A cigarillo smoking stranger (Eastwood) rides into the Mexican border town of San Miguel, a town in which rival factions are battling for control: there are those employed by Sheriff John Baxter, who sell whiskey and guns to the Indians, and those led by Ramon Rojo. As he rides into town, the Man With No Name (occasionally referred to as Joe) is taunted by the Baxters, who shoot at his mule's feet. Upon discovering the status quo in the town from an innkeeper - and being warned to leave town as soon as possible - the stranger rides over to the Rojos and offers his services. He then takes revenge on the four men who harassed him, gunning them down in the street, and demonstrating his prowess.
Hired by the Rojos - who want him fighting for them rather than against - the stranger witnesses an ambush by the Rojos, in which they steal gold from a band of soldiers. The stranger sets up a pair of corpses to look alive, and sets both factions out after them - the Baxters to have them as witnesses, the Rojos to prevent this. Meanwhile he searches the Rojos' house for the gold, but is sprung by Marisol, a beautiful woman whom Rojo is holding prisoner. He hands her over to the Baxters, who exchange her for one of their own captured by the Rojos. When some of the Rojos go out of town, the stranger goes to the house where Marisol and her family are being held and kills her captors, setting them free; but when he returns, he is caught by Ramon, who has him beaten up severely.
The stranger escapes, helped out of town in a coffin by the undertaker, witnessing on the way the massacre of the Baxters on suspicion of harboring him. He is nurtured back to health in a disused mine by the innkeeper; but when the innkeeper is captured and tortured by Ramon he returns to get his revenge. He strolls into town, wearing a makeshift 'bulletproof vest' made from an iron plate. Rojo, as always, aims for his heart; distracted by the stranger's failure to die, he is gunned down by him. Leaving this trail of destruction behind him, the stranger rides out of town.
Listen as Clint Eastwood talks candidly about his thoughts on this film and why he decided to do it, as well as his contributions to the movie.
A Fistful of Dollars marked a change in the way western heroes were portrayed. They were no longer the Gary Cooper sheriff type who would never draw first: the Man With No Name was a man of dubious morals, who emerges as the hero more by comparison with the other characters than by his own merits. This change of attitude gave the western a new lease of life in the changing social climate of the sixties.
The film stands out for various reasons: there is the minimum of dialogue, the settings are bleak, the violence is intense. Added to this there is the visual flair of Sergio Leone, with his characteristic close-ups and unexpected camera angles, and the harsh, often discordant music by Ennio Morricone which gives such great atmosphere to the film. Although criticized by many reviewers, the American public loved it, and Clint Eastwood went overnight (when the film was released in the US in 1967) from being a supporting actor in a TV show to being a star in his own right.
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