Category: Whole Story

the story’s finished, so it’s time for a complete retrospective!

Chairmen of the Voord – Four Writers, One of Doctor Who’s Oldest Monsters

Chairmen of the Voord Doctor Who

We don our flippers and take a swim with the curious monsters of the early 1960s that, though intended to be the new Daleks never to return to the television, but whose enigmatic appearance proved fertile ground for writers and creators in other media…

11 April 1964 and the fifth serial of Doctor Who screened on the BBC. Fans that the show had scooped up since its arrival the previous November had no idea that the 21st episode of the series, The Sea of Death, would originate an element that would become a recurring component of the show: the quest-based story arc, famously employed for a whole season with The Key to Time in the late 1970s and the Fifth Doctor’s tussle with the Black Guardian a half decade after that. It would also form form a simple, exciting framework for stories as diverse as The Chase, The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965) and The Infinite Quest (2007). Ideal for the show when it was in a tight spot. A simple story was enhanced by diverse mini-adventures, but the weight of those smaller stories was also bolstered by a light if compelling backbone. While the the concept would remain with the show, pioneered by the writer of The Sea of Death, the monsters of the piece wouldn’t be so lucky.

The Voord, the Milk Tray Men of Doctor Who, would never reappear on screen to attempt a chocolate delivery again.

Flipping stand ins

When rewrites of Malcolm Hulke’s Dr Who and the Hidden Planet pushed it out of the production schedule, script editor David Whitaker turned to Terry Nation, the writer who’d propelled the show into popular consciousness with its second serial, The Daleks, and was already lined up for its eighth. Confronted with a narrow window to write it, Nation was drawn to the idea of a quest and he and Whitaker settled on a light arc that would take the TARDIS crew to a number of varied settings. From the interior of the first two episodes the travellers would encounter a vast city, a courtroom, a jungle and arctic terrain. Linked to the overarching acr and waiting for them on the sea world of Marinus were the villainous Voord. Few were happy with how these monsters turned out. Carole Ann Ford, who thought the script took Susan’s character back to school, director John Gorrie who had eyes on boosting his career which allowed him to overlook issues with the speedily produced script, the audience and critics who gave it a mixed result – none were too impressed. But few could have been more disappointed than the Voord themselves.

As was customary, Terry Nation added very little description for the creatures to his script, so designer Daphne Dare used vulcanised rubber from prop builders Jack and John Lovell to sculpt heads of the monsters that sat atop a customised rubber wetsuit. Three costumes came in at under £70 which must have pleased the production. And while impractical and rather silly, their enigmatic and strangely effective appearance would provide ample opportunities to expand on the creations. Although, the reception of The Keys of Marinus put pay to them appearing on screen again.

Merchandise

Dalekmania had caught many off guard, while ensuring Doctor Who’s survival. The Pepperpots that had famously contravened show creator Sydney Newman’s “no bug-eyed monsters” rule had surfaced from nowhere and joined Beatlemania in setting a tone for early 60s Britain and ensuring a quick return. Hopes were high for a successor, but of the long line of pretenders who never reached that, the Voord were the first to fail. They got the merchandising deals and exposure, made it into the comic strips and even made their way to Amicus, who snapped up the rights to The Keys of Marinus along with the early Dalek serials. Neither the Keys nor the Voord made it to the big screen or back to the small. Though it’s important to note that Peter Stenson would later contribute his experiences of portraying a Voord in 1964 for a leather fetish magazine.

The Voord found a new, if not huge life in the show’s expanded universe, beyond the pages of fetish magazines. Let’s take a shifty through four of the interpretations of the Voord from four big names: Terry Nation, Grant Morrison, Andrew Smith and Paul Cornell.

Terry Nation – The Keys of Marinus (1964), BBC

The One Where:  They’re the new Daleks

“Choice? What choice?”

Doctor Who Voord - The Keys of MarinusThe Sea of Death is an ominous episode title and setting. The locale of the island of glass that the episode pores over at the start could come right from of the final act of Rogue One, the prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy that would bring its black suited, black-hearted antagonist back to science fiction almost 50 years later.

Flipper first, the dark and menacing Voord appear on this silent island, emerging from their craft backed by the flute flourish of Norman Kay’s score. A tidal pool, acid water – it’s a beautiful, idyllic locale with a dangerous undercurrent – a Nation set-up familiar from his Dalek story lines. The Voord’s mysterious arrival adds to the unease. Even as they stumble across crafts and structures that should be quite evident, they carry mystery with them. Chiefly, it’s an inexplicable assault. Continue reading “Chairmen of the Voord – Four Writers, One of Doctor Who’s Oldest Monsters”

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Chopping Down A Dolls House: What if The White Album was a single album?

White Album at 50

The Beatles, more commonly known as the White Album, turns 50 today. A difficult, brilliant hulk of an album, it’s spent five decades defying the many questions it throws up. Is it the band’s best album? Is it the start of their break up? What is Honey Pie all about?

But no question comes larger than the one that emerged after a chance remark from producer George Martin in the 1970s: Should the Fab Four’s only double-LP have just been one disc? Is there an undisputed best-in-class single album in there? This Jokerside aims to find out…

“It doesn’t sound like any other Beatles album”

If you want a revolution, please take a sec to vote Jokerside at #UKBA19 (click and *heart* us)

FOR A WHILE THE BEATLES’ NINTH STUDIO ALBUM WAS TITLED A DOLL’S HOUSE; AT FIRST THOUGHT, THAT SEEMS THE PERFECT NAME. The double-LP White Album is a brilliantly difficult and perverse collection of songs that defy analysis as much as they demand it. The album has thrown up myriad questions over the past five decades, often encouraging contradictory answers. It’s an album packed with so-called ‘fillers’ that earn more attention than many bands’ lead singles. It’s the record of a band breaking up… Before they made another two, rather superb, albums (three if you count Yellow Submarine, which you shouldn’t).

One thing is certain, it’s a Fab Four album unlike any other. It may reference the Magical Mystery Tour that emerged a year before, but it’s nothing like it, even at its most whimsical; it lacks the experimental concept of Sgt Pepper, perhaps even reacting against it. The contents could be the jumbled interior of a doll’s house, with all the nostalgia in oddly assembled and matched tidbits it implies. But that’s not quite the whole story.

The White Album features some of the Beatles’ greatest optimistic highs, but there’s also an undeniable and persistent air of menace running through it. Many songs referencing death and violence. Not unusual in the Beatles canon, but never so intense, and treated so disconcertingly. Behind it sits a unique discordance; an otherworldly sound that is carried in every song, often with an bubbling and winding melody or percussion line, but remains remarkably elusive. It doesn’t sound like any other Beatles album. Take Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before it, or the thinned out back to basics approach of Let It Be (Spector production notwithstanding) that would hammer real splinters into the cracks of the band shortly afterwards. Both those albums have echoes or foreshadowing. But they both hold together in a wholly different way; the White Album endures as a puzzle unlike anything else.  

Long, Long, Long time together?

Could the White Album be the record that broke the Beatles apart?  John Lennon would explicitly state that sometime later, and there were undoubtedly fraught times during the sessions. Ringo left the band at one point (at least), perennial recording engineer Geoff Emerick refused to work on the album as the tension boiled over, and of its 30 songs, only 16 feature every Beatle; a fair few only have two. That’s a bold step away from the cohesive Fab Four that had quickly risen to the peak of western culture just over half a decade before.

The emergence of four separate artists had never been more evident, and that’s clear in the Esher demos – the acoustic demoing of many album tracks at George Harrison’s house prior to entering into the studio. Some however, would have to wait until Abbey Road in 1969 (Lennon’s Polythene Pam, Mean Mr Mustard…). There are Harrison efforts that would find an audience on his later solo albums. Most notably, the song that would become Lennon’s Jealous Guy failed to pass the cut in 1968. As Lennon appears to have suffered the most cast-offs, a fair few of the notable standalone songs are Paul McCartney’s.   Continue reading “Chopping Down A Dolls House: What if The White Album was a single album?”

Personas: Letting the Evening Go with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles Other Egos

Sgt Peppers 50

Sgt Peppers 50

It was 51 years ago… that the Beatles disappeared, shunted to the side by an Edwardian military band. The Lonely Hearts Club Band, taught to play by Sgt. Pepper two decades before. On their golden anniversary, the most famous band in the world’s most famous alter-egos still capture the imagination…

“Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to”

THE ALBUM COVER OF SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND MAY JUST BE THE MOST FAMOUS PIECE OF POP ART EVER PRODUCED. The Peter Blake and Jann Haworth composition is both a perfectly captured instant and a bold attempt to set popular culture in time and space. It’s two, three and four dimensional. Famous faces assembled in the physical montage range from Karl Marx to Max Miller, HG Wells to Oscar Wilde. Objects range from a garden gnome to a Mexican candle stick. From the 19th century, Edgar Allen Poe stands in the middle, Sir Robert Peel to the left and Lewis Carroll to the right. Two faces are painted out, Mahatma Gandhi at the request of EMI; Leo Gorcey because he churlishly, or wisely, requested a fee. From the Beatles early career, Stuart Sutcliffe dolefully stares at the camera from the far left. At the front right, a stone statue belonging to John Lennon became the physiognomy of Sgt. Pepper himself. But what of the band he taught to play, 20 years ago?

“That’s a funny place to put a goldfish bowl” – George Harrison, Yellow Submarine

There they are in the middle. Behind the drum skin carefully, if grammar-challengingly, emblazoned with the band’s logo by fairground artist Joe Ephgrave (that would sell for $670,000 four decades later). Decked in alternate hats, and different, brightly stylised military outfits, the four band members stare mirthlessly from the centre of the assembled great, good and censored. In their hands they carry, from left to right, French horn, trumpet, cor anglais, and flute. This four-piece might look familiar, but they’re not the Beatles. You can tell, because of the instruments. Oh, and because the Fab Four stand just to their left. Frozen in mop-topped Beatlemania – if you think they’re not looking quite themselves you’d have to take that up with their guardians at Madame Tussauds.

Thanks to Lennon, there’s a nod to the rapid ascent of that other band right at the heart. He asked Mona Best, owner of Liverpool’s Casbah Club and mother of Pete, the drummer famously dropped on the cusp of their ascent, if he could borrow her father’s war medals to wear. He later returned them safely along with the cash box trophy, immortalised in the floral ‘L’ of the band’s name on the cover.

Just left of centre, in-between the wax Paul McCartney’s grey suited elbow, and the moustached John Lennon’s day-glo green funny bone, it might as well be New Year’s Eve 1966, a sharp turning point in the perpetually evolving career of the band. Or perhaps a bit earlier…

End of the road

“Cemented those experiments in the cultural bombshell”

The Beatles stopped touring in August 1966 after a difficult Asian tour fed into a tumultuous American one. John Lennon’s comments to The Evening Standard in March 1966, comparing the band rather favourably to Jesus, led to protests and ominous undertones at a nearly cancelled concert in Memphis. But it was in Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29 August that the Beatles road trip ground to a halt. For safety, Beatles concerts were staged in arenas. But flooded with supernatural screaming from the moment the Fabs appeared to long after they left the stage, the band couldn’t hear each other or their instruments. For a four-piece built on harmony, steadily shrugging off the pop star tag in favour of ground-breaking musicianship, the number was up for live performance that night. And as Ringo later recalled, for no one more than Lennon.

Frustrated, exhausted, and unhappy with their direction after a gruelling but prolific four years in the public eye, the Beatles immediately embarked on their second three-month holiday of 1966. Both breaks proved seminal. The first break prologued the fusing of the Beatles’ pop musicality with experimentation; the second cemented those experiments in the cultural bombshell of Sgt. Pepper.

Somehow, the early break had accelerated the Beatles’ already fast-developing sound, with recording of the extraordinary Tomorrow Never Knows falling at the beginning of the Revolver sessions that April.

During the autumn break, Lennon was drawn to a film role in How I Won the War while furthering his journey to LSD-fuelled mind expansion. At an art launch he met Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney stuck to the studio, developing his knowledge of classical music while working on a soundtrack with producer George Martin. George Harrison headed to India to hone his Sitar skills under Ravi Shankar. Ringo Starr spent some quality time with his family, probably bought a car, and joined Lennon on location in Spain for a holiday where it was “damn hot”.

For the most part then, the defining influences and direction of the Beatles’ latter career were taking shape. Things had changed. Their new album would be the proof. The band’s earlier break led directly to touring and recording of their seventh album. By November 1966, Abbey Road studios had turned from a stop on a conveyor belt to a refuge from the maelstrom. They could focus solely on recording their eighth LP as tours fast retreated to history. With a broad canvas ahead of them instead of a road, an uninterrupted, unprecedented, five months in the studio lay ahead. Their experimentation was primed to reach its next stage.

As George Harrison reminded us, “We were inventing things you know, don’t forget”.

It began with the ground-breaking double A-side of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the perfect balance of Lennon and McCartney across two sides of a disc… or rather it didn’t. As well as being beaten to the number one slot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me, those November and December 1966 recordings never made it onto an album. Blocked by manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin’s noble if misguided belief that fans shouldn’t have to pay for a song twice. In the middle of the two recordings the whimsical ditty When I’m Sixty Four was laid down, described by McCartney as “Goony”, as in Goon Show, it was a sign that something theatrical, if not tongue-in-cheek, was afoot. 64 was to be the first album track of the sessions and it proved one thing: While Sgt. Pepper challenged, crossed, and smashed musical and production barriers, there was more to it than a technological revolution. As much as the Beatles had won their new ability to concentrate on studio work, they also needed to carve out a new creative space.

Pass the Sergeant

“One of the greatest songs containing multiple “Whoops” of all-time”

In fact, inspiration for the band’s innovative approach came in the same month that recording sessions began, although they would take some time to take form. It was on plane from Kenya to London, and all thanks to a condiment.

As McCartney tells it, he was grabbing a bite with band roadie Mal Evans when he, “mumbled to me, asked me to pass the salt and pepper. And I misheard him. He said ‘saltandpepper’. I go, ‘Sergeant Pepper?’ I thought he said, ‘Sergeant Pepper’. I went, ‘Oh! Wait a minute, that’s a great idea!’ So, we had a laugh about it, then I started thinking about Sergeant Pepper as a character.” (Paul McCartney, 2017)

McCartney developed the concept almost immediately, visualising Pepper as leader of an Edwardian band, attending an award ceremony in a northern English town. Anachronistically, they took their moniker from the trend for long rambling band names and hippy culture that was breaking out across the west coast of America and had fascinated McCartney on the Beatles’ recent tour. His sketches developed the band’s military uniforms alongside a floral clock. That vision resembles the result, but it was to be moulded by necessary and inspirational collaborations over the next six months.

First, there were his band mates. As the zeitgeist unfolded, it was clear that the need to remove themselves from their past was universal. As McCartney put it, “I thought, let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos”. They were trying to “get away from ourselves”. In the grip of exploratory mind-opening, Lennon was quietly content to let McCartney take the lead, and Paul threw himself into the concept.

But it was only after the recording of the song Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the February of the recording sessions that McCartney’s brainwave truly developed, and the first rock concept album sprang to life. Two songs had already been recorded, including 64 and astonishing, iconic album closer A Day in the Life; another of the session’s perfect fusions of McCartney and Lennon in one composition.

The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track was an experimental step back from the more rounded, modern songs the Beatles recorded during 1966, but it managed to achieve something quite different. It fused a heritage, variety nostalgia with heavy rock. As a ripping, challenging sound as much as a rhythmic throw-back, it’s timeless. With the segue into With a Little Help from My Friends and McCartney’s introduction of singer Billy Shears, Ringo was the only member of the band’s alter-egos to be named (perhaps purposefully laying hints for emerging Beatles conspiracy theorists), and the concept was set. For a whole two songs.

Almost all the LP’s songs, including Good Morning, Good Morning and Lovely Rita carry the sense of acutely observed British sentiment. There’s a catching and uplifting joyousness in the mixture of dreams, (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Fixing a Hole) and mundanity, often in the same number. It’s a step away from the contemporary feel that had characterised the band’s previous albums, but not a step back. Those expecting a uniform concept after the opening two tracks are left wanting. Come the album’s end, it’s only in the title track and its reprise that an attempt at fluid continuation is present. And Billy Shears’ one and only song was a late-recording, written under pressure from the band’s label EMI in March 1967. The reprise followed at the suggestion of the Beatles’ friend and future head of Apple Corp Neil Aspinall. As Lennon wryly told him at the time, “nobody likes a smart arse”. But it was a masterstroke. That euphoric final recording of the session is not only one of the greatest songs containing multiple “Whoops” of all-time, but one of the album’s highlights. It would have taken the final slot had A Day in the Life’s final chord not been so, well, finite.

The classic embrace

“Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to”

It wasn’t surprising that Sgt. Pepper was highly anticipated, it was a Beatles record after all. What was and still is surprising is the euphoria that met the zeitgeist of its release, five days earlier than scheduled, on 26 May. The band was ecstatic with the result, but the society around them also seemed to be waiting with open arms to receive what Times critic Kenneth Tynan would soon call a, “decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation”. It managed to fit 1967 like a key.

It may not be many Beatles fans’ favourite album, but it’s culture’s. It swept the western world, in an instant, dominating the airwaves in the late spring. Few things walk into the status of instant cultural icon, so how did it manage it?

There’s something about the album’s timing, composition, vision, fusion of music, art and theatre, Britishness and sentiment. Although it’s occasionally colder than Revolver, and predicts the aloof dislocation of their later albums, The Beatles crafted an optimistic celebration in what George Martin called the pinnacle of their collaboration. It was both utterly fantastic and entrenched in times past. It’s not a clash of time and culture but a gathering of all times. On the cover, taking vocals in two songs, maybe three, was the Edwardian band that couldn’t possibly celebrate its 20th anniversary in the late 1960s; that couldn’t possibly entertain hard rock with French horn and flute. Sgt. Pepper, for all its darker tones and occasional disconnected hubris – step forward John Lennon – was taken in a big hug by a generation eager to adopt an instant classic. Each song pushed music production, but as an expectation not an aim. Extraordinary flows through every song, but often in a terribly modest way.

Technical limitations were broken while they brought modulation from classical music to popular, expanded horizons from the old English home town to India. New techniques were invented through hard-worked, old school practicality. In a way, Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to. While staring into the kaleidoscope: yes, Sgt. Pepper is where the mundane sits alongside the imaginary, and backed by two sides of roaring tunes, complement each other.

Persona grata

The band concept isn’t strong, soon falling apart on a linear listen. But the creation of a rock concept is another trick Sgt. Pepper slipped easily into culture. In the parenthesis of the first and penultimate track there is enough space for the band to ease out of their natural personas. It’s the apparently lazy pursuit of that persona concept that aids Sgt. Pepper longevity. As the eponymous band dips in and out, most famous for their role on the album’s cover, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band manage to be simultaneously dated, modern and timeless.

And the band’s fans were ready to roll with that. It’s not like the floral signature of “Beatles” isn’t one of the overriding features of the distinctive cover. But the Fab Four had already done more for the concept of personas than the world realised.

Prior to the Beatles, most well-known figures who’d carved a foothold within popular music were solo artists, or an outstanding frontman, guitarist, or both who would emerge from a group to strike out on their own. The Beatles, however, set the template for a four-piece in band lore. So definitively in fact, that none of the many four pieces that have followed in their wake have achieved the balance of the original.

Legacy

None of those considerable four-pieces that inherited the formula in the decades that followed managed to balance such distinct personalities. It was a delicate balance in the Beatles’ case: the quiet one, the funny one, the pretty one… By A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the band was playing with their split personalities across songs, album covers and film. The dissolution of the Beatles in 1970, in a worn acrimony that fate would never reconcile, was there from the start. Those balanced personas could be unbalanced. Sgt. Pepper was the culmination of their optimum balance.

Over the next year the Beatles would adopt other minor personas, including cover star Lewis Carroll’s Walrus (“The Walrus was Paul” as 1968’s Green Onion tells us), and other characters in the extraordinary film and album concept Magical Mystery Tour (following hot on the heels of Sgt. Pepper in 1967, shortly after Epstein’s death).

In Yellow Submarine, the animated band (avatars of a real band uninterested in completing their film deal with United Artists) would set off to rescue their alter-egos and all Pepperland. But after the tumultuous, legacy defining cultural moment of Sgt. Pepper it’s telling that the next time the band recorded an album on this scale (the following year, after the misjudged road trip of Magical Mystery Tour), the album cover would be a simple, reactionary white.

Pepper creates himself

Perhaps the roots of The Lonely Hearts Club Band were stitched into the fabric of 1962’s Beatlemania and destined to burst out at some point. The Beatles inadvertently created the importance of persona in popular music in their rapid ascent. Just half a decade later, Sgt Pepper saw them combine it with the comfortable homogeneity of music past.

Glam bands would later seize the persona and concept that Sgt. Pepper hinted at to attract fans. There’s a marvellous coincidence, no doubt infuriating for one side of the equation at the time, that David Bowie’s debut album was also released on 1 June 1967. But as contrary as some parts of the Sgt. Pepper album is, personas were a natural way for the Beatles to distance themselves from their fan base. Back to McCartney, getting the okay the Beatles way:

“I just talked to all the guys and said, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ They liked it and I said, ‘It will mean, when I approach the mic, it’s not Paul McCartney. I don’t have to think this is a Paul McCartney song’. So, it was freeing. It was quite liberating.”

As manager Brian Epstein was reported as saying at the band’s decision to abandon live touring in 1966, “What am I going to do now?” He didn’t give up trying to convince the band to return to the road, but he never succeeded in his lifetime. Brian Epstein would die almost exactly one year after their final performance at Candlestick Park, having overseen their rise to being the most famous band in the world, and their creation of one, if not the, greatest fictional bands of all time.

And not turning up for most of the album, was one of the Lonely Heart Club Band’s greatest moves. We still enjoy the show.

References:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 50th Anniversary reissue

1966: Revolver at 50, Jokerside.com

You Gave Me the Answer Sgt. Pepper special, Paulmccartney.com

The Beatles, Hunter Davies

Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald

Sgt. Pepper Forever, BBC Radio 2

Beatles Anthology

First published on Niume on 26 May 2017.

Turn back the clock with our 50th anniversary celebration of Revolver

1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50

1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns 50

“Kicking off with a different loner”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released in Italy 50 years ago today, completing Sergio Leone’s hugely influential trilogy. The Dollars Trilogy? The Man With No Name trilogy? Whatever it completed, however it fits with the other films, Jokerside salutes the 50th anniversary of a classic that created and consolidated a sub-genre…

IT’S 50 YEARS SINCE ENNIO MORRICONE’S FAMOUS THEME FIRST WHISTLED FROM CINEMA LOUDSPEAKERS, MAKING WAY FOR FIVE DECADES, SO FAR, OF COUNTLESS REINTERPRETATIONS, RECYCLING AND PASTICHE. Although, it’s not really 50 years… True, the final and most famous film of what we’ll call the Dollars Trilogy for ease was released in director Sergio Leone’s native Italy 50 years ago today. But it’s not until next year that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly celebrates its golden anniversary in the country that lent the film its fabric if not its landscapes and behind the camera talent. Oh, nor its predecessor For a Few Dollars more. Nor in fact, that film’s predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. You see, every film of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was released in the United States in 1967. That may sound like a heady year for the Western, but each release was met with middling disdain on release. 50 years on, it’s a different story…

Leone’s impact on the rich fabric of world cinema stemmed from the film wealth of his upbringing. The son of cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone and silent film star Edvige Valcarenghi, by the 1950s the young Leone had worked his way into cinematography and screenwriting in the Italian capital he was a native of. Italian cinema that had blossomed over the previous half century and never shied from borrowing elements from international cinema despite the frequent bright sparks of its own auteurs. It was to be a tradition continued in the Dollars Trilogy opener, A Fistful of Dollars. A deliberately fresh take on the established American Western format, it introduced The Man with No Name. A stranger emerging from the nowhere of the desert, entering a new town, and soon extracting money from two rival gangs by playing them off each other. He’d incur a vicious beating on the way to a bloody victory, but for all the enhanced violence and terror, this mysterious antihero was full of quiet sarcasm, prone to the odd trick alongside his evident gun skills and an odd protagonist to root for in the midst of some kinetic camera work.

Unfortunately Fistful’s debt was worn broadly, prompting Akira Kurosawa, the eminent director of the sublime Yojimbo to send Leone a letter telling him it was “… A very fine film. But it is my film”. The fact that Kurosawa’s 1961 film was itself was quite probably indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest didn’t matter as the suits fell in Yojimbo’s favour. The recognition of similarity in intent would have surely gratified Leone, who towards the end of his career said: “From a project like (Kurosawa’s) Ran or Once Upon a Time in America, you come away dry in the mouth, with your head in flames and your soul in shreds.” But for all the costly sacrifice, in terms of distribution and box office, from this first ‘homage’ Leone had set cardinal rules for what would quickly become known as Spaghetti Westerns. He picked apart the Western genre, defied conventions and infused it with an utterly inappropriate yet tremendously fitting context of other times and cultures. Morricone’s scores was a massive aid in that quirky, healthy, disrespect.

The cunning of Fistful‘s anti-hero would grow with the trilogy and become a defining trope. Unexpected actions played out through partnerships riven by betrayal, always circling and sometimes opposing supreme and callous violence. Leone would later describe the “picaresque” aspirations of the trilogy’s final instalment, the third film that truly fuses the Western to that Spanish and southern European narrative form.

Boiling spaghetti

“I had always thought that the ‘good,’ and the ‘bad’ and the ‘violent’ did not exist in any absolute, essential sense. It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.” – Sergio Leone

It turned out that predominantly Italian film-makers working in Spain, funded by from Germany, Italy and Spain, made a fine Western through Leone’s lens. And that was the point. Westerns had dominated American film production for many years, but the industry was grinding down by the mid-1960s. And the genre wasn’t alone, the same was true with that other great fuel of Hollywood, the musical. Within a decade, both would be blown out of the water as the sharks of new wave cinema jumped in. But while Hollywood eased off, as if prescient of its collapse, Leone saw potential.

A Fistful of Dollars was an attempt to re-establish the Western for the Italian market, the director realising that the Wild West still generated considerable interest in Europe. Recognising a crossover appeal, the favourable response of Italian audiences to the contemporary work of his peers and the entropy of a genre that he considered stagnant and unrealistic, Leone sought to make an Italian Western. At the centre he put a trickster in the grand Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, an enigma of a man who could act as the pivot between comedy with extreme violence and drag the audience into an unfamiliar stylised world. And to seize that mantle he picked an actor best known for small-screen scale cowboy fare, damning his capacity for facial expressions on the way. The rest, as they say, was and is history.

Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)

“Welcome to you stranger”

It’s impossible not to see A Fistful of Dollars as an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but any sacrifice in originality is swamped by the by the celluloid adrenaline it shot into a moribund genre and its overall benefit to a burgeoning sub-genre. A distinctive entry, it remains the most clean-cut of the Dollars Trilogy even as it lays down and explores what would become those oh so crucial crucial Spaghetti tropes. We first meet the Man with No Name, in this film called Joe, as he watches bandits shooting at the feet of a child, shortly after wryly accepting a spurned glance from a woman at a window. That woman is the distracted Marisol and although her story lies at the heart of scuppering Joe’s plans later on, Fistful never threatens a love story. There’s no foreshadowing for that in the considerable, unseen history of this man, nor the masochistic ploys he almost immediately sets in motion. His first, trademark, mono-syllabic greeting of “Hallo” is to Silvanito the innkeeper who tells him as much from the start.

“Eating, drinking and killing, that’s all you can do”

Fistful was shot on a miniscule budget of around $200,000, allowing for a sparse town for The Man to walk into. Often empty, but dominated by the two rival gangs he flits between, there’s no doubt what will unfold in a town where the coffin maker’s so experienced he can measure for a box with a glance. Having felled the gunslingers who humiliated him when he entered the town, crucially proving his prowess to both gangs, the first pang of the Man’s wry humour falls on the coffin maker: “Get three coffins ready… “My mistake, four coffins”. Within minutes Leone’s presented the shape of this character, from skills to hard edge, devilish patience to humour. Continue reading “1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50”

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