A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)

“The Revolution,” according to a curiously candid white-on-black insert, “is not a social dinner, it is not a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery…” Chairman Mao’s quote is punctuated by A Fistful of Dynamite’s unglamorous first images: a close-up of tree trunk ant-traffic being overwhelmed by a powerstream of piss. It is an ironically bodily metaphor to kick off a big-hearted picture. Make no mistake: Fistful is an oaf, parading its hangdog humor with black-toothed grin. But how remarkable it then seems when this grotty lout, to the serenading strains of Morricone’s score, actually dazzles you with its elegance, pirouettes before your very eyes, sidles right up to you and—lo and behold—you swoon.

But before that… As they tumble to the ground the poor critters are hosed again for good measure. We see a pair of dirtied, bare feet nonchalantly shaken free of any unexpected blowback. The stocky, bearded fellow on the (relatively) dry end of the piss offensive is also our hero, or one of them at least—and one as reluctant as he is unlikely.

The year is 1913, and in the midst of the Mexican revolution pistol dynamo and salt-of-the-earth grub Juan (Rod Steiger) is quite content keeping his hands clean—metaphorically, that is. And of matters political, that is—preferring to occupy himself robbing the baleful Mexican upperclass as they’re stagecoached from the troubled region with the most intolerable pomp.

Enter Sean Mallory (James Coburn), an IRA dynamiter on the run from the British authorities. The two form an unlikely alliance when Juan, in an amusingly crackpot epiphany, envisions using Sean’s expertise to blast his way in to Mesa Verde Bank. Little does Juan know that Sean has promised his services to the Mexican revolutionaries, and hitting the bank is actually a move far more “political” than the crass campesino realizes.

One of Fistful’s most endearing charms is the sheer ingenuousness of its shifts from the absurd to the heartfelt. With a childlike lack of coercion the viewer is led to take very seriously what is, ostensibly, a very cheeky film. For one thing, the line between homage and parody was never so ambiguous as it is in Fistful. The Western genre’s Americanism is a subject of both adoration and triumphant irreverence: “You’ll pay for this, you bastard,” cries one of Juan’s victims, having been relieved of his clothes as well as his possessions, “I’m a citizen of the United Stated of America!” The bandit’s father wheezes indifferently: “To me you are just a naked son of a bitch.” The opening scene is surely a comical reference to the ant-torture that opens Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Steiger’s portrayal of the loudmouth Juan puts one in mind of Tuco (Eli Wallach) from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)—a deadly goof who, if he doesn’t quite have a heart of gold, at least has the stuff on the brain. Moreover, the oddball temperament of Morricone’s score ensures the viewer’s eyebrow is at least as frequently cocked as firebrand Juan’s pistols.

But it is with this mongrel makeup that Leone’s film gives the mind an insistent prod and the heartstrings quite the heave-ho. The flashback sequences, long-time favorite of the Spaghetti Western dons (and gorgeously complemented here by a Once Upon a Time in the West-style musical theme), attribute a cryptic backstory to the character of Sean. He is the man without a past familiar from any number of Westerns, certainly, although Leone is able to skilfully suggest obscure personal trauma without ever compromising the chummy accessibility necessary to sustain the character’s central position in a colorful adventure like this one.

It’s not all good-time quirkiness and candor, however. Ungainly charm aside, Fistful’s pacing goes belly-up several times, a problem possibly attributable to its playful brand of characterization—one that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to deficits in action or prolonged, single character scenes. Either way, the film feels at least a little disjointed and overdrawn. Nevertheless, one of Fistful’s grandest coups is the number of times Morricone’s score, like a character in itself, is able to shoulder the narrative momentum and push the film to its emotional peaks.

The most arresting of these relate to what is perhaps the film’s primary theme: betrayal. It seems modes of insecticide aren’t the only thing Leone picked up from Peckinpah: forms of betrayal (personal, political) are as central to A Fistful of Dynamite as they are to that director’s oeuvre. Finally, it is the compelling and nuanced exploration of this subject that makes Leone’s final Western, if not a better one than its much lauded predecessors, quite a different one—and certainly one worth watching.  3.5 / 5


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