The Criterion Collection

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When Sergio Leone shifted the action of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo from a windswept silk-trading outpost to a sun-drenched Mexican border town, he ran a blade through the traditional Western, stripping it down and opening it up, eviscerating its tiresome romantic subplots, upping the violence and deepening the fatalism. Heroes and villains became equally immoral and unhygienic; extreme close-ups acted as psychic landscape, and sloppy dubbing somehow complemented the work. A samurai movie heavily indebted to the Hollywood Western had now served as the matrix upon which an Italian director reinvented the genre by substituting the Spanish desert for the American West. “It is a very fine film, but it is my film,” said Kurosawa, after viewing A Fistful of Dollars. And he certainly had a point. The plotlines of the two films (screening this week as a double feature at downtown's ImaginAsian Center) are virtually identical: An ultralaconic, mysteriously self-possessed swordsman/gunslinger arrives in a small town where two rival gangs are fighting, pits both sides against the middle, and after much bloodshed somehow manages to restore peace to the community, before wandering off into the dust/mist with a fistful of dollars/yen. Kurosawa filed a plagiarism suit, and won it, to the tune of a 15 percent cut of the royalties. Leone protested, claiming that Kurosawa's film owed an equal debt to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (which has also been fingered as the source of Get Carter, Point Blank and Miller's Crossing), and traced the lineage of their respective works to 18th-century Italian drama and beyond. Early on in Yojimbo, an innkeeper asks the restless ronin (Toshiro Mifune) what his name is. Mifune gazes absently out of the window at some shrubbery and replies, “Mulberry bush, 30 years old.” Here we witness the birth of The Man With No Name, seen again in Fistful in the person of Clint Eastwood at his sneering, cigarillo-spitting best. (ImaginAsian Center)

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