Friday, March 25, 2011

TV Bites: A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari)

Clint Eastwood's Hush Puppies

Well, I survived the "overcrowded & overmarketed" edition of South by Southwest and it's time to get back to work. Though, for Chef du Cinema, it was a very productive shmoozefest. I've got some interesting things in talks for some fun projects - more to come on that. But, if you've been following me on Twitter, you'll know I met with Mike Etchart of Sound & Vision Magazine Radio and I did a live interview with them. But the most exciting news is that I got contacted by the Rachael Ray Show about possibly doing something with them. We'll see what happens, but either way it's all good and it means that Chef du Cinema is moving onwards and upwards. Maybe some day soon, I'll be able to take this on the road and - if you're not in Austin - have a class in your town!

Okay, so five years ago, my friends Tim & Karrie, who run the Alamo Drafthouse theaters, decided instead of doing one of their Rolling Roadshows (where they show movies at the locations where they were shot) in the US, they'd do one overseas. And so that is how I spent a week in Almeria, Spain during which over three consecutive nights we watched all three of the Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly) at the actual locations where they were shot. And it was one of the best vacations, I've ever had. I brought along my friend Neville from London, and we met so many people who have remained great friends ever since.

IMG_6682 IMG_6735

On the left is a scene from A Fistful of Dollars with Eastwood. On the right is Me posing in the same position. The location, 40 years later, is now the hotel we were staying at! Same building, same door, same water well, same mountains. But instead of a horse, there's our rent-a-car!

A Fistful of Dollars is available for FREE online viewing at Veoh, can be rented online or purchased at Amazon, and is rentable for home viewing from Netflix.


"A town with two bosses, hmmm... The Baxters over there. The Rojos there. And me right in the middle. That crazy bell ringer was right. There's money to be made in a place like this."

Sergio Leone dropped out of university and jumped into filmmaking at the age of 18, working as a production assistant on Vittorio De Sica's classic post-war film The Bicycle Thief (aka Bicycle Thieves). Soon he was working as an assistant director on both Italian and Italian-American co-productions, including William Wyler's classic Ben Hur. Then eventually, he began directing himself, first uncredited, then getting his first credit with not-so-classic The Colossus of Rhodes, starring American actor Rory Calhoun.

Then, in 1961, Leone went to see Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and he knew right away he wanted to turn it into a Western. After all, The Seven Samurai had already become the successful The Magnificent Seven. In fact, he initially titled his adaptation, The Magnificent Stranger. Leone, at first, went after the one American star he always dreamed of working with - Henry Fonda. But Fonda said no. So did Charles Bronson, James Coburn (all three would later work in other Leone films) and several other actors. Eventually, the script found its way to Clint Eastwood, who was co-starring on the television series, Rawhide.

"[M]y agent called me and asked if I'd be interested in going to Spain to do a very low-budget Western, an Italian/German/Spanish co-production. I laughed," Eastwood recalled. "I told him, 'For six years I've been doing a Western every week. Hell, no, I'm not interested in it, especially not a European Western. It would probably be a joke.' 'Well,' he said, 'do me a favor. I promised the Rome office that I'd get you to read the script.' So I read it, and about the tenth page I recognized it as a Western version of Yojimbo, the samurai film by Akira Kurosawa."

"The funny thing was," he continued, "that this buddy and I had seen it together, and at the time we were both impressed by what a good Western it would make—the way The Magnificent Seven was made from Seven Samurai. But we thought it wouldn't sell; it would be too rough." So Eastwood called his agent and said, "'OK, go ahead. I've really got nothing to lose on this deal, because if the picture turns out to be a bomb, it won't go anywhere....' Besides, it was a chance to go to Europe. I'd never been to Europe. So I signed on, even though it wasn't as much pay as I had made on TV."

And so it came to be that in the spring of 1964, Clint Eastwood went to Spain to make a Western. Spain? Yes. Although the productions were Italian, they were shot in and around Almeria, Spain, which looks remarkably like the American Southwest.

Now a lot of people think that A Fistful of Dollars was the first "Spaghetti Western," but in fact over 25 had been made over a few short years leading up to Leone's film and nobody - including the producers and distributors - had any notion that this film would make a dime. In fact, the reason why Leone and the other Italian members of the cast and crew took on English-sounding pseudonyms for the film credits (Leone became "Bob Roberts") was because distributors wanted nothing to do with yet another Italian-made Western film.

The script, as initially written was very wordy, and worse, had a kind of "strange Italian version of the Western dialect," Eastwood described it as. Once Eastwood was on-board, he and Leone worked not just on making the script less wordy and more enigmatic, but also shaping the character of the "Man with No Name" (which is technically wrong as he's referred to in the film as "Joe"). However, history has skewed both men's memory of how this all happened and who was responsible for what.

Leone has said it was after watching an episode of Rawhide - he was struck by Eastwood's performance on the show - and that set him to rethink his lead character. "Eastwood did not say a word [in the show]," Leone recalled, "but he was good at getting on a horse, and had a way of walking with a tired, resigned air.... I wanted to make him look more virile, to harden him, to 'age' him for the part - with that beard, that poncho which made him look broader, those cigars...."

In another interview, Leone was less kind to his star. "The truth is," he said, "that I needed a mask more than an actor, and Eastwood at that time had only two expressions: with or without a hat."

Eastwood, according to his recollection, claims the character he eventually played was more his idea. “A lot of it was taken from the frustration of doing Rawhide year in and year out, where I played sort of a conventional hero, nice guy type," he said. "I made the character more - antiheroic - just be more of a guy who was a gunman out of his own well-being, placed himself first, and didn’t get involved in other people’s problems unless it was to his benefit.... I felt that the less people knew about him, the better.”

"I wanted to play it with an economy of words and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement," he said in another interview. "It was just the kind of character I had envisioned for a long time - keep to the mystery and allude to what happened in the past.... I felt the less he said, the stronger he became, and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience."

And as for the wardrobe, Eastwood has stated that, too, was his idea. "I even picked out the costumes. I went into Mattson's, a sport shop up on Hollywood Boulevard here, and bought some black Levis and bleached them out, roughed them up. The boots, spurs and gun belts I had from Rawhide; the hat I got at a wardrobe place in Santa Monica. The little black cigars I bought in Beverly Hills."

I'm sure the truth lies somewhere in between as to who was more or less responsible for creating this iconic character. Perhaps some of this may also be due to the problems both men had communicating in the beginning. "[A]t first we couldn't converse much," Eastwood noted, "[Sergio] spoke absolutely no English, and my Italian was just ciao and arrive-derci, and that was about it."

Tonini Valeri, who also worked on the script (and later directed his own classic Spaghetti Westerns) remembered how on the set they had an English/Italian translator, “[t]he translator translated but Clint understood before the translation. He understood perfectly because of the movement of Sergio’s hands, of his face, and it was always very clear. There was no need to explain it in English.” It is interesting to note that Eastwood received an additional screen credit when the film was released, as a "Western Consultant," whatever that means.

The film was made for a very low budget and Leone often had to resort to, what we would call today, "guerilla filmmaking" techniques. Eastwood reminisced about one such incident....

"We were shooting in Almeria and [Leone] needed a tree - a hanging tree with a noose on it. He just wanted a tree with a noose on it as a symbol as I ride by... But he couldn’t get a tree. There was an old tree that was in somebody’s yard - it was dead, but it was in somebody’s yard... So [Leone] sends in a crew and they cut the tree down. The guy comes out the front yard and says ‘What are you doing cutting down the tree?’ And he says, ‘We’re from the highway department. There is a danger that this tree may fall on the road, so we’re taking it out.’ And the guy is like, ‘Okay.’ But that’s the kind of creativity [Leone] would use.”

With filming completed, Eastwood, returned to do another season of Rawhide and recalled: "I kept looking in the trades for news about the movie. One day I saw an item in Variety, quoting an Italian from Rome: 'Westerns have finally died out here.' And I said to myself, 'Wouldn't you know it?' But two weeks later, I read another article that said the big deal in Italy was that everybody was enthusiastic about making Westerns after the success of this fantastic new film, A Fistful of Dollars. That meant nothing to me, because the title we'd used during the shooting was Magnificent Stranger. Then about two days after that, there was another item from Rome, and it said, 'A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood, is going through the roof here.'" He was shocked and amazed.

Seeing both dollars flowing not in his direction and the fact that this was now the third film of his that was directly ripped off (besides The Magnificent Seven, Rashomon had been remade as the Paul Newman film The Outrage), Akira Kurosawa (actually his producer/distributor Toho Films) decided to file a lawsuit in Italy against Fistful's producers. Leone never denied that he took Yojimbo and made it a Western, but he stood by his belief that it wasn't necessary to get permission from Kurosawa as Yojimbo had two antecedents of its own - Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (many others have also made this point) as well as the Italian play A Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni. It was a nice try, but it didn't work as it really, truly is a pretty direct rip-off of Kurosawa's film (the only "official" remake of Yojimbo is Last Man Standing, which I would argue is also stealing a lot from Red Harvest. Also, I would be glad to make the case that Fresh is also a retelling of the same story, as well. And if that isn't enough, the 1967 Japanese noir film A Colt is My Passport, borrows both from Yojimbo & A Fistful of Dollars, bringing it full circle back to Japan). Anyways, the suit dragged on for three years and is oft claimed to have been the cause as to why A Fistful of Dollars, nor its two sequels, were not released in the United States until 1967. Toho eventually settled for $100,000 in cash, full distribution rights for Fistful for Japan, Taiwan, & Korea, and 15 percent of worldwide profits. No credit was apparently sought by nor awarded to Kurosawa or his writing partner Ryûzô Kikushima, which suggests this was more about money than recognition of authorship.

In the meantime, this legal wrangling didn't stop Leone from working. Eastwood returned to Spain to collaborate on two sequels: For a Few Dollars More in 1964, and then again in 1965 for The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. He was making big bucks, living in Carmel, driving a Ferrari, and having an affair with Catherine Deneuve. As 1967 began, Clint Eastwood was a celebrity/movie star every where in the world, except in the United States.

Now while United Artists, who were supposed to be distributing Fistful in the US, claimed that they were afraid of also being sued by Toho and wanted the lawsuit settled before they released the film (for even while the lawsuit was ongoing, the film - and its sequels - were being released and playing in theaters elsewhere around the world), it has also been suggested the film was considered too violent and unreleasable by the still active Hays Code (see other posts where I discuss the Hays Code) which deemed that Americans were too fragile to watch such movies and could easily become deranged killer-rapists by just a single viewing. 1967 was the last year of the Hays Code which was then replaced in 1968 by the MPAA Rating system which we still live under. But even in 1975, when A Fistful of Dollars was first shown on the ABC-TV's Sunday Night Movie, the network felt compelled to protect the apparent fragile minds of Americans and added an unsanctioned "prologue" which they shot to apparently give more of a moral justification for Eastwood's character's behavior. The prologue interestingly starred Harry Dean Stanton and was directed by Monte Hellman - who are not bad choices, but still the whole concept is really, really wrong.

When (in 1967) A Fistful of Dollars was finally released in the United States, the wagging tongues of the establishment critics were quick to pounce on it. Judith Crist called it “pretty awful... men and women [are] gouged, burned, beaten, stomped and shredded to death.” The Los Angeles Times noted: “[I]t was shot in Spain... pity it wasn’t buried there.” Yet despite the ruffled feathers, the film was a huge hit with audiences and was quickly followed by US releases of the two sequels. Even with the box office receipts as they were, Eastwood recalled he was still considered “just a TV actor,” by the studios. He was offered to join the cast of the old school Hollywood Western MacKenna’s Gold, but chose instead formed his own production company and found funding to make his own Americanized Spaghetti Western, Hang ‘Em High. And the rest, as they say, is history.


After World War II, as the 1950's kicked in, Europe was flooded with almost a decade's worth of American cinema. People, and especially young people, flocked to the theaters, gobbling up every genre of movie, both "A" and "B" picture alike. And while the post-war generation of French filmmakers became obsessed by the Film Noir and Gangster picture (see Chef du Cinema's coverage of Shoot the Piano Player), the Germans and Italians really took to the American Western. There are some who theorize that because many American Westerns take place post America's Civil War, and contained issues of life after war, especially having been on the losing side of a war, that this is part of what may have drawn them to connect to these films and eventually to reinvent them.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, Westerns, which were typically not big budget affairs, found a new home on the new technological entertainment marvel - television. Westerns came to dominate television programming for over a decade. Besides Rawhide, there was Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman, Have Gun, Will Travel, Bonanza, The Virginian, Wagon Train, The Big Valley, Maverick, The High Chaparral, and scores of others. At their height in 1959, there were 26 Westerns airing on prime-time television each week! The Hollywood film Western just couldn't compete with television for an audience and dwindled from the big screen.

But back in Europe, a television set was still monetarily a bit out of reach for most, and movies still reigned as king. Some American TV Westerns were repackaged and released in European theaters as feature films (often badly edited). The Germans had always been fond of Westerns, and German author Karl May was perhaps the most famous of all Europeans who wrote Westerns. Though May died while Hitler was still in his early 20's, he was once dubbed the "Cowboy Mentor of the Fuhrer," who in 1943 ordered his General Staff to read May's Western novels as a "morale-boosting exercise." In 1962, Constantin Films, a German production company, had a huge hit on their hands with Der Schatz im Silbersee (aka The Treasure of Silver Lake), starring American actor Lex Barker, which featured May's Western character Winnetou. This quickly led to a series of these Winnetou films. Sergio Leone once said, "[I]t was because of the success of the German 'Winnetou' series... that the Western began to interest Italian producers." And it was Constantin Films that helped fund A Fistful of Dollars less than two years later.

But back in Italy at the time, the northern filmmakers, like Fellini and Pasolini, were making sophisticated films for an international market, while down in southern Italy the low budget studios were churning out films featuring Hercules and Biblical "Sword & Sandal" pictures by the pound, including such absurdities as Maciste vs. Zorro (Maciste was a Hercules clone). Though Italian Westerns were made as early as 1951's Io Sono il Capataz through 1963's Gunfight at Red Sands (which starred American actor Richard Harrison, who was the one who suggested to Leone to check out Eastwood for the lead in Fistful, and featured a soundtrack by the great Ennio Morricone, who did all the Dollars Trilogy music), they weren't nearly as lucrative as the "Sword & Sandal" pictures. It wouldn't be until the incredible success of A Fistful of Dollars that the Italians turned their film factories into making Westerns with a vengeance. The cycle ended around 1978, with the best of the "twilight era" Spaghetti Westerns considered to be 1976's Keoma, starring Franco Nero, who is apparently returning to the screen in a new Western directed by Quentin Tarantino.

And just to clear this up... "[t]he term 'Spaghetti Western' was first coined by American critics of the Italian Western, and was intended as a pejorative; back home in Italy, the films came to be known - rather defensively - as 'Macaroni Westerns,'" notes film historian Christopher Frayling. "I prefer to use 'Spaghetti Western' in a descriptive sense (for movies made in Italy and Spain) - and also a term of endearment." He wrote that the name fits better than any other and is never now used as a racist or derogative term.

For more information on Spaghetti Westerns, I highly recommend visiting my buddy Sebastian's exhaustive Spaghetti Western Database website.


In 1958 Hush Puppies created the world's first casual shoe, signaling the beginning of today's relaxed style. By utilizing supple suede in combination with lightweight crepe soles, Hush Puppies created a soft, breathable and very comfortable shoe—an innovation that would ultimately change the kind of shoes we wear. SCREEEEEEECCCHHHH!!!!!!!!! Oops... Wrong hush puppies. Sorry.

Nobody really knows how hush puppies came to be called hush puppies. Nobody really knows where they came from exactly. But here are some theories....

Theory #1: Florida. Hunters or fishermen would bring the fried corn meal fritters with them and give them to their dogs to keep quiet whilst they hunted or fished for their catch.

Theory #2: An African-American cook either in Atlanta or New Orleans would toss them to some small puppies at her slave master's home to keep them quiet.

Theory #3: After the Civil War, some folks in the South were so poor they resorted to eating salamanders, who were also known as "water-puppies." They would dip them in a corn meal batter and eat them. Because they didn't want their neighbors to know they were eating lizards, they called them hush puppies, because you had to be "hushed" about eating them.

Theory #4: During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers would toss the fried corn meal at their dogs to keep quiet when there were Union soldiers nearby.

I don't have a dog so I can't tell you if feeding a hush puppy to a dog will stop it from barking. If you do, and wish to try this, please let me know if it works. As always, cook, watch, eat, and enjoy....

Clint Eastwood's Hush Puppies
adapted from The Cookbook of the Stars, edited by The Motion Picture Mothers
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

makes about 25-30 puppies

1/2 cup AP flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 cups corn meal
3/4 cup milk
canola oil, for deep-frying (or see note)

Mix dry ingredients and add onion. Combine eggs and milk, beat, and add dry ingredients. (Note: Mr. Eastwood suggests making them around a teaspoon in size, I found about a heaping tablespoon to work better.)

Deep-fry in hot oil. (Note: Mr. Eastwood suggests pairing this with fried fish and using the same oil you fried the fish in. This is a good idea.) Cook until golden brown. Drain oil on paper.

"Who Can Stand 32,580 Seconds of Clint Eastwood," Life Magazine July 23, 1971
"Clint Eastwood, The Interview," Playboy, February 1974
Once Upon a Time in Italy, interview with Spaghetti Western historian Christopher Frayling @ NPR
A Few Weeks in Spain: Clint Eastwood on Fistful of Dollars, @ YouTube
For a Few Euros More, Spaghetti Western Documentary @ YouTube
The Spaghetti Western Database
A Fistful of (Sergio) Leone Page
10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western, by Alex Cox (FREE BOOK PDF download)

A Fistful of Dollars DVD
The Clint Eastwood Star Collection (Fistful of Dollars/For A Few Dollars More/The Good, The Bad and The Ugly/Hang 'em High) DVD
A Fistful of Dollars OST CD
The Spaghetti West, An IFC Original Documentary DVD
Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, by Christopher Frayling
Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone, by Christopher Frayling
Clint Eastwood, by Stuart M. Kaminsky
American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, by Marc Eliot
Clint Eastwood: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers Series)
Clint: The Life and Legend, by Patrick McGilligan

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