Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Once Upon a Time in the West Review

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson
A land dispute over an area called Sweetwater sets the stage for conflict between Harmonica (Bronson), a man out for revenge against Frank (Fonda), the hired gun tasked to run off the Sweetwaters owners the McBains. Even though Frank was instructed only to scare the McBains, he brutally killed them all, because as he says “People scare better when they’re dying.”, then framed the bandit Cheyenne (Robards) for the murders. The railroad’s plans to take ownership of the land are stopped by the arrival of McBain’s new wife Jill (Cardinale). After Harmonica gets involved due to his interest in Frank, he discovers something: McBain was smart and claimed a section of land with the only source of water for miles, the land would have made him rich. These factors combine to set the stage for an epic confrontation  in the waning days of the old west.

After making The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone had decided to no longer make westerns, because he felt that he had said all he needed to say on the subject. But the unforeseen side effect of making three of the biggest westerns of recent years caused him to be typecast as a westerns director. After turning down many offers to do other westerns with big stars, Paramount offered him a chance to make a movie with Henry Fonda, his favorite actor. Leone accepted the offer, and began working on a script with Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento* by  watching many American westerns and crafting a story that paid homage to them. The resulting film is a deep, engrossing film about the end of the American west.
The characters are iconic, and in some cases, like with Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Frank, subverting the audiences preconceived notions of the types of roles that the actors had previously played. A lot has been said over the years about how the role of Harmonica was originally offered to Clint Eastwood, only for him to turn it down for Bronson to accept. But I think that if he had played Harmonica it would have taken away from the film, as it would probably be seen as another part of the Man with No Name series rather than standing on its own. As Harmonica, Charles Bronson gives a great performance. It’s been said that Bronson was offered the lead roles in the Man with No Name movies only to turn them down, but after watching this it’s easy to see how he would have played those roles. But the standout performance of the movie is Henry Fonda as Frank. In his first (and only) time playing the villain, he just exudes menace in every scene he is in, and with a simple look or a smile comes across as one of the more scary western bad guys.  I’m sure it was shocking for audiences to see him gunning down children in 1968, but during the scene at the end where it’s finally revealed what he did to Harmonica; there is a cut to Frank smiling that is downright chilling. This is a great example of casting against type, and it’s one of the reasons why the film works like it does. Jason Robards is also good in the movie, playing the bandit Cheyenne. He gives the character a feeling that can best be described as tired and weary, but at the same time he ends up being the heart of the film. His final scene with Harmonica is moving, and the moment where he dies as his theme pauses is a great moment.
And then there’s Claudia Cardinale as Jill. Not only is she the most sympathetic character, but she is also the only character that changes throughout the movie, and part of that involves not depending on another man to save her. At the end she goes out to make her own life in the town. A big part of the movie is how things are changing, and throughout the film, she is there, wanting a better life, which she ends up getting. One of the more interesting things about the film is that she’s the most prominent face on most of the marketing materials for the film, and she gets top billing over the male actors. This is pretty amazing for a genre that usually sticks women in roles of either victims or sex objects, and that her story arc is one that involves her becoming an independent woman without resorting to violence.
One of the biggest questions most people have after seeing the movie is why did Jill hook up with Frank? Because she was scared.  It also fits in with her backstory as presented in the movie, as a former prostitute she’s used to using her body to get out of circumstances that she’s stuck in. Cardinale plays the role as a woman full of confidence, and she has more to do in this movie than just being a corner of a love triangle. And there really isn’t any romantic subplot in the film.  She’s obviously interested in Harmonica, but he’s only interested in revenge against Frank. Harmonica is the most heroic person she’s ever dealt with, making him her ideal man.
This film is full of great long shots that build tension through long shots and sound design. The cinematography in the film is amazing, and the film moves by at a breezy pace, never feeling like it’s overlong or bloated.  The sound design in this movie is great, and when things start going bad and gunshots are fired, they seem extremely loud, shocking you into realizing the danger and importance of the actions going on.  Action scenes are sparse, but when they happen they are worth the wait. At one point Cheyenne tells Jill ““He’s [Harmonica] whittling on a piece of wood. When he stops whittling something’s going to happen”, and really that’s the best way to describe the action of the movie. Long waits for big payoffs. The scene where Cheyenne bursts into the train car and saves Harmonica is a great bit of action, and I especially love the bit with the gun in the boot. Also Frank questioning “How can you trust a man that wears a belt and suspenders? He don’t even trust his own pants,” which leads to him killing the man by shooting him in the suspenders and belt. But the scene where it’s finally revealed as to why Harmonica wants vengeance is an extremely powerful and well edited scene, and it will make you hate Frank even more, especially when they cut to him smiling during the act. Another question most viewers have is how Cheyenne escapes custody, but I actually like the way that the movie handles this. It’s very subtle about it, showing the set-up of Cheyenne getting on the train and some of his men also getting on board, and then seeing the aftermath in a memorable scene where Frank comes upon the destruction, and sees Morton dying.  Had they shown his rescue the scene would probably be a bit derivative of the earlier scene where Cheyenne storms the train and saves Harmonica. But seeing the results of his scape leads to Frank’s realization, as seen when he says “The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now - not the land, not the money, not the woman.” He knows what Harmonica and Cheyenne have known, and what Jill is learning. The times of gunmen are ending, and a new age is beginning where money is the most important thing, and whomever has it, no matter what gender, is the most powerful.
This film is the prime example of a director working at the top of his game, delivering a perfect film that has received a good bit of critical reevaluation over the years and is now seen as not just one of the best westerns ever made, but as one of the greatest films of all time. While it doesn’t get brought up as much as the three earlier Leone westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West may seem underrated**, but it is an important film that needs to be seen by anyone who has any interest in westerns. Highly Recommended.
*It’s a bit weird for me to see his name on the credits, after years of seeing it associated with the horror genre.
**It’s not. Duck You Sucker! is the underrated Leone film.

No comments:

Post a Comment