This is part two of a series looking at the films inspired by Dashiell Hammet’s RED HARVEST novel. This month we take a look at Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and Walter Hill’s LAST MAN STANDING. For part one, click here!


Shortly after YOJIMBO’s release in 1961, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone set out to make his own vision of Kurosawa’s samurai tale. Film historian Stephen Price explains that Leone loved Kurosawa’s film and wanted to pay homage to it. At a post-screening Q&A of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Price commented:

“[Leone was] very struck by the Western parallels in YOJIMBO, and adapted that to a European framework. But it’s not the Western by way of Hollywood, it’s the Western by way of Japan, and then filtered through Leone’s perception of America that had come to him in the late ’40s, with the Occupation and the war.”

It’s that “filter” that makes FISTFUL such an interesting study in adaptation. Kurosawa uprooted Hammett’s quintessentially American story of cops and gangsters to Japan.  Leone then brings Hammett’s story back to America but during the Old West.

Thirty years later, director Walter Hill created the closest adaptation of “Red Harvest” with LAST MAN STANDING. In both of these films, the anti-hero archetype continues to evolve to meet the film trends at that time.

The Man With No Name

Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS owes a lot to Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO. In the video above, you can unquestionably see direct shots and dialogue repurposed from one film to the other.

“…the fact that there’s no backstory surrounding the character of Sanjuro, who is the first Man with No Name, it’s a nonsense name. It’s a character familiar to American audiences from the Western; we watch a film like Shane, the character there has no backstory. So, when you do that, you can create a mythic aura around a character, and that can be very enjoyable to watch onscreen.”

What Price gets wrong, however, is where the lack of a name for this heroic figure came from. Hammett created the anonymous protagonist by naming the Op…well…The Continental Op. Price observation of the “blank slate” nature of these protagonists is spot on.

Perhaps they are so popular because they allow the audience to project their vision of heroism onto them. Their monikers give insight into the characters themselves. In the case of The Man With No Name, his title suggests a folk hero, a figure cloaked in mystery.

With that mystery intact, this is all we know about the Man (called Joe in this film and Blondie in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY). Leone invents a unique visual language in portraying “Joe.” Gone are the black and white hats of traditional westerns. Eastwood wears a hat of muddy brown. He exists between good and evil but carries his gun in the name of righteousness. Much like the Op changed the morality of the traditional detective hero, Eastwood’s anonymous gunslinger brought about a new type of cowboy.

A Fistful of Dollars

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and the Eastwood Legend

Leone’s films would bring about an onslaught of European produced “spaghetti westerns” that reveled in the moral murkiness of Leone’s westerns.

The plot of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is beat for beat the same as YOJIMBO. Where the films feel distinct is in their representation of the anonymous amoral hero. Mifune played Sanjuro like a raging lion, but Clint Eastwood plays the Man with No Name like a fox. He is cunning, swift, with eyes that default to suspicious glare Eastwood feels a bit more like the Op in the way he manipulates events to force the two factions into war with each other.

Sanjuro plays with them, often manipulating their pride into making them do stupid things. “Joe” on the other hand makes easy work of giving the reasons to get into open combat with one another. He’ll join one side, kill a few guys, then defect to the other and start things over again to fuel the flames of a gang war. His skill on the quick draw is just so good that he becomes a top recruitment prospect.

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The basic ethical code of the character would become one that much of Eastwood’s career would build off of. In a world with either ineffective or absent law, a person must take matters into their own hands. Granted, the Op has a status of judicial legitimacy that “Joe” does not. Eastwood would revisit this idea in DIRTY HARRY. The iconic Harry Callahan takes on the Scorpio killer using his unorthodox methods when the police prove ineffectual.

When we think of the idea of Eastwood as an action hero, we envision a man operating outside the rule of law. His characters are often anti-hero similar to the Op. They are good men forced to wade into the muck of corruption to get the job done. Critic John Cawelti described the Op as a “traditional man of virtue in an amoral and corrupt world.” This same descriptor could apply to many of Eastwood’s characters. Eastwood would even deconstruct this brand of hero he helped to popularize in UNFORGIVEN and GRAN TORINO. It’s from Dashiell Hammett’s pen that so much of who Clint Eastwood is in pop culture comes from.

A Man Called Smith

Following A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, “Red Harvest” would get yet another reimagining as Walter Hill’s LAST MAN STANDING. Finally, a Red Harvest adaption hews closer to the book with its Prohibition-Era setting. Ironically, it isn’t Hammett that the film credits but Akira Kurosawa. LAST MAN STAND echoes a lot of YOJIMBO, right down to both gangs in both films having a henchman who towers above the rest of the gang.

The major change to the script is the addition of a noirish voice-over. In fact, Hill’s man with no name (simply called John Smith in the film) is significantly chattier than the nameless heroes who preceded him. With this device, Hill roots the text more in traditional noir and pulp crime fiction than its adaptation predecessors.

It’s that return to the pulpy crime that makes Bruce Willis the obvious choice for Smith. Willis’ signature sarcasm and tough guy wit make him a great choice to embody this offshoot of the Op. Hammett’s version of the character often kept himself at an emotional arm’s length from the violence around him and so does Smith. A bartender says to Smith ”My fear is my curse. What’s yours?” Smith coolly responds, “I was born without a conscience.”  

Last Man Standing

Willis As LAST MAN STANDING

In Willis’ performance, we see the connective DNA of the classic action hero Eastwood to the more contemporary hero. Hill crafts an interesting version of the anti-hero archetype that feels modern and classic at the same time. Smith has the glibness that Willis displayed in classics like DIE HARD, and Hill choreographs the shootouts with Willis wielding dual handguns like Chow Yun Fat in a John Woo movie.

There’s a duality of retro prohibition cool with the 90’s action shoot-’em-up style. A barrage of bullets and violence blows apart the dried-up western town. It makes YOJIMBO, and A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, seem like a kids’ movie.

To continue the Animal metaphor, Willis as Smith is a grizzly bear. Smith is gruff and destructive. His method of combat is to riddle his enemies with lead. What keeps him from becoming reprehensible, much like his forebearers, is his moral code. Critic William Marling says of the Op, “Hammett keeps the Op seemingly moral in this avaricious world by making him unswervingly devoted to one point of his code: he cannot be bought.” Willis may be gruffer, more violent than Mifune and Eastwood, but that fundamental code of honor remains unbreakable through all three films.

All three films also share another similarity in their adaptation: a dearth of well-rounded female characters.

Last Man Standing

Ode to Dinah Brand

In Hammett’s original novel, Dinah Brand, one of the town’s power players, aided the Op in his mission. Poisonville police chief describes her as “a soiled dove…a big league gold digger.” Brand shows herself to be much more complex. Much like the Op, Brand maintains a sense of moral code and feels outraged at the murder of a Donald Wilson.

She assists the Op in his one-man war on the scum of Poisonville. In the process, Hammett evolves her beyond the femme fatale archetype. She becomes an anti-hero in her own right and the Op’s partner. Sadly, the character is killed off before the book’s conclusion, robbing her of her share in the Op’s ultimate success.

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When Kurosawa stripped down Hammett’s text for his YOJIMBO script, Dinah Brand was excised completely. Instead, Kurosawa writes in Orin, a Rapunzel trapped in a proverbial castle. Orin was used as a betting chip by her husband. When he lost, Orin was taken by Tokuemon for a life of captivity and abuse.

Hill tries to add some more complex female characters into LAST MAN STANDING, but those characters often end up with little development. Wanda (Leslie Mann) is a ditzy prostitute who vanishes after the first act. Lucy (Alexandra Powers) is the abused mistress of gangster Strozzi who seems to be heading towards a turn against her malevolent boyfriend only to also vanish before the film’s final act.

Red Harvest into the Future

For all of the lessons filmmakers have learned from Hammett’s work, they still have not figured out how to make a compelling female character who has her own agency within a plot.

It’s at this point we should remember the importance of Dashiell Hammett’s great text. Though he lived and died many years ago “Red Harvest” has had a ripple effect that will continue past its original publication. It still has so much to teach us about the art of action storytelling and that bold anti-hero who walks that daunting edge between good and evil.

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