Once upon a time​ in the western we knew where we were. We were in the old days. We were west of civilisation in the United States, stranded in a place where law was unknown, or had just arrived, or immediately been superseded by galloping, ill-organised crime, quite different from the tidy, housebound business of the east. If we were allegorically inclined we knew some sort of fable of good and evil was lurking in the plot, but we didn’t feel we had to pay a lot of attention to this, and we were quite sure these films were not in any way relevant to other, closer times and places: those of their making in Italy or the US, for example; those of the events or issues they might indirectly represent. It was quite far-fetched to suggest that Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966), say, set in Mexico, was asking us think also of the war in Vietnam.

The current season of Sergio Leone films at the British Film Institute, concentrating on his westerns, and especially on the first, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – the others are For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), and Once upon a Time in the West (1968) – ruins this comfortable perspective beyond recall. Well, nothing is beyond recall if we really need it, but we are going to have to work harder at the distancing, all-American fantasy.

To start with, A Fistful of Dollars is an elegant remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). It was shot in Spain, with a large contingent of Italian actors. There are Germans playing Mexicans and Americans, and the only American here is Clint Eastwood, a Westerner to be sure, born in San Francisco and a graduate of the television series Rawhide, but not yet any sort of household name in the movies.

And then there is the setting: a small, dead town in Mexico not far from the Texas border. The population consists of a bell-ringer, a coffin-maker, a man who runs a cantina, and two gangs, the Rojos and the Baxters, Mexican and American respectively. There are also a frightened man and a crying child, whose function in the plot is revealed to us quite late in the film; and there is a beautiful captive woman called Marisol, played by Marianne Koch, who looks about as Mexican as Marlene Dietrich. If Leone and his writers had added two more elements, he would have brought us into the realm of the classic American-made western, of Shane (1953) or High Noon (1952). The two elements are the bullied and helpless people who live in the town and the stranger who will sort things out and move on. But he didn’t add them. The people have been replaced by ghosts and coffins; and the stranger is just looking for a job. He likes the sort of job where he might easily be killed, and his idea of sorting things out is a massacre of the kind both gangs eagerly go in for. He gets one gang to kill the other, and kills the victors himself.

We can all make our metaphorical associations here. For me, one of them isn’t even metaphorical. This movie is set in a Mexican town inhabited by the dead and run by two warring sets of criminals. We have only to change the object of their traffic from gold to drugs in order to arrive at a picture of too many places in our own day. And for the importation of guns from the United States we don’t even have to make the change, the movie literally provides the topic for us. When we see that the apparent leader of one of the gangs is also the sheriff, we may think of Leone’s Italy as it appears in so many legends and quite a bit of history. And in the fiction of Leonardo Sciascia and Michael Dibdin, where a crucial question about any crime is not who did it, but what to do with any knowledge you may have of this fact. Is there anyone you could report it to who might not be the criminal’s friend or protector? The same question arises in the American novels of Ross Thomas – I’m thinking especially of the wonderful Briarpatch (1984), which is set in the West, in a place that resembles Oklahoma, but not in the easy-to-watch old days.

And then there is Japan lurking behind the whole tone and style of A Fistful of Dollars. Clint Eastwood, a classy, stylised cartoon of a western hero, is half a samurai in a way that John Wayne is clearly not, and Leone uses music (in his case Ennio Morricone’s music) in very much the way Kurosawa does – to signal a mythological aura, the feeling of a tale often told. ‘Gunslingers are not samurai,’ Kurosawa said, and of course he is right. But they are not unrelated. Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) became The Magnificent Seven (1960), as Yojimbo became the movie we are talking about. And both Japanese movies were heavily indebted to American westerns in the first place. What these crossovers suggest is not a contemporary reference to Japan, as with crime and its beneficiaries in Mexico, Italy and the United States, but a structure lying in wait within a genre, whatever the country of its immediate origin.

The structure is that of a dark fairy tale variant of the scheme Raymond Chandler proposed for the hard-boiled detective novel. ‘Down these mean streets,’ he said, ‘a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid … He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.’ In Leone’s westerns (and in Yojimbo), there is only one street, and the man in question is if anything meaner than everyone else. But he is also quicker and more intelligent, and above all more stylish. He undoubtedly thinks the notions of tarnish or fear or goodness are irrelevant to any sort of life one might want to live. We look up to him, not morally but physically, because of the low-angle shots Leone has borrowed from Orson Welles, and there is a faint flicker of a vulnerable past in his one good deed. He liberates the captive woman and her husband and child – now we see what those frightened and crying figures were doing in the movie – and when she asks him why he is doing this, he says, ‘I knew someone like you once.’ The world he has entered is an image of every world that is too desolate for anything except destruction, and even he is surprised at its bleakness. He says he’s ‘never seen a town like this’.

What we celebrate in the triumph of his style and fast shooting – a lot of us will celebrate it even as we tell ourselves we shouldn’t – isn’t even the vestige of the idea of the good guy but the thought that someone, somehow, will be too smart for the bad guys. A wonderful instance of temptation to this thought is when Eastwood, beaten up by the Rojos gang, bloody and bruised, only one eye functioning, manages to place a barrel of wine so that it will roll down and kill two of his captors, and then set fire to the building, creating complete disorder among the rest of the mob. The implausibility of all this, given that our hero’s bashing would have killed anyone else, is obviously part of its appeal. As anthropologists tell us, we wouldn’t need myths if reality were a little more adequate.

Leone has a signature pattern of sounds and images for this state of affairs – it occurs in all his westerns. We see and hear someone laughing – in A Fistful of Dollars it is the most dandyish and idiotic of the Rojo brothers; in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it is the scatty, evil character played by Eli Wallach, who almost steals the movie as a consequence – or we see again and again, especially in the first of these films, the sheer relish with which men pull triggers and watch others die. The Eastwood figure doesn’t laugh – perhaps he has no pleasures apart from chewing on his cigar and looking mean. This doesn’t make him virtuous but it does make him different.

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