There's a stranger (Clint Eastwood) riding into town, some call him Joe but to most he is the man with no name. He stops at a well to take a drink, and when he does he notices a child making his way across the street and climbing through a window. Shortly afterwards, there is a commotion and the crying child is sent fleeing the building in a hail of bullets aimed at his feet, into the arms of his father who is duly beaten up by the gunman. The stranger cottons on that all is not right, and as he rides his mule further into the town, he is accosted by a group of bandits who live there: they shoot at his mule, laughing, and not realising the mistake they are making...
While in America the Western of the nineteen-sixties was wondering what to do with itself, and more likely to be successful on television than provide the blockbusting entertainment of old, in Europe it was as popular as it ever was, so much so that they made their own efforts in the field to keep up with demand. There had, in Italy for example, been a number of these made but they were not distributed outside of their native territories, yet all that changed when Sergio Leone crafted a Western that was judged good enough to be shown elsewhere, as in such places as the United States where its star Clint Eastwood hailed from.
And the rest, as they say, was cult movie history. Soon all sorts of European imports, often Westerns, were being shown outwith their nations of origin, although for A Fistful of Dollars, that groundbreaking work, this was not the case until three years after shooting had actually wrapped. In the meantime, Eastwood and Leone had teamed up twice more, and created what were judged to be even greater works, with their careers never looking back as far as their success went. Not bad for a tiny budget flick starring a clean cut TV cowboy (Eastwood had made his name on Rawhide) and essentially ripped off from a far more respectable source, the Akira Kurosawa samurai movie Yojimbo; if anything this was be far more lucrative than the Japanese effort would ever be.
The plot Leone and his team lifted was in turn drawn from a Dashiell Hammett novel which would be filmed by Walter Hill three decades later, and placed its stranger, the now iconic character Eastwood inhabited, in the middle of two warring outlaw factions who control everything in the vicinity. But they have not considered what would happen if someone even less moral than they are, yet somehow in an ironic fashion more upstanding than they will ever be, could destroy them thanks to far more cunning than any of the bandits could ever muster. In truth Leone doesn't seem to quite have complete control over his story, as often it's murkily presented, but what we watching do have is the figure of Eastwood who we know is in the right.
We always end up one step behind the stranger, leading us to continually be wondering what is going on in his head as he schemes and brings his plans to fruition, though not without mishap. All the elements that would be familiar from countless imitators were here as if set in tablets of stone: the brutal violence, the cruel though somehow lighthearted humour and wit, the hero who is in as much danger of being beaten up as the bad guys are, those sunbaked plains and brutal mindsets, they took their cue from A Fistful of Dollars. There are good laughs to be garnered in this as well as sequences of considerable tension, as when the stranger drags himself with whatever strength he has remaining to escape his doom and ensure he succeeds at the same time. Gian Maria Volontè makes a memorable showing as one of the chief bad guys, leading to a classic gun duel for the ending, but it was Eastwood who was obviously the star in the making. And the music by Ennio Morricone didn't hurt either.