From the first few bars of Morricone's music, accompanied by the rotoscoped riders of the credit sequence, the audience must have realised that they were about to see something very special when 'A Fistful of Dollars' premiered in 1964.
The Spaghetti Western phenomenon had already started in Italy, but these films tended to be poor imitations of the American westerns with the use of Anglicised names to disguise the film's true origins. Many believed that the Italian western had, by that time, run its course.
After seeing Kurosawa's 'Yojimbo', the seed was planted in Leone's mind to remake the story as a western. It was not the first time that a Kurosawa film had been adapted to the Wild West. In 1960 John Sturges had remade 'The Seven Samurai' as 'The Magnificent Seven'.
So it was that Leone set about raising the meagre budget of $200,000 to make his movie. When given the go ahead by the production company, the film was intended as a 'recoup movie' - that is a movie secondary to another, that uses the same sets and costumes in order to recoup some of the production costs - in this case 'Le Pistole non Discutono' (Bullets Don't Argue).
For his leading man Leone's desire to cast Henry Fonda, James Coburn or Charles Bronson was to be little more than a pipe dream. Richard Harrison, a star of many 'Sword and Sandal' films, was offered the role but turned it down, instead recommending a little known American actor, Clint Eastwood, who had a steady role as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide.
The film is heavily based on Yojimbo, to the point of total plagiarism. But that is misleading in that it suggests a lack of vision on Leone's part. Instead Leone concentrated on pure style - from the stylised costume and persona of the 'Man With No Name' (who became an instant screen icon), to the use of camera and sound, Leone virtually re-invented the western. As the advertising campaign suggested, it was the first motion picture of its kind. It wouldn't be the last.
And credit must also go to Morricone's excellent score, forging a partnership that would extend through all of Leone's subsequent films. The two had in fact been childhood friends, having attended the same primary school.
The film was groundbreaking in it use of violence. Leone, supposedly out of ignorance, broke all the rules of the American western - such as showing the protagonist's gun and its impact in the same frame. The golden rule in American westerns was to cut from the weapon to its effect. Such things may seem trivial today, where cinema has reached new heights in its portrayal of violence, but this was a big thing in the 60's.
It is also interesting to note that when the film was aired on US television in the 70's by the ABC network, a prologue was added film where the Man with No Name is seen in a jail cell (played by a Clint Eastwood look-a-like). On being released with a pardon, the warden, played by Harry Dean Stanton, says that it is on the condition that he cleans up the town of San Miguel. This scene was not directed by Sergio Leone, but filmed by the ABC television station. It was perceived that the American audience would have a tough time accepting a hero whose primary motivation was greed.
The film is rich in religious symbolism - the Man with No Name's entrance to the film on a mule - his subsequent resurrection from the cave - the composition of the Rojos' party scene, shot to resemble the last supper - Just a few examples.
When it was first released Anglicised names where again used. Sergio Leone became Bob Robertson - a homage to his father's stage name. But after the film became an big success, the Italian names where later substituted on the film prints and posters.
That the film was so successful took the production company by surprise. Thinking that the film would be lost amongst the B-movie features of the time, no one thought to secure any rights to borrow so liberally from 'Yojimbo'. This led to a legal battle that delayed the release of the English Language version until 1967.
The film's impact on the Spaghetti Western genre (and eventually the US produced western) was immense - defining the style of the genre and inspiring a flood of imitations - but few matched the talent of Leone.