Once Upon a Time in the West
Synopsis: Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the power-hungry owner of a railroad company, hires Frank (Henry Fonda), a gunfighter without a conscience, to kill anyone who stands in the way of the completion of the railroad. After Frank murders land owner Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), McBain's widow (Claudia Cardinale) hires two killers of her own to protect her and gain revenge: a mysterious, harmonica-playing desperado (Charles Bronson) and his rogue sidekick (Jason Robards).
Leone, like all genius filmmakers, relied on images, not words, to tell a story.
For generations of moviegoers the Western hero was pure in spirit. He was gallant and he had a sense of humour. He had to use his gun because the times called for it. Usually he had movie star good looks, all the better to accommodate the dreams of a good woman. He mourned the loss of the buffalo and the end of the prairie but he knew that clearing the way for the railroad and the trail meant the future... and the future would be better. He was Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda. The Western was popular partly because it was a statement about how America was invented – a savage place 'tamed' into a democratic civilisation.
Directed by Sergio Leone Once Upon a Time of the West, originally released in 1969 and here restored to its full nearly three-hour length, is, as the title suggests something of a fairytale. It is both ‘about’ the West and the Western. Leone, an Italian and a movie buff who grew up on western adventures, was a conflicted character.
He pays a reverent homage to John Ford, the American filmmaker so closely associated with the genre, in West, by using that director’s favourite location, Monument Valley (of the red earth and magnificent rock slabs that stroke a sheltering sky)… but what Ford celebrated there, Leone comes to bury in this brilliant film.
In his so-called spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), it was clear Leone adored the cinema of the West and its imagery of tough men with guns, its rigid plotting full of fierce emotions - love and hate - and its stark landscapes, both beautiful and scary. Still, Leone’s loathing for what the Western represented was apparent in the grotesque, campy characterisations and in the savagery of Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
So when it came to Once Upon a Time… Leone poured all his feelings into it, distilling his contempt for “American triumphalism,” in irony and movie-references. He cast Henry Fonda as the villain. There’s no mistaking Leone’s impish desire to shock the audience who knew Fonda as lovely and decent. Right after massacring a family, near the beginning of the film, Leone wheels around his camera to reveal, in gigantic close-up, Fonda as the culprit, a maniac with baby blue eyes.
Charles Bronson, whose evil squint projects bad-guy stoicism, plays the hero as a mysterious, lonely creature, something unclean and untouchable. Like John Wayne’s Ethan in The Searchers (1956), Bronson’s character can never be fully redeemed since he not driven by high ideals but something terrible inside him, “something to do with death.”
If there were any doubt Leone desired to re-form the male centred world of the Western it’s dispelled in the casting of Claudia Cardinale as Jill, the "whore with a heart of Gold" who becomes the true ‘hero’ of this West. A voluptuous beauty, she is so apposite to the conventional ‘type’ of the plain, long-suffering frontierswoman she is like a rejoinder to the convenient pieties of the American cinema.
The plot mobilises two classic Western narratives - the land war and the revenge tale. In fact, most scholars see West as an elaborate re-stating of archetypal western situations and scenes. This isn't surprising since Leone and his co-scenarists, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento spent weeks watching key entries in the genre like The Iron Horse (1924), and Johnny Guitar (1954). The screenplay, by Leone and Sergio Donati playfully and cunningly re-stages them -ultimately twisting them into some thing deeper, darker, stranger and funnier, no more so than the movies justly famous opening where three bad dudes wait for a train- and the man they want kill (see High Noon, 1952). It's staged with such grand eloquence, and the suspense is so great, it's like a climax, not a curtain raiser.
Still, what's great about West shouldn't just come down to celebrating its depth as a 'statement'. Leone, like all genius filmmakers relied on images, not words, to tell a story. The pace is glacial, all the better to soak in details in the sound design and in the epic and rich compositions. West tends to be remembered for Morricone's grand score and the sweeping camera moves and the deliberately painterly frames. But what's even better is the way he uses silence and the power of the close up. His camera strokes and coaxes and seems to bore into the soul of his characters to lay bare their yearnings. Leone wants us to watch and listen hard. The rewards are spectacular. Don't miss it.
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