Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

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FADE IN.

A makeshift door squeaks open to a ghostly wind.  An old man scratches the train delay on a blackboard as he turns wide-eyed towards the camera.  A boot closes the door.  Camera pans up a figure…gunbelt…rifle…the long, heartless stare of a gunman.  Two more gunman appear, all in dirty dust jackets…

The opening credits span over the next ten minutes while the three dusters wait for the train to arrive.  We have long stares, a pesty fly, a constant windmill; elements you would not expect in the opening of an epic western.

All this leading up to the entrance of our (alleged) hero, played by Charles Bronson.  What’s he doing here?  What’s with the harmonica?  “You brought two too many”?  Then BOOM BOOM BOOM!–The movie could end there and we would have as many answered questions as unanswered.  Well, actually no.  But we’d still have a great spaghetti western scene to take to heart.  All in beautiful 2.35 ratio, 35mm anamorphic, technicolor.  And only ten minutes later, director Sergio Leone executes one of the biggest no-no’s of Hollywood cinema: he kills a kid on screen.  And not just one.  But three.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyuwBW9lNa8

Our Italian artist at hand had already had a love affair with the genre of American westerns for the past few years leading up to this mammoth project.  His Dollars Trilogy was completed and his name was procured to last in cinema for some time to come.  Although his last western project, The Good The Bad And The Ugly (1966) was not a box office success in the USA, it managed to find an audience in Europe, and eventually secured a reasonable to out-of-this-world respect stateside over the years.

I feel cheated.  What a glorious thing it would have been to see this on the big screen back in the day.

Once Upon A Time In The West is a 1968 epic Spaghetti Western film directed by Sergio Leone. It stars Henry Fonda cast against type as the villain, Charles Bronson as his nemesis, Claudia Cardinale as a newly widowed homesteader, and Jason Robards as a buffoon bandit. The screenplay was written by Sergio Donati and Leone, from a story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Leone. The widescreen cinematography was by Tonino Delli Colli, and the acclaimed film score was by Ennio Morricone.  (Running Time: 165 minutes)(Rated PG-13 for western violence and brief sensuality)

After Good, Bad, Ugly, though, he said he was done making westerns.  “Say what?”  But somehow or another, Paramount Pictures managed to convince him to take the helm of directing a desert-bound epic once more…also swooning him to film in the States for the first time.  In case you didn’t know, Leone had to film all his American tales in Europe–primarily in Italy.  You can probably look up interviews of Clint Eastwood’s complaints of filming so far from home…having to share a bed with co-star Eli Wallach for a time.

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Sergio Leone and his screenwriting team had the challenge of condensing a 400 plus page script down to a tolerable length–which to Leone’s standards would still be a novel of a movie screenplay.  Leone changed his approach over his earlier westerns. Whereas the “Dollars” films were quirky and up-tempo, a celebratory yet tongue-in-cheek parody of the icons of the wild west, this film is slower in pace and sombre in theme. Leone’s distinctive style, which is very different from, but very much influenced by, Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943).  Since Good, Bad, Ugly, which originally ran for a whooping three hours, Leone’s films were usually cut (often quite dramatically) for box office release. Leone was very conscious of this film’s length as filming commenced and later commissioned Sergio Donati to help polish and trim the screenplay, largely to curb the length of the film towards the end of production.

The cast is one of the splendid things about this movie.  Originally, Fonda didn’t take the initial offer to play Frank, so Leone flew to New York to convince him, telling him: “Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman’s face and…it’s Henry Fonda.” After meeting with Leone, Fonda called his friend Eli Wallach, who had co-starred in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach advised Fonda to do the film, telling him “You will have the time of your life.”  Fonda grew more and more enthusiastic over the project and even arrived in Italy for one of his first visits wearing brown contacts and a full mustache to impress the director and his crew, but the filmmaker immediately called for them to be removed, saying he wanted the audience to immediately recognize Fonda as the villain.

Secondly, we got the archetypical tough-guy Bronson–who I have loved since The Great Escape (1963) and The Mechanic (1972).  Although the role of Harmonica was originally meant for Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson was actually the first choice to play The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  He’s got the look, he’s got the harmonica–what else does he need?  For Leone, I think it was a good change to move on from Eastwood, as much as we are entertained by his enigmatic drifter character in the Dollars Trilogy.

Claudia Cardinale and Jason Robards bring it in full circle, the right amount of humor, horror, and tension to balance out the main storyline.

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I love the Sergio Leone style.  It has captivated me in the last few years.  After finally watching Once Upon A Time in America (1984), I dubbed him (probably) my favorite Italian filmmaker…but that’s coming from an ignorant critic to the Italian cinema.  Long takes, wide shots, little dialogue; slow and steady wins the race, I think is what he was going for.

There is a fantastic book by Christopher Frayling called “Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death”, which talks a lot about the man, his style, and his films–quite heavily on this particular one.  But I’m gonna take the opportunity to fill this blog post with a passage from one of the first pages from the book:

Sergio Leone once said “I was born in cinema, almost.  Both my parents worked there.  My life, my reading, everything about me revolves around cinema.  So for me, cinema is life, and vice-versa.”  He first wandered into a sound stage at Cinecitta in 1941, at the age of twelve, to watch his father shooting a film.  And he died watching a film on television in Rome, at the age of sixty.  As we will see, for Leone, the passionate experience of movie-going, the ideas and sensations it unleashed in him, informed us of his work in cinema.  Leone was the first modern cineaste to make really popular films: films that nevertheless remain personal to him.  In the words of philosopher Jean Baudrillard, he was “the first postmodernist director.”

I like to think that Once Upon In The West was his most personal piece.  Although we could argue the same for Once Upon A Time In America (1984), he spoke of America, and the outlaw American West, in a very beautifully dark, dangerous, dream-like way.  On the good ol’ US of A, he once said: “In my childhood, America was like a religion. Then, real-life Americans abruptly entered my life – in jeeps – and upset all my dreams. I found them very energetic, but also very deceptive. They were no longer the Americans of the West. They were soldiers like any others…materialists, possessive, keen on pleasures and earthly goods.”  He spoke of the West in a way that made it sound like a long-lost love.  A place he strove for in film…Shane (1953), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), High Noon (1952), and Vera Cruz (1954) were some of his favorite movies of all time.

The choice to pull back on the none-stop action from his previous three westerns and conduct a piece of visual art in a slower, tenser style was a brave thing to do.  Although maybe not accepted at first, we hail his choice today.

One of the scenes that sells me on this magnificent western is the scene that Leone sold to Fonda all those years ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ptjc9Vono4

The entrance of the dusters.  Epic.  Just at that point you say to yourself, “Things just got a little more interesting…”

The music buildup, the dusters slowly stepping out of the foreground onto the big screen, their guns resting at their sides, Henry Fonda giving a crooked look at the boy who looks over his murdered family.  There’s a good tension right at the forefront of our story, and immediately we know our villain is actually an evil man.  One who is downright dirty and merciless.  Gotta love it.

We could break down so many scenes–and I encourage you to while you watch the movie–but we better move on.

The music.  The music was written by composer Ennio Morricone, Leone’s regular collaborator, who wrote the score under Leone’s direction before filming began. As in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the daunting music adds to the film’s grandeur and, like the music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is considered one of Morricone’s greatest compositions.  Morricone’s music is usually considered to be a vital part of Sergio Leone’s western films. During the beginning of the film, Leone instead uses a number of natural sounds, for instance a turning wheel in the wind, sound of a train, grasshoppers, shotguns while hunting, wings of pigeons, etc.  But while it’s there, we eat up every second of it!

To assist me with my summary, I pull part of a review from the vast imdb.com, with a movie review by slaforce in 2006.  It reads:

“I thought I knew westerns, I’d seen John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Glen Ford, Audie Murphy, Richard Widmark, Alan Ladd, all of them save the day many times. I was wrong, I was 14 yrs old when I went to the local movie house to see this movie in 1969. My grandmother took me, she had always been a huge fan of Henry Fonda’s, and even though she didn’t care for western’s, she dragged me to this one. I’ll never forget how engrossed I was from beginning to end. And this one movie was the basis for all my future wish’s to have been born a cowboy. Everything about this movie impressed me one way or the other.  Simply put, this movie is the most visually stimulating and engrossing movie I have ever watched.  I have seen plenty of great movies in my in my fifty years of life, but this one, is in my opinion more than a movie, it’s a piece of history unfolding in front of your eyes with no censorship or BS added for flavor. True, the movie has been chopped up some for TV and other forms of presentation, but when I was in that theater in 1969, the movie was, to use a semi modern term “AWESOME”.  No one, not even if you dislike westerns, should pass on this one.”

So…do you think you know westerns?  Think you can just live off of John Wayne?  C’mon!  Time to shake it up with this artful classic!  Is it some of the bad lip dubbing that dismays you?  The intense wide shots?  Morricone’s haunting score?  Please give it a shot.  Leone knew what he was doing at the time, and now, we can appreciate it as a masterpiece…at the very least.

The American Western is a dying genre in film.  Hollywood has had very little “use” of it in the last fifteen years.  Although there have been a small handful of good westerns made, none of them have brought home the bacon, so to speak.  But that may be because all of the action audiences demand nowadays.  I could go on a long tangent on Westerns and the modern day cultures’ reaction to one of my favorite genres…however, I’ll save it for another day.

If you feel an outlaw tugging the lasso around your heart, mayhap you will consider this epic for a weekend watch.  It’s honestly worth it.

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About Morgan

January 2016 Update: This blog is under reconstruction. Please be patient while we gradually remove old material, posts, and pages, and create new ones. Thank you.
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