The Man with No Name is a seminal figure in pop culture history. The film that first bore him, 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, is equally seminal.
It introduced the world at large to a holy trinity that would dominate world cinema for a time: Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone, and Clint Eastwood’s trademark squint (saying nothing of Ennio Morricone’s coming-out party).
This is the film that kickstarted an equally holy trinity of films, culminating in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly two years later. As is The Stranger’s famous MO, not much more needs to be said.
ACMI played host to a one-off screening of Fistful, with a live score performed by Chiara Kickdrum and an accompanying cellist during Melbourne Music Week. Let me be clear early on: It was incredibly difficult to tell what was being played live and what was a pre-recorded score that was simply played at the appropriate time. An explanation before or after the performance as to what was actually going on would’ve been ideal.
In front of the screen, at the base of the theatre, sat a desk with a laptop, monitor, keyboard, and what appeared to be a beat sequencer, behind all of which Kickdrum was positioned.
Expectations were high on first glance of the equipment for an electronic update to Morricone’s classic score. This film offers the perfect symbolic base – from a plot perspective – for an experiment like this. In Fistful, Eastwood’s iconic antihero arrives at a small border town and plays two warring factions (the criminal Rojo family and John Baxter, the local sheriff and his contingent) off one another to his own personal gain, with escalating clashes meaning more money, regardless of the body count. The Man with No Name (okay, he’s called ‘Joe’ here and there throughout the film, the dubbing in this movie is an experience) observes the drama and intervenes only when he wants to. The comparison is right there for Chiara Kickdrum; two factions (the audio and the visuals) and an observant onlooker (the audience) grimly but necessarily watching as the opposing forces wile each other down to their base parts to show us who and what they really are at their core.
The strongest aspects of the performance were the ones that took advantage of the opportunity and the facilities. When the criminally underused cello kicked in with some long, drawn-out notes, the amplified bass filled the room spectacularly, and added to the sense of menace in the scene playing. The truly revelatory moment in Kickdrum’s performance, when the opportunity was taken with both hands and the (perhaps overblown, I’ll admit) expectations were met, came during a climactic escape by Eastwood’s character. After being beaten to within an inch of his life and locked up, the iconic protagonist hatches a plan and runs from his captors, and while crawling through the dirt and dust to sneak past members of the Rojo gang, Kickdrum employs a pounding, hypnotic combination of slow electronic bass and drums to accentuate the doom of the scenario. The town is on fire, and so is the score for a brief interlude.
The Man with No Name lacks definition in a way that makes him the ultimate mystery, an arbiter of the cruel and unfeeling faux justice of the old West as we know it in modern culture. I can’t help but think about what The Man with No Name would think of ten-buck beers at ACMI. A fistful of dollars, indeed.