A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
sergio leone, 1964
novelization by frank chandler
~ by john cribbs ~
Technically, today's 50th anniversary of A Fistful of Dollars is not an American celebration. Due to protracted legal issues over Sergio Leone's liberal appropriation of plots 'n shots from Yojimbo, the pioneering spaghetti western wouldn't be ushered into western theaters until early 1967. But 50 years ago the Man With No Name fired up Italian screens for the first time and his violent pistol opera swiftly become the country's highest grossing film to date, thus assuring its unshaven anti-hero's massive crossover success in the states and iconic status in the annals of action cinema. Short of actually going out and shooting some Italian character actors, what better way to mark this occasion than to talk a little about the movie's novelization, which also didn't debut in America (it was published by Tandem, Universal Publishing's U.K. subsidiary) and also isn't 50 years old (it didn't materialize until 1972).
Obviously, the biggest challenge of shoehorning this or any Sergio Leone film into a cash-in novelization that dropped eight years after the movie's debut is the inescapable lack of Sergio Leone. And of all five of his westerns, A Fistful of Dollars doesn't offer much story to work with - for all its excessive shootouts, epic scope and piercing Morricone score, the narrative itself couldn't be more economical. The small cast and centralized location are the antithesis of a monumental John Ford production. The simplicity of the hero's motivation is a pale shade of the psychological complexity built into a Mann or a Boetticher protagonist. Although it's not without its dark and funny moments, Leone steered clear of Hawks' common sojourns into comedic territory, the moral grey areas of de Toth and Peckinpah's visceral portraits of men who've outlived their time in the world (at least until Once Upon a Time in the West).
Deliberately stripped down to the sparsest possible structure, the Dollar trilogy - particularly the first one - rely less on storytelling techniques than cinematic design: extreme close-ups, POV shots and rapid editing to heighten the tension of deadly stand-offs, jarring music cues and sound effects that echo up and down the hills of Almería (er, San Miguel), characters introduced through actions rather than dialogue. An introductory shot of Clint Eastwood's stranger riding into town under a tall leafless tree with jutting branches from which hang an ominous noose tells you everything about the town you need to know: its desperate poverty, the omnipresent threat from any one of its various criminal chapters, that the stranger has wandered into a situation not as easily manipulated as he might expect. But as oblivious as he might seem to death hanging directly above him, the stranger riding tall and stoically in his saddle immediately establishes his strategy to come as close to the danger as possible without letting his neck slip into the noose. All this from one shot, before a word of dialogue has been spoken.
This kind of very visual storytelling presents an obvious challenge to British writer Terry Harknett, writing under the name Frank Chandler (more American sounding I guess?) Even less enviable a task is having to transform Clint Eastwood's detached gunslinger into an internalized character: how many different ways can Harknett describe the stranger's "impassive expression" and "steady gaze?" It's the equivalent of a sketch artist sitting on the sidelines as the gunslinger saunters into town: Eastwood's visage is better seen than transcribed. In Red Harvest, the novel Kurosawa may or may not have based Yojimbo on, Dashiell Hammett avoided having to constantly explain what his similarly unnamed protagonist was thinking by keeping the narrative in first person, letting the enigmatic detective report on events happening around him rather than glancing omnipotently inward. Of course, that approach to the Man With No Name wouldn't have worked - his mysterious aura is based on his impenetrable stoicism.* There's no question of motivation, he comes out and alludes to his intention to play the town's two warring gangs against each other fairly early in the film, and it's easy to tell which characters he despises (the ones who get the cold glare) and those he despises less (the ones who get the sedate glare).
But at the same time, he's the definition of an anti-hero: manipulative, greedy, an inciter of violence and unrest, constantly on the edge of losing the audience's sympathy. His two selflessly noble acts in the story could easily be written off as strategy (freeing Marisol and reuniting her with the husband and son indirectly results in the Rojos finishing off the Baxters) and revenge (returning to save Silvanito from being tortured to death could be seen as incidental - he was going to have it out with Ramon anyway). Betraying even a slight trace of sentimentality in this ruthless gringo would shatter the character's unique ambiguity, an indiscretion more likely to be found in a printed word adventure than in the majestic silence of a Sergio Leone emprise.
Immediately addressing these very concerns, Harknett seems to open his book with a sort of mission statment: "The tall stranger rode towards the town of San Miguel with an expression as blank as his past." Wisely, his stranger will be as much an empty canvas as the one on screen. Typically, it's a good thing when novelizers add interesting backstory and character information you wouldn't find in a film, the more out-there the better (see: Michael Myers' beginnings as lovestruck, disfigured Druid teen Enda in the Halloween novelization). But not when it comes to the Man With No Name. Harknett knows to keep him cryptic, not even allowing undertaker Piripero to refer to him as "Joe" as he does in the film. That's also the name used to bill Eastwood in the credits, so it's possible that Harknett would have used it throughout the book had his novelization been written directly after the film's initial release, i.e. "Joe rode towards the town of San Miguel with an expression as blank as the drunken fugue he suffered that one time he partied too hard down in Acapulco with his pals Pepe and Diego." But since it was four years after The Good the Bad and the Ugly dropped in the U.S., the novelization is clearly informed by the established iconography of the Eastwood character over the three Dollars movies (I think it may have even been published after the novelizations of 'Few Dollars More and The G B & U); the leisure of retrospect allows Harknett to stay true to the character we all know and love.
With that concern out of the way the next question is, how often would Harknett actually have to refer to the character as "the Man With No Name?" Obviously nobody ever calls him that in the movie (only Max Rockatansky** ever received that label via narration, even though he had a name), but by the time the entire trilogy had been released it was the character's official application (with Manco, Blondie and "The Good" as convenient/frustrating nicknames). And since he witnesses every event, Harknett has to refer to him as something other than "the guy." So the writer ends up alternating between "the stranger" and "the Man With No Name," sometimes all caps sometimes not, ending the opening chapter with "...death was a constant companion to the Man With No Name" (sometimes he throws in "the tall man," but not often enough to confuse this with the Phantasm novelization). It gets to be pretty silly having Harknett call him that throughout the book, but I honestly can't think of an alternative. He couldn't keep calling him "the stranger," I mean what if a sequence like this came up:
The stranger lit a cigar and rested his back against the wall of the adobe. He looked up to see a man he'd never met before walking towards him. The stranger drew his gun and fired.
Now, who was it drew his gun and fired? The stranger or THE stranger? Why were you so surprised that you never saw the stranger - did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?? Point is, Harknett had to change it up for stylistic as well as clarifying reasons and I'd be curious to see if Frank Millard found a better solution in his novelizations of the other two movies (not to mention the spin-off novels, most of them written by Millard, my favorite titles of which are Blood for a Dirty Dollar and The Devil's Dollar Sign). In any case, Harknett gets most of the specific details of the stranger out of the way quickly, introducing him as a man of "about 35" with eyes "icy as water from a mountain stream." He includes the saddled corpse that passes the stranger on the way out of town, but for some reason replaces the eerily ambiguous "ADIOS AMIGO!" with the much more specific, "IT IS NOT SAFE TO WANDER OUTSIDE YOUR OWN AREA" and doesn't mention the stranger tilting his hat in a small gesture of respect that Leone added. Like Leone, Harknett launches directly into the restorative stage of the escape from the Rojos instead of wasting time having the stranger admonish himself for slipping up and letting the bad guys get the upper hand or building himself back up mentally as well as physically. Indeed, Harknett doesn't soften the hardened resolve of the warrior he describes as "a man in the most complete and fullest sense of the word" for a second.
Well, maybe just a little. One aspect of the character Harknett unexpectedly touches on is the M.W.N.N.'s libido. In a kind of creepy moment straight out of a modern Superman or Batman movie, the stranger pauses on his way out after passing information to Mr. and Mrs. Baxter when he hears the couple knocking boots through the wall. Harknett has his hero become "angry at the stirring he felt in his own loins" before reminding himself that, "A man with a woman on his mind was never fully in command of any situation." At first this seems like trashy writing, like some of Peter Benchley's descriptions of domestic life at the Brady house in Jaws, but Harknett doesn't hark on it and it's actually interesting - in the movie you don't think of him as The Man With No Nookie. It may be that audiences tend to combine Clint's No-Named strangers as a single entity and, thanks to the uncomfortable first scene of High Plains Drifter, assume that if he wants some he'll get some. Harknett offers a nobler, almost priest-like (see: Pale Rider) discipline in the gunfighter's abstinence, and even relates a moment where M.W.N.N. sees Marisol running to her son with a maternal glint in her eyes: "He thought he had never seen a woman more beautiful." In another not-overtly attempt to humanize the gunfighter a little, Harknett has him singing bawdily when he pretends to get drunk while partying with the Rojos. I'm sure Clint wouldn't have minded the opportunity to showcase his pipes, and I can't help to think that, had this spectacle made it into the film, maybe Paint Your Wagon never would have happened.
The stranger isn't the only one to get humanized in the novelization. Without many side characters to really delve into (do we really need to learn more about life as a self-made private business owner for ol' Silvanito, for instance?), Harknett finds ways to flesh out some of the film's bullet fodder. Besides the sex life of Mr. & Mrs. Baxter, he gets into amusing little sides about how boring it must be for the lesser members of the Rojos gang to be on guard duty and devotes more time to the Baxter family's anxiety as they await the alleged "truce" get-together at their enemy's home. He eventually jumps into the perspective of minor thugs like Paquito, the wounded minion who almost succeeds in shooting the stranger in the back after being fatally wounded. Harknett introduces Paquito earlier in the book and, in his final stand, gets into his head as he struggles to raise his revolver and avenge his own death against the oblivious gunman who's just mowed down all his friends. Harknett adds bumbling pair Paco and Martin, two minor Rojos who discover the stranger's recuperation cave only to get lit up by his guns prior to the final showdown. He also does a better job than Leone at distinguishing the non-Ramon Rojos brothers, especially Esteban Rojo, a sniveling toadie the stranger steps all over in more than one scene. In the book we learn how the gang mentality bolsters his confidence as a sadistic bully, that he's "now the bravest man in the group" once all the Baxters have been cut down by Ramon (in the movie, I think Esteban is the one who actually executes the grieving Consuelo Baxter - it's good choice by Harknett to have Ramon do it, adding the line "I hate shrieking women," a reflection of his gross misogyny). Alternatively, Harknett's Ramon suffers in comparison to his screen counterpart. "Deadly handsome, but in a cruel, cold way" doesn't even begin to suggest the sweaty intensity of Gian Maria Volonté.
Volonté's acting style, despite reportedly conflicting with Leone's direction, is part of what makes the movie bigger than its meager, cliché-ridden story - an epic sense of powerful gods firing lightning at each other atop Mt. Olympus rather than a fistful of filthy assassins slinging bullets back and forth in some backwater town in Italy (er, Mexico). Robbed of such visual dynamite, Harknett often seeks a slighter pictorial style of writing rather than reach for a grandiloquence that simply can't be eloquently achieved outside a Sergio Leone lens. Whether intentional or not (probably not), the more understated approach ends up evoking Kurosawa's original film: when Harknett has the Man With No Name appear at the end of the dusty road in time for the final draw, I was reminded more of Sanjuro confronting the Ushitora gang than the stranger striding resolutely to face the Rojos. Harknett notes the dead bodies left to rot on the street, the windows clattering shut as the stranger moves past them, images that recall Sanjuro's obstinance in an environment where life has become absolutely worthless. There's a sense of danger in Leone's film, but he substitutes a dog strolling about with a hand in its mouth with a more conventional dead body: imminent danger rather than an implied plague of casual savagery. Sanjuro's swordsman, and Harknett's Man With No Name, share a vulnerability in his setting that Eastwood/Leone's stranger, with his indomitable poise, never really does. It's no wonder that Harknett detailing Ramon's futile rifle shots into the stranger's heart is more suspenseful than the famous scene in Leone's movie, where the gunslinger's attitude is never far from his unflappable entrance into town under the shadow of the noose. Leone's heroes are carved from legend, Kurosawa's are more human, and the benefit of Harknett being divorced from the magnificence of the director's scale is that for once the reader can focus on the Man With No Name's paltriness, whether his non-name is capitalized or not. Harknett captures the stranger's impenetrability but also his humanity.
Like Kurosawa, Harknett shines in the quieter moments, detailing the stranger's exodus from Rojo captivity in a weakened and bloodied state, even going so far as to describe the intense pain in his hands as he slides down the barrel chute. Yet he doesn't skimp on Leone-sized action either, referring at one point to the Gatling gun that takes out an entire calvary: "The four barrels swung, continuing to belch lead and smoke...not until every one of the brown uniformed figures was spread on the ground in twisted attitudes of death did the terrifying gun cease its lethal chatter." With this kind of colorful description, it's no wonder Harknett would go on to write what his publisher touted as "The Most Violent Westerns In Print!" Apparently encouraged by the reception of his Dollars novelization (along with novelizations of westerns A Town Called Bastard, Hannie Caulder and Red Sun, all written under the name William Terry), later that same year Harknett produced the first in a series of 113 books under the name George G. Gilman (more American??) Released at an average of six titles a year for almost twenty years (Harknett once claimed it took him about 11 days to start and complete one of his pulp westerns), they featured anti-hero "Edge" and/or sympathetic outlaw Adam Steele, both clearly inspired by Clint Eastwood's morally opaque gunman. I've not read one of the 113 books, but based on his smart if not particularly groundbreaking take on the first of the Dollars movies I don't doubt they're at least mildly diverting fluff. It's one of the better novelizations of an American western written by a British author, based on a movie by an Italian director, based on a movie by a Japanese director.
One scene some folks might expect to appear in the novelization is the Harry Dean Stanton prologue. Often erroneously thought of as an outtake, this ridiculous footage of Stanton speaking to a short, fat body double dressed in Eastwood's poncho and using a cigar to cover his face like Ed Wood's chiropractor with the cape in Plan 9 From Outer Space, was actually shot by Monte Hellman for the film's American television debut circa 1977 (thankfully, five years after the novelization was published). The idea was that Stanton's sherriff lets the gunslinger out of jail so that he can go clean up San Miguel; apparently, the fat cats at ABC felt there needed to be more justification for the Man With No Name to saunter into town and shoot all those people. Stanton doesn't introduce himself, but I'm pretty sure his character's name is Sherriff Snuff Maximus.
(Also, when the stranger accepts his first payment from the Rojos it's written that he "picked up the fistful of dollars." Just in case anyone was wondering which palm-sized stack of bills the title was specifically referring to.)
~ 2014 ~
* So Harknett can't go the John D.F. Black route and write in a Man With No Name stream-of-consciousness: "Damn, second shot to the chest hurt like a bitch...go on Ramon, fire another one off you sad sack...standing there like a cat just raped a dog, guilty..."
** Did you know Mad Max's son is named Sprog? I know it's an Australian term for "child," but it sounds like some ScyFy network movie about a sponge-frog hybrid. I kind of feel less sad about his horrible murder now that I know his name is "Sprog."