A Fistful of Dollars
Oscar®-Winner Clint Eastwood blends a quiet steadiness with a palpable ferocity as the iconic gunslinger "The Man With No Name" in Sergio Leone's gritty "spaghetti Western." When a steely blue-eyed mercenary arrives in a dusty border town where two rival bands of smugglers terrorize the impoverished citizens, he pits the gangs against each other in one of the most exhilarating frontier adventure films in cinema history.
MGM presents Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars on Blu-ray in the aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 on this dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer. Though I hadn’t seen it yet, I’ve been told this is the same disc that would have been in the Man With No Name Blu-ray set and therefore it’s the same transfer.
The transfer here is an incredibly frustrating one for me; there are a lot of things I like about it but there are still some maddening items in it. The most maddening of them is that this really looks like it’s probably the same high-definition transfer used for the DVD editions years ago. Thankfully those in charge saw fit to leave film grain intact (and because of the cheaper film stock, a side effect of the generally cheap production, the image is very grainy) but the transfer has a hard time rendering it and makes it look more like compression noise rather than film grain creating a bit of a mess with it looking blocky and pixelated.
The cheaper film stock (which actually allowed for really sharp close-ups ironically enough) is the reason for graininess and also is what causes some of the other issues in the presentation inherent in the source, like the fact the image can look very muddy in darker sequences, with shadow delineation almost non-existent. And not counting the opening credits the stock also keeps the colours muted and pale so they never truly pop. But again, this is all true to the source and while yes, it can be annoying, I’m actually glad that MGM/Fox kept their fingers off the trigger and didn’t decide to boost anything or scrub the grain (and details) away.
But where the transfer really shines is in the close-ups, which there are plenty of. Detail is really extraordinary in some cases and you can make out every pore, every age line on the actors’ faces. This is where the transfer really shines and where it really pays off that those involved avoided digital noise reduction.
Which is a shame. I’m happy there was an attempt to at least stay true to the film’s look and an attempt to keep it looking like a film, but I think the transfer needs a bit of an update, the unnatural presentation of the film’s grain structure being the most glaring problem. In the end it comes off as a bit of a modest upgrade over the previous DVD.
MGM again remixes the original mono audio into a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track (though also include the original mono track in Dolby Digital) but they take it easy here. The film’s music fills out the surround speakers not at all aggressively but it’s noticeable. Some effects sneak to the rears but the presentation sticks to the fronts primarily.
Of course, like most Italian made films at the time, the film’s dialogue was post-synched so it has a very unnatural sound to it to begin with and comes off very tinny. Gun shots and other effects also sound out of place but this has more to do with the original sound design. The track has been cleaned up nicely, though, and I didn’t notice any distracting distortions.
As I said there is also the film’s original mono track presented here in Dolby Digital. While I usually prefer the original tracks I’ll probably stick to the 5.1 track only because it’s not an overly aggressive, unnatural mix, and because it’s far cleaner. The mono track is more distorted and edgy, and is a bit of a mess.
Overall it’s a product of its shoot and time. I’d prefer that MGM also saw fit to give the mono track a vigorous restoration but at least the 5.1 presentation doesn’t completely bastardize the film.
Most of these features were found on the original 2-disc DVD and the previously available “Man With No Name” trilogy on Blu-ray. First up is an audio commentary by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling who goes over the production of the film and the now famous style Leone started to build, as well as the film’s reception and its building of popularity. It’s a decent track but pretty run of the mill, but it’s obvious Frayling has a deep love for this film (and Leone’s work in general) and is such a “fanboy” that his passion for the film is rather catching, making the track a bit of fun to get through. But in the end it’s actually an expansion on one of the documentaries found on the disc and most may be satisfied with that instead.
New to the Blu-ray edition (and the only high-def feature here, the rest of the material is presented in standard-definition) is the feature called The Christopher Frayling Archives: A Fistful of Dollars. This 19-minute segment is interesting but I would have preferred an alternate method of presentation. Basically Frayling shows off his collection of memorabilia surround the film, primarily the various film posters from around the world (interestingly the Japanese title for the film was The Return of Yojimbo) and how the design grew from something fairly generic to the now iconic imagery we still manage to get (if in lesser forms) on video covers today. The feature then ends with him going over an older copy of the script/treatment, which had plenty of other material in it. I like the feature but I would have preferred a gallery with notes from the historian as I could then get a better look at the material and go at my own pace. Still, there’s some interesting material in here.
A New Kind of Hero is a 23-minute documentary that is, in the end, pretty much a summary of the audio commentary. Frayling talks again about Leone seeing Yojimbo and wanting to make a Western out of it, the casting (originally he wanted James Coburn or Henry Fonda) that led to him eventually discovering Eastwood, and then of course the building of the now iconic character who would eventually become “the Man With No Name”. He then again gets into the technical details of the film and its eventual success and influence. It pretty much repeats the commentary but for those that don’t feel like sitting through the commentary this is a nice condensed version.
A Week in Spain: Clint Eastwood on the Experience of Making the Film presents the actor sitting down for 8-minutes to talk about the film (this is actually a snippet from a longer conversation Eastwood took part in on his work with Leone.) He talks about why he made the risky decision he did, ultimately coming down to that he liked Yojimbo and thought it would be great making a version of it, and he also liked the fact that, worst case scenario, he gets a free trip to Italy and Spain out of the deal. With great amusement he recalls the unorthodox shoot where limitations of the budget led to the crew simply stealing a tree from someone’s property for a shot in the film. It’s an amusing interview as Eastwood laughs about the production now, which should have probably been a failure to begin with, but he recalls it fondly.
Tre Voci presents video footage with three people who had worked with Leone previously, including producer Alberto Grimaldi (who takes full credit for creating the “Spaghetti Western”), screen writer Sergio Donati, and actor Mickey Knox. The three talk about Leone and the film, offering their own opinions and insights as to what makes the film work, Eastwood being a strong reason as to why. Unfortunately the feature doesn’t really add too much and feels like a bit of an afterthought.
The next couple features cover a prologue that was shot by director Monte Hellman for the film’s prime time TV premiere. Not Ready for Primetime presents a 6-minute interview with the director where he talks about the shooting of this alternate opening and why it was shot: because of the amount of death and destruction in the film and the fact that Eastwood’s character causes all of this mayhem for no moral reason and never receives any comeuppance for it the network deemed they needed to set up a moral reason. Hellman laughs about it now, and despite the fact he says he never openly admits he did this you can tell he gets a kick he played some small part in the film.
We then get the actual opening itself with an introduction by fan/collector Howard Fridkin. The guy took out a loan to buy a Betamax player to record the broadcast premiere and actually recorded the alternate opening (he almost stopped it because he couldn’t figure out what was on his TV.) He has one of the rare recordings and it’s used here. Since it’s from video it looks rough but it’s still watchable and better than one would expect (Beta was better than VHS in presentation.) The opening, which stars Harry Dean Stanton and someone doubling for Eastwood (his face is never shown), sets up that the Man With No Name is being sent to the little village in the film to clean up the two gangs, therefore giving him a (questionable) moral reason for doing what he does. It’s awful but the fact it survives makes it a great historical piece and I’m so glad MGM had seen fit to include it here.
We then get a Location Comparison comparing locations used in the film to what is there today in Almeria, Spain. In place of a lot of the exterior shots are fields, parks, houses, and in some cases, empty lots. Interesting but depressing in a way.
The disc then closes with marketing material, including 6-minutes worth of radio spots, the double feature trailer for this film and For a Few Dollars More, and then finally the original theatrical trailer.
Overall a decent collection of supplements with a few cool little finds, like that awful, awful, yet intriguing prologue.
I think the video presentation needs a bit of a reworking. I’m not saying it needs to be scrubbed clean, but the film’s grain structure isn’t rendered well here and at times it can be distracting; it looks noisy and it can even look like it’s simply just an upconvert from the DVD. The supplements aren’t anything truly special overall, but there’s a few cool little additions that make it worth checking out.