Entry from July 25, 2007

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called The American Movie Hero (go to www.americanmoviehero.com) at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The sixth film in the series, Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood, screened on Tuesday, July 24th. Before showing the film, I spoke as follows:

According to Dave Gelly’s new biography of him, it was the jazz saxophonist Lester Young who was the first to use the word “cool,” probably sometime back in the 1930s, as a general term of approval. He was also supposedly the first to use “bread” as a slang term for money. Among his other qualities, Young was so hypersensitive, said Billie Holiday, that “you could hurt his feelings in two seconds.” He died in 1959 at the age of 50 of alcoholism and malnutrition — which suggests that he not only invented the idea of cool but that he was, himself, cool. For the essence of cool is the secret suffering that produces dangerous or self-destructive behavior. That’s what all that smoking and drinking that we noticed last week in The Big Sleep turns out to have been about — as was the drug-taking that, along with the invention of “cool” and the exquisite suffering of the blues, was so much a part of the world of jazz musicians.

When we left Humphrey Bogart at the end of The Big Sleep, it was in the happiness of fulfilled romantic love, both on screen and in real life, with a gloriously sexy Lauren Bacall. I hope you enjoyed it, because it’s the last time we’ll ever see that happening to a cool hero. And it only happened there because in the 1940s the happy ending slapped onto Raymond Chandler’s much more gloomy novel was thought to be more commercial. Generally, cool heroes don’t have a love of their own — though some of them have a lot of sex — because it is of their very essence to be isolated. They are not only without women but without families too. The hero played by Clint Eastwood in tonight’s film, A Fistful of Dollars, became known as “The Man With No Name” — even though he is called “Joe” in the movie — as a way of stressing this point about him. Without a name, he not only doesn’t have a family, he hasn’t even got a history of family.

At two points in the movie we get a hint about his past. When he is taken to his room in the Rojo compound and told that he should feel at home there, Joe replies, “Well, I never found home that great.” Then, when he performs the single act of generosity or chivalry which, here as elsewhere, makes the cool hero a hero, he is asked by the recipient why he is doing it. “Because,” he says, “I knew someone like you once, and there was no one there to help.” Such hints are all that is needed to tell us that, like other cool heroes, Joe is damaged goods. Something in his past — usually something that, as here, he doesn’t talk about — has hurt him, and he has never been the same since. The hurt is what explains his exile from normal human contacts, including families, friends, communities. He’s not from any place, or from any people, and he wanders the earth alone, fighting only for himself or for whomever will pay him.

His being without a name or a family, his brooding isolation caused by nameless past injuries, his proficiency as a fighter (and you’ve got to be pretty proficient when you’re fighting all alone) his cleverness in playing off one side against the other while retaining his own autonomy, his attractiveness to women — all of these things remind us that, like the cartoon hero who is his lineal descendent, the cool hero is essentially an adolescent fantasy. Here is the very image of what the teenaged boy likes to imagine himself as being — someone who, in addition to all those glorious qualities aforementioned, has broken free of the ever more burdensome ties of home and family that oppress him and who finds that he can be fantastically successful on his own.

Unlike the cartoon hero, the cool hero is not — or not usually — just a fantasy. He also has a distinguished pedigree, as these things go, having his origins in the lonely, damaged heroes invented by Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s. Hemingway had been exploiting a particular cultural moment, which was the big let-down that came with the so-called “lost generation” in the aftermath of the First World War. The same was true of movies like A Fistful of Dollars in the 1960s — movies that appealed to the huge number of baby-boomers who, like me, were just coming to adulthood at the time. Neither were distinctively American phenomena — the post-war disillusionment was actually much more European — yet in both cases the heroes’ American-ness was integral to them and to their heroism. That makes it particularly interesting that Clint Eastwood’s Joe, perhaps the most influential and imitated hero of the last 40 years, started life as the take not of one but of two foreigners on the subject of American heroism. Their version of the American hero is the one that Americans themselves have since adopted as their own, and it makes me wonder if being — to this extent, at least — foreign is part of what makes the cool hero cool.

The first of the two foreigners is of course the Italian director, Sergio Leone. In the 1960s, Leone was one of a number of foreign directors who were making what were referred to in America at the time, with a certain degree of contempt, as “spaghetti Westerns.” These were attempts to exploit the worldwide popularity of the American Western but for a mainly European market. Most of them were never seen in the U.S. Even A Fistful of Dollars, which was the breakthrough spaghetti Western, was made in 1964 but not seen here until 1967. Filmed in Spain on a low budget and with a largely unknown cast, it was the first of three films Leone made — the other two were For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — which starred Mr Eastwood, hitherto a TV-actor in America, and they made him the star he has been ever since. The rest of the cast were all foreigners, mainly continental Europeans — Germans, Austrians, Italians, and Spaniards — and their dialogue had to be dubbed into English, which is one of the things that gives the movie a rather cheesy look. Clint Eastwood’s is the only mouth that’s moving in sync with the words we hear him saying.

Leone adapted his film from the work of another foreigner, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) had come out in 1961. Leone became the victim of his own success when Kurosawa sued him for breach of copyright and won a judgment entitling him to 15 per cent of the worldwide gross of Fistful of Dollars and exclusive distribution rights to the movie in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Thus, he later claimed to have made more money out of it than he did from Yojimbo itself. You’ll soon see why. Fistful of Dollars has something of that international look that Hollywood has since learned to cultivate in order the better to sell its own products worldwide. We see in it the same emphasis on scenery and action — if not yet on expensive special effects — the same sort of generic and unrealistic villainy and heroism, the same de-emphasis on dialogue and the avoidance of such culturally exclusive elements as patriotism that are now to be seen in almost every American “action” movie.

But, along with its plot, it got its cool hero from Kurosawa. As those who have seen what is probably his most famous film, Rashomon, will know, Kurosawa loved above all things the feeling of detachment from and superiority to his material that his expertly wielded camera gave him, and he regularly imparted the same quality to his cinematic heroes. The most famous of these was Toshiro Mifune, who stars in Yojimbo and who was to Kurosowa what John Wayne was to John Ford — that is, an inspiration as well as a favorite leading man. He had the same kind of screen charisma too. In Yojimbo, as in other films, he plays a man caught in the middle between two warring factions. But in Yojimbo, unlike The Seven Samurai — which had been re-made the year before it in America as The Magnificent Seven — both sides were equally loathsome and his position in the middle is one that he has chosen as being financially advantageous to himself. He is an out-of-work samurai who hires out his services to the highest bidder and coolly moves from one side to the other as his pecuniary advantage dictates.

The same situation obtains in A Fistful of Dollars. It was to become typical of the cool hero who, thus isolated and detached from the battles he fights, as from those on whose behalf he fights them, begins to look ever more like the cartoon or super-hero he ultimately gives rise to. In the climactic scene of the movie we are seeing tonight, Clint Eastwood’s Joe gratuitously and rather hilariously, to our eyes, pretends to be the superhero that his super-fast gunplay has already suggested that he should be seen as, and renders himself immune to the bullets of his nemesis, Ramón Rojo, played by Gian Maria Volonte. At the same time, and like other cool heroes, he is a man whose human weaknesses are on display. As I mentioned last week, he gets badly beaten up and in much more picturesque fashion than Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. His bloody, battered and swollen face is the sign of the victim-status already suggested by his loneliness and disgust with human corruption and depravity, and it becomes a reason to pity as well as admire him.

Hemingway, who started it all, once said an interesting thing. Maybe even more than once. But the thing I’m thinking about was in a letter to Scott Fitzgerald about bull-fighting. He said that what the matador had to have wasn’t just guts. Guts, he wrote, “never made money for anybody except violin manufacturers.” No, what the matador needed was “grace under pressure.” A few years later, Dorothy Parker did a profile of Hemingway for The New Yorker in which she claimed he had said that courage itself was “grace under pressure” — adding in her hero-worshipping way that his own life exemplified the same quality. Either way, there is more than a suggestion in this now-famous dictum of the transformation of a moral quality into an aesthetic one. The grace that Hemingway admired in the bull-fighters could not be separated from the gratuitousness, the pointlessness of their courage. It was courage for courage’s sake which, like art for art’s sake, takes us into the realm of the wholly aesthetic. Courage that was for use seemed a bit vulgar to such a point of view — while making money out of it apparently did not.

That’s the point at which we have arrived, I think, in A Fistful of Dollars. What we admire in the Eastwoodian hero is a kind of bull-fighter’s grace. The virtuous hero may have been graceful too, as both Gary Cooper and John Wayne were, but what we admired about him was an act of will. He fought when he could have got away to safety with no one thinking the worse of him for it; he kept going when he could have quit. Along with any kind of moral vision, will is what’s been taken out of the equation in the spaghetti Westerns, as in so many of the movies that have been influenced by them since. This new kind of heroes fights because it is their nature to fight. It’s their job, and they’re good at it. We admire them, just as we admire bull-fighters, because they are so good at it. In doing so, however, we take ourselves out of the picture.

That, remember, is what we also noticed last week about Bogart’s Philip Marlowe. He seems to be able to figure out what is going on in The Big Sleep, even though we can’t — even though Raymond Chandler himself couldn’t. You’ve got to admire brains like that. But you can’t do more than admire them. You can’t will yourself to be smart. So if you want to be like Bogart, all you can copy is his attitude. The same is true again in this film. Clint Eastwood’s skill with a .45 is like Bogart’s brains or a bullfighter’s grace: something magnificent that repels imitation. We might hope to emulate the bravery or the doggedness of a Cooper or a Wayne, but we can’t hope to emulate the kind of reflexes that can kill four men before the last one can get his gun out of his holster, as Clint Eastwood does here. Like Kurosawa, we have become mere observers, and we’re meant to like it like that. On the whole, we have liked it like that for the last 40 years. I hope this movie will help explain why.


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