Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 22, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1968)

5. Once Upon a Time in the West

After wrapping up the Dollars trilogy, and seemingly creating the high-point of the genre in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Sergio Leone said he was done making westerns. Despite offers from studios to make another, including one that would have starred Kirk Douglas, Leone held fast to that statement. That was until Paramount offered him a bigger budget and, more importantly, a starring role from Henry Fonda. Fonda was Leone’s favorite actor. He had previously tried to cast him as the Man with No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars.” Fonda’s involvement was enough to convince Leone to make another western. With a screenplay co-written by then film critic and future horror auteur Dario Argento, “Once Upon a Time in the West” rolled into production. The film is considered by some to be, not only Leone’s best works, but one of the best films ever made.

The railway is extending into the wild west. A portion of land called Sweetwater, owned by a man named McBain, is the easiest access to water in the desert. Knowing the railway would go through his property, McBain has plans to build a port. However, McBain is killed by goons hired by the railway man, Morton, and led by the vicious Frank. Plans to take the land is interrupted when McBain’s previously unmentioned wife, Jill, arrives in town. Also arriving in town is a mysterious stranger who plays the harmonica and a good natured bandit named Cheyenne. The four individuals come together in a tangled path of land ownership, the future of the town, and personal revenge.

Having all ready created the ultimate western with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Leone’s goal with “Once Upon a Time in the West” was to push his style, and the genre with it, as far as it could go. The film begins with a long, mostly silent credits sequence. Three men arrive at the train station. The camera focuses on their hard, sweaty, wrinkled faces. They mill about, waiting for the train to arrive. A fly buzzes. A fan squeaks in the wind. Water drips from a leaky tower. There are no music, the sound effects filling in the background. When the stranger arrives, and guns down the assailants, the violence is lightening fast and sudden. These elements reoccur throughout the film. Leone’s camera is patient, often adsorbing what’s happen in slow, meticulous detail. Many of Leone’s narrative trademarks are present. There’s a powerful Morricone score, tense stand-offs between bad men, a torture sequence, and a motive-lending flashback slowly revealed throughout the film.

The scope of “Once Upon a Time in the West” is simultaneously huge and intimate. Leone’s lens is wider then ever before. The sweeping desert vistas, and the little men and towns lost among them, are shown in extra wide-screen. Yet Leone has always shot his actor’s face with the same sort of grand span. With Paramount backing the film, Leone was working with a major studio’s budget for the first time in his career. Thus the sets, props, costumes, and details are lavish. The bigger budget also allowed for a higher amount of grit. Every person and place of residence is caked with dirt and sweat. The movie goes as far as possible to replicate what the west actually looked and felt like.

Thematically, “Once Upon a Time in the West” deals with the end of the west. As the railway enters the Arizona desert, it bring civilization and order to the chaotic western frontier. The story deals with control over those commodities. The railway goes where the water is and whoever controls the railway, controls the future. Gunslingers like Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank are things of the past. Their time is winding down. By film’s end, the bloodshed is over. Vengeance is fulfilled and debts are paid. Two of the three men are dead and the last rides off, disappearing into the horizon. In their path, they leave a new town, new businesses, and a new world. Enough elegiac westerns have been made that it’s practically a genre onto itself. “Once Upon a Time in the West” makes the same point in a clear, subtle way.

In the Dollars Trilogy, women did not play a particularly large role. There’s one named female character in “A Fistful of Dollars.” All the women in the previous entries were either dead or the most minor of characters. “Once Upon a Time in the West” corrects this by making a woman the main character. Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain drives much of the plot. The land she owns is what the villains are after. Jill is not a passive victim. When she hears a harmonica in the night, one of the most beguiling moments in the film, she grabs a rifle and prepares to fire. When Frank and his goons threaten her home, she goes directly to him, using the skills she knows. Because this was still 1968, Jill is a former prostitute and sleeps with Frank, in attempt to talk him out of his plans. It doesn’t work. Yet Jill’s checkered past is never held against her. It doesn’t make her any less strong. Cardinale is gorgeous, in addition to being the story’s emotional rock and its powerful center.

The film’s casting coup is Henry Fonda as Frank. Fonda’s public perception as a pure, virtuous hero was so ingrained that he was one of the few actors believably cast as both Abraham Lincoln and Tim Joad. His many appearances in westerns always had him playing the hero. Leone intentionally cast him against type. The man said it best himself: “An unseen man guns a child down in cold blood. The camera pans up and… it’s Henry Fonda.” Frank is a cold-blooded mercenary. He kills without question. His loyalties are sold to the highest bidder. He has a sadistic streak a mile wide. Fonda’s all-American good looks are surprisingly well-suited to a villain. His big blue eyes project a cruel coolness and a casual ability to end a life. His “romantic” scene with Cardinale has an intense undercurrent of malice. His negotiations with Morton are similarly fraught with dread. Frank is one of the most frightening villains in all of western history and Fonda is powerful in the role.

The other lead of “Once Upon a Time in the West” is another actor Sergio Leone had wanted to work with before. Charles Bronson was also approached to play the Man with No Name and declined. (In an unusually switch-a-roo, Harmonica was first offered to Clint Eastwood, who turned it down.) Harmonica is a variation on the same role, the stranger who wanders into town. In the ensuing years, Bronson would play many emotionless revenge killers and it was a part he excelled at. However, Bronson’s best roles played up his ability for a quiet humor. This is on displayed in his role as Harmonica. The character certainly has a way with the one-liner, coolly and calmly delivering dialogue about too many horses and people’s abilities to cut rope. The film plays up an unexpected side of Bronson. Beneath that stone face, the heavy brow, the crystal sharp green eyes, there is a surprising amount of emotion. By keeping his expression so still, Bronson suggests a man that has been hiding a lot. As he finally faces down his foe, his eyes shown in close-up by Leone, tears well up in his eyes. Of fear? Relief, over this finally being over? It’s hard to say. Either way, Harmonica is a definitive Charles Bronson character.

Filling out the third corner of the trio is James Robard’s Cheyenne. Robard, more commonly seen as down-to-Earth everyman, was also slightly cast against type as the rough gunslinger. Cheyenne is also a variation on a character that previously appeared in a Leone movie. The character has more then a little in common with Tuco. Both are comic relief in not especially funny movies. Both play hard men with rough histories and a life time of unspoken regrets behind them. Both form unexpected bonds with men that should be their enemies. Robards has a similar swagger and style to Eli Wallach as well. Out of the main cast, perhaps Cheyenne gets the short stick. He’s a rough-and-tumble bandit and gunfighter. However, the character is capable of unexpected insight. The jewel of wisdom he gives Jill are funny and touching in an odd way. Robards is very good in the role.

Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone’s working relationship was entrenched by now. The score for “Once Upon a Time in the West” lacks the immediately recognizable themes of the Dollars Trilogy. This doesn’t mean it isn’t an excellent piece of music. Once again, Morricone creates unique themes for each main character. Harmonica is preceded by a mournful harmonica cry that builds into an abrasive shriek of strings. Those same harsh strings represent Frank, the cruel, rough villain. The sadness of the music hints at the character’s tragic past. Robard’s Cheyenne is greeted by the jangly plucking of the banjo, suggesting his down-home roots and comedic status. The most beautiful leitmotif is reserved for Jill, a gorgeous woman’s choir of building, swelling music. Though not as catchy as past work, Morricone’s music here is deep and resonating.

Despite its tough guy exterior, “Once Upon a Time in the West” is a film of great emotion. Though the film does not dwell on it, Jill slowly develops a romantic attraction to Harmonica. As a man who expects little of her and demands nothing, he appeals to the woman. His quiet strength also impresses her. Harmonica, however, is the wandering hero and can’t stay with her, even if he wanted too. Cheyenne should be a rival of the other man. He certainly doesn’t like him much when they first meet, finding him cocky and glib. However, a mutual enemy creates an alliance between the two. A begrudging respect forms soon afterwards and, by film’s end, the two are friends. The most affecting relationship in the film is between Harmonica and Frank. When the reason why the hero is pursuing the villainy is revealed, it’s some of the most effective and cruelly poetic imagery Leone would ever put to film.

No western is complete without a couple shoot-outs. And no Leone western is complete with an exciting, dynamic shoot-out. The bullets come fast and fierce. The opening shoot-out between Brosnan and the three men is over in seconds. More then once, he displays his lightening fast shooting skills, knocking men off their horses. Having a fast drawl does not make him unique in this film. Frank’s skills are such that he can shoot the buckles of a man’s belt. A creative sequence is set on a train. Cheyenne climbs along the outside. An especially clever bit has him hiding a gun in his boot. The most elaborate shoot-out takes place in town, as Frank’s own men turn on him. It recalls the town wide shoot-outs in “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” However, this one is even more dynamic in its violence, with more men falling from railings and hiding behind billboards. Yet the crowning achievement is the final showdown between Harmonica and Frank. The gun fight is over in seconds. The build-up is the show, the men circling each other, starring one another down. In these tough men’s eyes, Leone paints vivid pictures.

When I first saw “Once Upon a Time in the West,” I liked it but also thought it was too long and paled in comparison to the Dollars films. Upon rewatcing the film, I liked it a lot more. Yes, it is very long. (Though shorter then “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”) That doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie much. The film is a crowning achievement, equal parts exciting and deep, an emotional, poetic journey. Whether or not it’s truly the best western of all time isn’t for me to decide. It is definitively a masterpiece and one of the best films from a director who made plenty of good movies. [Grade: A]

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