.

Riding the Bond Reissue Bandwagon

The 60th Anniversary celebration of the James Bond phenomenon in British cinemas that has been running for a few months now sent me back to examine the extent of the James Bond Reissue Double Bill.

As I mentioned a few weeks back, the Dr No (1962)/From Russia with Love (1963) revival in 1965 kicked off the biggest-ever demand for a screen character, one of whom the public never seemed to grow tired, certainly for the next decade until the first of the series were sold to television. Prior to United Artists’ approach with the Bonds, unless a picture had Oscar-driven box office power it would not even be considered for revival for around seven years, considered a generation in audience terms.

In Britain, the movies were guaranteed circuit releases on the Odeon chain. However, contrary to the approach in the United States, the movies were not thrown back into circulation right away and it wasn’t until three years later that the next double bill – Goldfinger (1964)/Thunderball (1965) – put in an appearance. But thereafter, there was no stopping the Bond bandwagon. In 1969 You Only Live Twice (1967) went out with either From Russia with Love or Dr No (cinemas could choose their preferred pairing).

In 1970, United Artists took a break from the Sean Connery reissue business by concentrating on the studio’s other big male star Clint Eastwood, doubling up For A Few Dollars More (1965) with A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  But by 1971 it experimented with playing Connery and Eastwood together, first pairing You Only Live Twice/A Fistful of Dollars and later the same year Goldfinger/For a Few Dollars More. But in 1972 the studio reverted to type with Thunderball/Dr No and the following year Diamonds Are Forever (1971)/From Russia with Love.

In 1974 it was You Only Live Twice/Thunderball and  few months later Dr No/Goldfinger. Come 1975 it was time for two of the later offerings to enter the revival business – Live and Let Die (1973) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) followed at the end of the year by The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and Live and Let Die. The next year brought a programme change – Diamonds Are Forever teamed up with new Bond Roger Moore in the non-Bond adventure Gold (1974).

In 1977, for the first time in nearly a decade the Bond reissue was absent from British cinemas although the following year saw a re-teaming of Live and let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. But that pretty much spelled the end of the annual James Bond double bill, television by now too quickly eating up new product.

The British approach was almost conservative compared to the way the Bond revivals were handled in the US. After the sensational performance of Dr No/From Russia with Love in 1965 U.S. exhibitors had to wait only a year for Goldfinger/Dr No. United Artists showed little restraint, following a policy of “play them till they drop,” and launching the Connery/Eastwood combo in 1968 with You Only Live Twice/The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967) plus a straightforward Connery item Thunderball/From Russia with Love the same year followed by Goldfinger/Dr No in 1969.

In the U.S. the year of the missing Bond reissue was 1970. But in 1971 United Artists reissued two Bond dualers six months apart. First out was Thunderball/You Only Live Twice and then Dr No/From Russia with Love. Ahead of the television premiere of Goldfinger in September 1972, UA brought back Goldfinger/From Russia with Love and then the triple bill (“Spend a Night with James Bond!”) of Goldinger/Dr No/From Russia with Love plus a double bill of Thunderball/You Only Live Twice, the last program incidentally knocking up a colossal gross of $122,000 – equivalent to $853,000 now – from 14 houses in New York in its opening week.

But the bonanza came to an end when television ponied up $17.5 million – equivalent to $126 million today – for the first seven pictures in the series. And this was before residuals kicked in from VHS, television resale and syndication, DVD, cable and streaming. Even when the MCU can guarantee billion-dollar revenues from many of its movies it’s doubtful if any one of its blockbusters made as much money as the best of the Bonds in their lifetime, much of that extra revenue coming from the way the revivals proved the enduring popularity of the series.  

SOURCES: Allen Eyles, Odeon Cinemas 2: From J. Arthur Rank to the Multiplex (Cinema Theatre Association, 2005) p211-220; Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You (McFarland, 2016) p147-151, 175-177, 227.

Coogan’s Bluff (1968) ***

Almost a curiosity in the Clint Eastwood canon from the later perspective, this modern western concerning a maverick Arizona cop pursuing a fugitive in New York could also be interpreted as a riposte to the violent avenger of the “Dollars” trilogy and Hang ‘Em High (1968). Like Rio Conchos (1964) there’s an action-packed start and finish and not much in between unless you count Coogan (Clint Eastwood) being beaten up, and like Firecreek, made in the same year but less of an audience attraction, a slow burn with little of the depth of the Vincent McEveety effort.

It fits more neatly into the “victim” niche of The Beguiled (1970) and Play Misty for Me (1971) with Eastwood, while attempting to present a macho image, set upon by predatory women. Here, although led into a trap by the girlfriend Linny (Tisha Sterling) of the wanted Ringerman (Don Stroud), the victim elements are mostly humorous, Coogan a fish-out-of-water taken advantage of by cab drivers and hoteliers and by a justice system that takes more note of due process than he is accustomed to. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a romance as Coogan, for whom persistence pays off, beds probation officer Julie (Susan Clark).

Coogan is a paid up member of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am fraternity, frolicking with an adulterous lover in Arizona, and displaying no qualms about getting it on with Linny. In the hands of Jack Lemmon this would be a comedy, so it’s a strange choice for Eastwood unless for experimental purposes, trying to set himself up more as Steve McQueen than John Wayne.

The picture opens with Coogan tracking down a Native American, and manacling him to a pole outside a house while he repairs inside for sex. Interrupted by a sheriff frustrated by his ways, he is despatched to New York where he manages, through a bluff, to have Ringerman removed from Bellevue mental hospital. On the way home, he is ambushed by Linny and some thugs, losing consciousness and his gun, neither going down well with the more bureaucratically-minded Lt. McElroy (Lee J Cobb) whose undercover stake-out plans he has also ruined.

Luckliy, Coogan has chanced upon probation officer Julie who can’t quite manage to deter his amorous advances and at an appropriate moment he sneaks a look at her files for his next lead. Not quite as sharp as he imagines, and clearly not much good at assimilating painful lessons, after a dalliance with Linny, he is astonished to be led into yet another trap. In the end, of course, he gets his man, courtesy of a motorbike chase. But there’s a curious ending. Not only does Julie, who he has betrayed with Linny, turn up to wave him off, but, as if he has now turned into a kinder, more humane specimen, he affords his prisoner a smoke, something he pointedly refused to do with the Native American.

It’s not dated particularly well and modern audiences will have trouble accepting domestic abuse and rape as comedic situations and eyebrows are scarcely going to be raised at the drug-addled Linny nor the club where naked women fly overhead on trapezes. The idea that intelligent women like Julie, weighed down with psych jargon and over-concern for offenders, just need a big hunk in their lives doesn’t fly either.

But if you accept the out-of-towner trope, and are happy to see Clint practising his squint and double take , you will find in between the action  and “victim” agenda, a quite tolerable romance. It was a bold choice for a star best known for killing people. Tough guy that he is, he is flummoxed by the big city and has a hell of a job getting his man. On the other hand Eastwood and Clark have excellent chemistry. This is embryo Eastwood, almost as if he is trying on a variety of screen persona to see what will fit. After Dirty Harry (1971) there was little truck with romance except for The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and In the Line of Fire (1993) so it’s interesting to see his moves, albeit that the best romantic work he did was in the director’s chair with Breezy (1973).

Susan Clark is superb, all the professional confidence of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) but the romantic cynicism replaced by an appealing hesitancy. Lee J. Cobb (Exodus, 1960) has little to do except be grumpy, Don Stroud (Madigan, 1968) doesn’t feature prominently enough while Tisha Sterling (Journey to Shiloh, 1968) makes the bigger impact.

Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) would become an Eastwood long-time confederate, directing him in six movies, of which this was the first. He had just made a Hollywood comeback after six years in the feature film wilderness with Madigan (1968), a tougher cop picture. I would be inclined to lavish more critical plaudits on the idea of playing around with the tough guy persona, but I’m not sure that was the intention.

Behind the Scenes: “For a Few Dollars More” (1965)

The prospective casting was tantalizing. How about Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, a pairing for the ages, two of the toughest guys in screen history? Failing that, Eastwood and Charles Bronson, The Man With No Name vs The Monosyllabic Man? The role of Colonel Mortimer could also have gone to Henry Fonda or Robert Ryan before in one of the movie business’s oddest tales it ended up with Lee Van Cleef.

In due course Bronson and Fonda would work with Sergio Leone in the director’s best film,  Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Fonda’s agent had already dodged Leone’s entreaties once, having rejected A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Marvin was, in fact, all set, an oral agreement in place until a few days before shooting began on For a Few Dollars More he suddenly opted instead for Cat Ballou (1965), a decision that won him an Oscar and turned him into an unlikely star.

When none of his first choices proved available or interested, Leone turned to Van Cleef. Or, more correctly, a photo of the actor pulled from an old casting catalog. Although a western buff like Leone remembered Van Cleef from his debut in High Noon (1952) plus Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Tin Star (1957) and a dozen other bit parts and supporting roles in westerns, Van Cleef had not been credited in a movie since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

He proved virtually impossible to track down. No small surprise there because he earned a living mostly as a painter now, a car accident having left him with a limp. He couldn’t run, much less ride anything but a docile horse. He required a stepladder to get mounted. Leone flew to Los Angeles and his first sight of  Van Cleef, older than his photograph, proved his instincts correct, Van Cleef’s face “so strong, so powerful.” The salary on offer, for a down-on-his-luck actor scarcely able to pay a phone bill, was a fat purse of $10,000. (Eastwood’s salary was $50,000 plus a profit share compared to just $15,000 for the first film).

Leone put him to work right away, the day he arrived in Italy filming reaction shots. It was just as well his input that day was so simple because, as Clint Eastwood had discovered, the language barrier was a problem. Equally disconcerting was that Van Cleef had no idea why he had been chosen, and since A Fistful of Dollars had not been released in the U.S., no inkling of the kind of western the director had in mind. At Eastwood’s urging, he nipped out to a local cinema and returned with the understanding that the script was “definitely second to style.” Van Cleef was easy to work with, and although he could put away a fair amount of liquid refreshment it never interfered with his work. He came ready for direction.

Leone had not wanted to make a sequel. His original plan was a caper picture called Grand Slam or a remake of Fritz Lang’s classic M to star Klaus Kinski or an autobiographical drama – Viale Glorioso – set in the 1930s. Jolly, the producers of A Fistful of Dollars, offered him a 30 per cent profit share on that film if he made a sequel, as they felt he was legally obliged to do. Instead, furious with his treatment at their hands,  the director hit upon the title of a sequel For a Few Dollars More, the actual storyline only coming to fruition when he came across a treatment called The Bounty Killer by Enzo dell’Aquilla and Fernando Di Leo, who in exchange for a large sum, surrendered their screen credits. Luciano Vincenzoni completed the screenplay in nine days, leavening it with humor, after the director and his brother-in-law Fulvio Morsella had produced a revised treatment, Leone also involved in the final screenplay.

Jolly Films, the makers of “A Fistful of Dollars” already had experience of selling its films abroad. But as with Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” they were usually sold outright with no share of the box office and in turn sold as a supporting feature for a fixed price to an exhibitor.

Leone found a new backer in Alberto Grimaldi, an Italian entertainment lawyer who worked for Columbia and Twentieth Century Fox and had produced seven Spanish westerns. He promised to triple the first film’s budget to $600,000, with the director on a salary and 50 per cent profit share.

Success bred artistic confidence. A Fistful of Dollars had broken all box office records in Italy, grossing $4.6 million, and so Leone sought to improve on his initial offering and develop an “authorial voice.”

Thematically, with two principals, initially rivals who end up as “argumentative children,” it took inspiration from westerns like The Bravados (1958) –  the photo and the chiming watch – and Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz which pitched Burt Lancaster against Gary Cooper. While bounty hunters had cropped up in Hollywood, they were not ruthless killers, actions always justified, rather than merely professionals doing their job. So in some sense Leone was drawing upon, and upending, films like Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) and The Tin Star, Andre De Toth’s The Bounty Hunter (1954) and Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959). Just as Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter underwent change, gradually the character played by Gian Maria Volonte evolved from a straightforward outlaw called Tombstone to a stoned, sadistic bandit named El Indio. 

With artistic pretension came attention to detail. Leone required historical exactitude not just relating to weapons used, but their ballistics and range. Lee Van Cleef’s arsenal included a Buntline Special with removable shoulder stock, Colt Lightning pump action shotgun, Winchester ’94 rifle, and a double-barreled Lefaucheux. Carlo Simi’s town, constructed near Almeria, contained a two-storey saloon, undertaker’s parlor, barbershop, telegraph office, jail, hotel and an adobe First City Bank. And there was nothing pretty about it. The saloon was dirty and overcrowded, machines belching so much smoke it “looked as if a man could choke in there.”  Filming took place between mid-April and the end of June 1965.

Perhaps the biggest area for improvement was the music. Ennio Morricone had scored another nine films since A Fistful of Dollars. Both director and composer had ambitious ideas about how to use the music. The score was not recorded in advance, nor was Morricone given a screenplay, instead listening while Leone told him the story and asked for individual themes for characters. Morricone would play short pieces for Leone and if met with his approval compose longer themes. Each character had their own leitmotif, sometimes the same instrument at different registers, the flute brief and high-pitched for Monco (Eastwood) but in a low register for Mortimer, church bells and a guitar representing El Indio. In a very real sense, they were experimenting with form. Bernardo Bertolucci regarded Morricone’s music as “almost a visible element in the film.” Musical ideas regarding El Indio’s watch, however, were developed at the rough cut stage, its repetitive melody becoming “sound effect, musical introduction and concrete element in the story.”

As well as creating music for audiences, Leone’s films are punctured with music that holds particular meaning for characters, here the watch and in Once Upon a Time in the West the harmonica, in both films flashback used to assist understanding.

The myth of why it took so long for either film to reach the United States was based on two misconceptions, firstly that Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo (1961) A Fistful of Dollars closely resembled, had blocked its progress, secondly that it relied on screenwriter Vincenzoni to make the breakthrough via a contact working for United Artists.

In fact, there were more obvious reasons for resistance from American distributors. In the first place, you could not discount snobbery.  The notion that the country that had invented the western should now be reliant on importing them from Italy seemed a shade abhorrent. Although For a Few Dollars More was sold to 26 countries in a day at the annual Sorrento trade fair in 1965 – at the same fair a year earlier there had not been a single taker for A Fistful of Dollars – the United States was not among the buyers, distributors perhaps even more daunted by the prospect of introducing so much violence to American audiences reared on the traditional western.

Foreign movies that made the successful transition to the United States arrived weighted down with critical approval and/or awards or garlanded with a sexy actress – Brigitte Bardot, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren among the favored – and risqué scenes that Hollywood dare not include for fear of offending the all-mighty Production Code.

But sex was a far easier sell in the U.S. than violence. And an actor with no movie marquee such as Clint Eastwood did not fill exhibitors with delight and even the notion that A Fistful of Dollars was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) failed to stir the critics (as with The Magnificent Seven being a remake of Seven Samurai, most viewing the notion as repellent). So both the first and second pictures in the “Dollars” trilogy were stuck in distribution limbo for three and two years, respectively, before being screened in America.

And, initially, it had appeared that Italian audiences shared the same distaste for a cultural intruder such as A Fistful of Dollars. One cinema chain owner refused to book the film on the grounds that there were not enough female characters. A Fistful of Dollars was released in Italy in August, a dead period, since the month is so hot and everyone has abandoned the city for the beach. It opened – only in Florence and with neither publicity nor advertising – on August 27th  1964, a Friday, and did poor business that day and the next. But by Monday, it was a different story, takings had doubled and over the following two days customers were being turned away. New films typically played first-run for 7-10 days in Florence, A Fistful of Dollars ran for three months, triggering a box office story of Cinderella proportions.  

But my research indicated there had been ample opportunity for an American distributor to snap up the rights to A Fistful of Dollars in 1965, two years before it was finally released there. In the first place, the music rights had already been purchased by New York firm South Mountain Music in March 1965 in expectation the film would acquire release that year. In December 1965 Arrigo Colombo, partner in Jolly, flew to the United States for the specific purpose of lining up a major distributor for A Fistful of Dollars. The company had previously secured U.S. distribution for horror product like Castle of Blood (1964) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) but those were outright sales.

With the movie already sold to Spain, West Germany, France and Japan, Colombo aimed to conclude a deal for the English-speaking market, “purposely holding back” from releasing the picture in those countries as he sought an all-encompassing contract. At that point, Kurosawa no longer stood in the way, that issue “now cleared up” settled in the normal fashion by financial inducement, in an “amicable settlement” Toho snagging the Japanese and Korean rights, the deal sweetened with a minimum $100,000 against a share of global profits. But Colombo went home empty-handed, unable to secure any deal and his temerity  ridiculed by trade magazine Variety

Although Sergio Leone had one other legal obstacle to surmount that would not have got in the way of a U.S. distribution deal, the worst that could happen being that a contract might be struck with a different company.  Italian companies Jolly Films/Unidis, which had backed the original, took umbrage at Leone going ahead with the sequel without their financial involvement, cutting them off from the profit pipeline. So in April 1966 they took Leone to court in Rome arguing that For A Few Dollars More “represented a steal as well as unlawful competition for its own Fistful.” Four months later the judge denied the claim on the grounds  that “the character played by Clint Eastwood in each film is not characterized to such a degree that a likeness exists” (even though to all intents and purposes it was the same character, cigar, poncho, gun, bounty hunting!). Ironically, Italian laxity in such matters counted against Eastwood when he failed to prevent the distribution of a film based on two segments of Rawhide stitched together.

It would also be highly unusual if United Artists was not aware of both A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More since, in keeping tabs on the foreign performance of both Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) the studio could scarcely fail to notice the Italian westerns close on their box office tail, the second western outpointing Thunderball in daily averages in Rome.

But the story still, erroneously, goes that it was the intervention of writer Vincenzoni which proved decisive. He had contacts in U.S, namely Ilya Lopert of United Artists. Grimaldi was, meanwhile, trying to sell U.S. and Canada rights relating to the second picture. Vincenzoni arranged for UA’s representatives to view A Fistful of Dollars in Rome and cut himself in for a slice of the profits when the distributor surprisingly purchased the entire series.

Since A Fistful of Dollars had already been sold to most major territories, UA could only acquire the North American rights – for a reported $900,000 –  but for the other two films  gained a considerably larger share of global distribution

United Artists was an unusual company among the Hollywood hierarchy, and not primarily due to recurrent Oscar success, but because it had, completely unexpectedly, hit box office gold with James Bond. There was nothing particularly odd about a series, as Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes etc (still flourishing in the 1960s) testified. What was distinctive about the Bonds was that each picture – the four so far had earned close to $150 million worldwide, not counting merchandising  – had done better than the last, which went against the standard rule of sequels of diminishing returns and higher costs. Given the opportunity to buy into a ready-made series (two films in the can, the third in production) UA made an “attempt to calculatedly duplicate the (Bond) phenomenon” and in so doing “create a trend.” Assuming the movies would follow the Bond formula of increased grosses with each successive picture, the studio was prepared to spend “many hundreds of thousands” of dollars to establish the  first picture.   

United Artists embarked on an unusual sales campaign to the trade. Instead of marketing the pictures one at a time, they started to promote the series with the tagline “A Fistful of Dollars is the first motion picture of its kind, it won’t be the last.” The advertising campaign was unusual in that it was based entirely around introducing the character rather than the story (much in the same way as James Bond had been), three separate slivers of the poster devoted to visual aspects, the cigar, gun and poncho, each carrying mention of “The Man With No Name,” such anonymity one of the talking points of the movies.

Cinema managers were briefed on release dates, A Fistful of Dollars in January 1967, the sequel for April and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for Xmas that year. Like the Bonds, it was expected that box office would progressively, if not explosively, increase. The studio unveiled a “hard-hitting campaign” designed to “intrigue the western or action fan.”

However, the North American premiere was held not in the United States but Canada, at the Odeon-Carlton in Toronto. Having committed to a four-week engagement, a risky prospect for an unknown quantity, the cinema started advertising a teaser campaign three weeks in advance. During the first week, posters were not just focused on the “man with no name” but also “the film with no name” and the “cinema with no name,” all those elements removed from the artwork until the second week of the campaign. UA allocated $20,000 in marketing, up to four times the usual amount spent on a launch there, and was rewarded with strong results – “bullish but not Bondish” Variety’s verdict.

However, the UA gamble did not pay off, especially when taking into account the high cost of buying the rights allied to huge marketing costs. Initial commercial projections proved unrealistic. Despite apparently hitting the box office mark in first-run dates in key cities, the film was pulled up short by its New York experience. Shunted straight into a showcase (wide) release rather than a first-run launch, it brought in a pitiful $153,000 from 75 theaters – even The Quiller Memorandum (1966) in its second week did better ($150,000 from 25). As a consequence when For a Few Dollars More was released in April/May, UA held off boking it into New York until “a suitable arrangement” could be made, which translated into hand-picking a dozen houses famed for appealing to action fans plus 600-seat arthouse the Trans-Lux West.

United Artists predicted $3.5 million in rentals (the amount returned to studios after cinemas take their cut of the gross) for A Fistful of Dollars and $4.5 million with For a Few Dollars More. Neither came close, the latter the marginally better performer with $2.2 million in rentals (enough for a lowly 41st on the annual chart) with the first film earning $2.1 million in rentals (46th) way behind more traditional performers like Hombre ($6.5 million for tenth spot), El Dorado ($5.9 million in 13th) and The War Wagon ($5.5 million in 15th).

The vaunted Bond-style box office explosion never materialized and it might have helped if UA had kept closer watch on the actual revenues posted in Italy for the series. While For a Few Dollars More increased by $2 million the takings of A Fistful of Dollars, the final film in the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly produced lower grosses than even the first.

However, it did look as if The Good, the Bad and the Ugly would come good. UA opened it in two first-run cinemas in New York where each house retained it for six weeks. But although the final tally of $4.5 million (24th spot in the annual rankings) was the best of the series, it did not herald returns that made it anywhere near comparable to the Bonds.

It’s possible the movies did better in terms of admissions than the box office figures show. Distributors pushing foreign product into arthouses were generally able to achieve a high share of the rental – 50 per cent the going rate – because they were able to set rival arthouses against each other and movies with a sexy theme/star had inbuilt box office appeal, La Dolce Vita (1960) and And God Created Women (1956) the classic examples. But that would not be possible when trying to interest ordinary cinemas with a film lacking in sex.

When I researched the early Bonds for a previous Blog, I found that United Artists had only managed to achieve bookings for Dr No (1962) by lowering its rental demand. Exhibitors paid the studio just 30 per cent of the gross. And I wondered if perhaps the same occurred with A Fistful of Dollars given the star, like Sean Connery, was completely unknown. Of course, it would not explain why the series did not grow as expected.

Of course, there was a surprising winner and an unexpected loser in the whole ‘Dollars’ saga. Clint Eastwood emerged as the natural successor to John Wayne with a solid box office – and later critical – reputation for American westerns starting off with Hang ‘Em High (1968) which beat The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the box office, while Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) proved a huge flop in the U.S.

Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, Something To Do With Death (Faber & Faber, 2000), p160-162, p165-200; “Italo’s Own Oater Leads Box Office,” Variety, December 2, 1964, p16; “South Mountain Buys Dollar Score,” Variety, March 10, 1965, p58; “Jolly’s Colombo Discovers N.Y.C. Busy at Xmas,” Variety, December 22, 1965, p3; “Tight Race for Box Office Honours in Italy Looms as Thunder Leads Dollars,” Variety, January 65, 1966, p15; “Dollars World Distribution for UA,” Variety, March 22, 1966, p22; “Clint Eastwood Italo Features Face Litigation,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p29; “UA Cautious on Links to Italo Fistful; Faces Slap from Kurosawa,” Variety, July 13, 1966, p7; “Rome Court Rejects Plea for Seizure of Few Dollars Made By Fistful Film,” Variety, August 3, 1966, p28; “Clint Eastwood vs Jolly on 2 Segs of Rawhide ‘Billed’ New Italo Pic,” Variety, September 7, 1966, p15; “Italy Making More Westerns, Spy Films Than Star Vehicles,” Box Office, October 31, 1966, p13; “Hemstitched Feature,” Variety, November 23, 1966, p22; “UA Division Holds Screenings of Westerns,” Box Office, December 12, 1966, pE2; Advertisement, Variety, December 21, 1966, p12-13; “UA Gambles Dollars As Good As Bonds,” Variety, December 28, 1966, p7; “Fred Goldberg Shows Ads on UA ‘Dollar’ Films,” Box Office, January 2, 1967, pE4; “Review,” Box Office, January 9, 1967, pA11; “Fistful of Dollars: Male (and Italo) B.O.,” Variety, January 18, 1967, p7; “Fistful of Dollars: The Glad Reaper,” Variety, February 1, 1967, p5;  “This Week’s N.Y. Showcases,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p9; “Fistful’s Weaker N.Y. B.O. Clench,” Variety, February 8, 1967, p7; “Methodical Campaign Kicks Off Ideal Fistful Ballyhoo in Toronto,” Box Office, May 1, 1967, pA1; “Few Dollars More Runs 30% Ahead of First Dubbed Italo-Made Western, So Bond Analogy Makes Out,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4; “N.Y. Slow to Fall Into Line,” Variety, May 31, 1967, p4;   “B’way Still Boffo,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p9; “Carefully Picked,” Variety, July 12, 1967, p4; “B’way Biz Still Big,” Variety, July 19, 1967, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1967,” Variety, January 3, 1968, p25; “B’way B.O. Up,” Variety, January 31, 1968, p9; “Big Rental Films of 1968,” Variety, January 8, 1969, p15.

The Box Office Equalizer: Part Two

Variety’s revolutionary new box office tracking system, introduced in 1969, allowed it to include far more films in an annual assessment of performance. The “Annual Rentals” chart that appeared every January still covered how much of the box office pie was returned to studios and therefore gave a good indication of potential profit. But that was limited to only those pictures that met that chart’s criteria i.e. they had to return $1 million rentals. That usually meant only 80-odd films.

But now, in addition, from the computerized information gathered every week from hundreds of cinemas, Variety was able to give a pretty accurate estimate of the box office gross for ten times as many movies. In 1969, the survey covered 1,028 pictures. This wealth of information was of enormous value to exhibitors. Not only did it cover the obvious titles – the roadshows and those with top stars – but also the run-of-the-mill movies on which most cinemas now depended. In the current severe product shortage, reissues played a vital role. As did sexploitation.

Among films reviewed so far in the Blog annual grosses were shown for: They Night They Raided Minksy’s $1.9 million, Mafia picture The Brotherhood $1.9 million, Anthony Newley number Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness $1.3 million, Hard Contract $1 million, Mayerling $980,000, Justine $536,000, Les Biches $391,000, Assassination Bureau $146,000, Fraulein Doktor $114,000 and The Sisters $50,000. (Multiply these figures by 50% for an accurate estimate of their rentals).

Other figures worth noting were: The Fixer $1 million, Secret Ceremony $1 million, The Italian Job $614,000, Marlon Brando in The Night of the Following Day $424,000, Shalako $78,000 and The Extraordinary Seaman $61,000. Bottom of the box office pile was motor racing documentary Hot Rod Action with just $1,000.

Given it was widely considered a flop, these are interesting figures for Hieronymous Merkin, rentals now estimated as being in the region of $2 million against a budget of $1.6 million – although other sources put the budget as low as $500,000 thus making it extremely profitable. Secret Ceremony had grossed $617,000 the previous year so its rentals would have approached $2.5 million, far more than was previously assumed. Fans of cult British thriller The Italian Job will perhaps be astonished how poorly it did in the U.S.

The top-grossing reissue was Bonnie and Clyde/Bullitt ($1 million) followed by a pair of Clint Eastwood double bills – A Fistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars More ($912,000) and Hang ‘Em High/The Good, The Bad and The Ugly ($740,000). Also in the mix were Goldfinger/Dr No ($323,000), A Man and a Woman ($226,000), Belle de Jour/A Man and a Woman ($199,000), a revival of Lola Montes from 1955 with $148,000 and less successfully, from 1961, A Cold Wind in August with just $21,000.

As previously noted, the impact of sexploitation was becoming more obvious. The biggest hit was The Libertine which crossed the $1 million mark followed by Camille 2000 ($868,000), Inga ($819,000) – bringing in three times as much as the previous year – Swedish Heaven and Hell ($458,000) and The Female ($279,000). Others charting included Vibrations, Without a Stitch, Erotic Dreams and The Sex Perils of Pauline. In addition, sexploitation movies were ripe for reissue, I, A Woman/Carmen Baby clocking up $363,000.

More importantly, what the chart did show and what the new weekly Top 50 was beginning to recognize was how often cheaply-made exploitation pictures held their own or even outgrossed big studio pictures for which exhibitors were often held to ransom. If ever there was a sign of the direction in which the business was now heading, this annual survey was it.

SOURCE: “Variety B.O. Charts’ 1969 Results,” Variety, April 29, 1970, p26.   

What If: When Harry Met Frank

Apologies for venturing outside my self-appointed remit of the 1960s but this is too good to ignore and the artwork above extremely rare.

It’s pretty hard to get out of our minds the vision of Clint Eastwood as the tough cop of Dirty Harry (1971) especially brandishing his .357 magnum and snarling lines like “Do ya feel lucky, punk?” It was such a high point of Eastwood’s career that it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.

But, in fact, Warner Brothers did. Long before Eastwood entered the equation the studio had Frank Sinatra lined up. If your notion of Sinatra comes from musicals like High Society (1956) or easy-on-the-eye Rat Pack ventures like Sergeants 3 (1963) or his Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953), you would be forgetting his harder-hitting roles in the later 1960s as a tough cop in The Detective (1968) and as private eye Tony Rome (1967) and sequel Lady in Cement (1968).

Nor was Don Siegel a shoo-in for the director’s chair. Warner had already assigned that task to Irving Kershner. The Sinatra-Kershner version got far enough up the production ladder for the studio to produce a piece of artwork with the actor in the title role – see above. This went out an advertisement that appeared in Variety on November 9, 1970, under the headline “Now In Production Or In The Can (And In Theaters Soon)” suggesting the movie with Sinatra in the title role was pretty much a lock. Though what exactly was in the briefcase was anyone’s guess.

Other films advertised in the same spread were Rabbit Run with James Caan (also seen in this section of the ad) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (though under a different title). However, the photo of Sinatra with a briefcase was hardly inspirational and a far cry from the eventual Eastwood image that went with the picture. Whether Sinatra’s interpretation of the character was intended to be quite as tough and mean as that of Eastwood, we shall never know.

Books by Brian Hannan – The Gunslingers of ’69 – The Western’s Greatest Year

While Easy Rider was triggering a “youthquake” and Midnight Cowboy breaking censorship taboos, the western in 1969 hit a new peak. Or so I had thought for many years.

So I set out to see if my theory might have some truth in it. Four true masterpieces in The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Once upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – more than in any other single year – were helped along by a few others that for various reasons fell shy of greatness such as The Stalking Moon, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and the hilarious Support Your Local Sheriff.

I watched the 40-plus westerns that were released in 1969 to write this book. New directors like George Roy Hill reinvigorated the western while veteran Sam Peckinpah at last found popular approval and the even more experienced Henry Hathaway turned his decades of skills onto True Grit.

Andrew V McLaglen fulfilled the promise of Shenandoah with the vastly underrated The Undefeated. Raquel Welch was anointed Queen of the Western. Old-timers John Wayne (True Grit and The Undefeated), Gregory Peck (The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold)and Robert Mitchum (Young Billy Young and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys) appeared in a brace of westerns each, as did newcomer Robert Redford. While Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin tried their hand at a musical (the latter scoring a hit single) it was Jean Seberg who stole that show.

Taken as a whole, I found themes repeated again and again. The most obvious, of course, were allusions in one way or another to Vietnam. But pursuit and escape were other dominant themes, and the movies also took a good hard look at women’s rights, changing attitudes towards African-Americans (100 Rifles turned Jim Brown in an action star) and Native Americans.

Watching so many movies from a single genre one after the other I also became very conscious of how directors used the screen, Hathaway’s use of extreme long shot, for example, or McLaglen’s widescreen compositions. Of all the books I’ve written this was the most enjoyable to write because I had so much fun watching the movies.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.

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