Monday, November 7, 2011

Film #66: C'era una volta il West (1968)


Title for us English-Speaking Types: Once Upon a Time in the West

Director: Sergio Leone

Initial Release Country: Italy

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Mysterious drifter meets beautiful widow in the Wild West. Tangles with a wild outlaw, a bad dude in black, and railroads. Stares at everything.

Extended Summary (Slightly longer plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

An unnamed man (Charles Bronson) with a penchant for playing a harmonica arrives in a developing part of the West during the expansion in the 19th century. He has come looking for revenge against man named Frank (Henry Fonda). Frank is a cold-blooded assassin hired by a railroad magnate, Morton, to help his railroad reach the west coast. Standing in their way is Jill, a former prostitute who has recently married the enterprising Brett McBain, a landowner who has been murdered, along with his three children, by Frank and his gang of thugs. McBain had, years before, foreseen that the railroad would need to come through the area, so he bought land and planned to build an entire town around it – a town he would name Sweetwater. Now, only his widow Jill is left to see his dream come to fruition, if she avoids Morton and Frank's attempts to get rid of her.

Mixed up in all of this is the outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Cheyenne is on the run from the law, but has a certain dignity and code that ingratiate him to both Harmonica and Jill. Cheyenne has been framed by Frank for the murder of the McBains, so he also has motivation to find this cunning killer. It takes a while for Harmonica, Jill, and Cheyenne to uncover McBain's plans for Sweetwater. Once they do, they realize their aims are in line with each other. After some close calls and a few twists, Morton is killed by Cheyenne's men, and Harmonica gets his showdown with Frank. Harmonica shoots Frank in a stand-off and only then reveals that he is the younger brother of one of Frank's many victims over his bloody years. He has waited patiently for decades to confront Frank and put an end to his murdering life.

Harmonica gets his cold revenge.

With Frank dead, Harmonica heads away from Sweetwater, the construction of which is now in full-swing. Brett McBain had bought all of the wood and supplies needed to construct the train station and the town around it. With Morton and his goons out of the way, Jill and her dozens of hired men are free to build up her dead husband's ultimate wish.

An exceptionally detailed, full plot summary can be found here, at imdb's website.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research.)

I now see why the creators of the TIME list put this one on there. It's not only a standout western, but simply a great movie, regardless of genre. My quick-shot summary above gives you no idea of just how great.

I had watched this once before and wondered why, with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly already on the list, the fellows at TIME had put another Leone western on it. After all, aren't his westerns all similarly unique in carrying those Leone trademarks? Yes and no.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is brilliant, no doubt. (You can read me gush about it in this post that I did several weeks ago). And while there are glimmers of some deeper commentary about U.S. history and violence in the movie, it is ultimately an epic adventure story. Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes hop from locale to locale, trying to out-duel and outsmart each other in ways that keep the watcher engaged in a very accessible way. Once Upon A Time in the West, despite some excellent action sequences, is another breed.

With this film, Leone slowed things down considerably. One only needs to watch the first ten minutes to see it. In that former film, you start with an extended close-up and a few slow minutes of build-up before you get Tuco Ramirez gunning down three bounty hunters and crashing through a barber shop window. In Once Upon A Time, it's nearly ten minutes of almost no action. We watch three of Frank's men walk into a train station and patiently wait for Harmonica as the opening credits intermittently pop up. Missing also is the early introduction of a rousing Ennio Morricone soundtrack, which one doesn't hear until nearly ten minutes in. I imagine that many modern viewers would lose patience with such pacing, but it's perfect for conveying the eerie and misleading stillness of the terrain and the characters.

It takes nearly ten tension-building, dialogue-free minutes to get to the first piece of fast action. Harmonica (in the distance) is about to show these 3 hombres what happens when you mess with the quiet guy in a Leone Western.

It is with this same slow and gradual pacing that the entire story of the film is told over two hours and forty-five minutes. I can't help but think that many modern viewers would not have the wherewithal for it. For those who do, though, there are payoffs galore. The sweeping long shots of the wide open southwestern terrain are incredible, surpassing even the earlier works of Leone himself. I was reminded of another director's observation that Leone, like many other Italian artists raised on steady diets of classical painting techniques, had an innate knack for frame composition. Time and again in this movie, you can simply drink in the landscape and marvel at how the characters and their story fit into it.

Of course, the movie isn't telling the tale of southwestern U.S. geography. Its lifeblood is in the narrative and the characters. Like his other spaghetti westerns (a slight misnomer, since some scenes were filmed in Utah and Arizona), Leone's characters are not exactly the most well-rounded you will ever come across. Still, they are intriguing, and they have just enough facets to make them compelling. Sure, Harmonica is pretty much the same “man with no name” that Eastwood played in the “Dollars” trilogy; and sure, Cheyenne is a slight twist on Tuco Ramirez from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. All the same, they're entertaining. The most novel addition is Jill – easily the strongest and most prominent female character in any of Leone's movies.

The biggest eye-opener in terms of characters is Frank. Not so much because of the character (not too dissimilar from Angel Eyes in The Good) , but because of who played the role. Having established and all-American swell guy Henry Fonda gunning down children, kidnapping women, and generally exuding evil is hypnotic. With those piercing eyes and almost kindly voice, it borders on terrifying to see him do his butcher's work with such icy satisfaction. Fonda was so good at the role that it almost seems a loss that he didn't get pegged for more dastardly roles earlier in his career.

Fonda's gaze is as dead as the pale corpses he leaves in his wake. Tom Joad, this ain't.

Fonda is clearly the standout, but a few other performances shouldn't go overlooked. Charles Bronson is, well, Charles Bronson. He's still. He's quiet. He has a mean glare. That was enough for this role, just like every other role he every had. Claudia Cardinale is solid as the world-weary ex-prostitute, Jill. She was smoking hot, no doubt, but also has a sultry wisdom that fit the part to a tee. Easily the best of the other main players, though, is Jason Robards as Cheyenne. Most markedly in his scenes with Cardinale, Robards is outstanding as the scuzzy yet compassionate, larcenous yet honorable criminal. I don't think I'll put him up there with Tuco in my esteem, but he's pretty close.

On top of the great visuals, pacing, and solid characters and acting, is the underlying theme of western expansion. This is what puts this movie over the top. While Leone made a few feints at social commentary and figurative imagery in his previous film, he really goes for it in Once Upon a Time, and I feel that he does it right. The West was “won” by the sweat, blood, and pain of who-knows-how-many people, and the idealism and greed of wealthy magnates who didn't much care who got ground up along the way. This movie can be seen as a forefather of more modern film takes on the subject like There Will Be Blood. Fortunately, Leone never bashes you over the head with symbolism. Probably the best moment of restraint is when the decrepit rail magnate Morton is dying, face-down near a tiny puddle. We could have been treated to a clumsy interposition of the Pacific Ocean right then, but we aren't. We simply see the image play out, along with Frank, and take in just how a grand scheme can end so pathetically.

The rail magnate Morton gazes at a picture of his dream, the Pacific. The closest he gets is the shallow pool of dusty desert water, where he dies.

If there's anything to nitpick, one is that Leone often pushes verisimilitude to the back so that clever film style can be front and center. Some scenes are easy to dismiss as a bit silly and unrealistic, such as when Frank's thugs silently take over the auction for the Sweetwater property. A touch goofy it may be, but even scenes like this are simply chances for Leone to use visual rather than dialectic storytelling. And, as anyone who has seen and knows his films can attest, he was brilliant at this. I've always been a fan of being forced to actually watch the movie, and not just rely on exposition. I can see why some viewers might poo-poo these sequences as parlor tricks of sorts, but I'm always amused and impressed by them.

My only other minor gripe is that the Ennio Morricone soundtrack in Once Upon a Time is not quite as strong as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. It's certainly as quirky and unique, but I actually found the integrated harmonica wail mostly annoying. Luckily, Cheyenne's theme song had a playful bounce to it, which accompanied the character's more amiable nature nicely.

Jason Robards has the look and psychology of the cynically humorous thief, Cheyenne, down pat.

Any who enjoy westerns or simply well-crafted movies that make full use of the techniques particular to the medium should give this one a serious shot. As I suggested in my review of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a good primer is working through Leone's three films with Clint Eastwood, starting with the 90-minute A Fistful of Dollars. The production isn't nearly as sharp (it was probably made with about $45), but the director's skill is easy to see. If you enjoy that, work your way through the rest, and cap it off with Once Upon a Time in the West, probably the most enduring of them all.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after a little more research on the film.)

After some digging, I am reminded why many movie lovers can be forgiven if they have never seen or even heard of this movie. Here in the U.S., it was a total flop.

Thanks to Paramount's meddling and editing, the original had 20 minutes cut out of it, which never helps narrative cohesion. More than this, though, was a seeming lack of preparation on the parts of the viewers. Both Paramount and American audiences were hoping for another skewed, high-paced action flick like the previous "Dollars" trilogy. They weren't ready for such a slow, deliberately paced movie. Even Roger Ebert, who was often ahead of the critical curve with his viewing eye, was lukewarm in his original review in 1969. In contrast, French and Italian audiences loved it. So much so that the movie would run in some places for up to four years following the initial release. In the U.S., it barely lasted a few months.

It wasn't until the mid-80s that the studio restored the original version, and the few American cinephiles who had always revered it could share their vindication. With the intercession of decades, you see the movie pop up all over “best movie” lists.

On the DVD I watched, the most recent special release, there are some excellent short documentaries, featuring past and modern interviews with some of the cast and crew, as well as several prominent modern film directors. They all marvel at how Leone concocted an ultimate summation of the greatest American westerns in Once Upon a Time. The list of films from which he drew is almost an encyclopedia of the genre's greatest works – High Noon, Shane, the Monument Valley films of John Ford, and around a dozen others. Leone not only blended the strongest elements of them all, but he added his own style and cynicism to the themes and characters. One modern commentator called it a massive homage to, and final dirge for, the film Western.

Taking a play right out of the John Ford play book, Leone shot several scenes in the exact same spots of Monument Valley. This shot, along with dozens of others, capture the expansiveness of the whole region.

A note of more specific interest was learning how the music for the film fit into the process. Contrary to almost all other films, the music score was composed first, and the scenes shot to match. The four primary pieces of music, each specific to the four main characters, are introduced separately in turn, and then blended by the end of the movie. The effect is truly remarkable, and a testament to Leone's vision.

Actors loved working with Sergio Leone. This only came as a surprise to me in light of the fact that he was such a visual perfectionist. Another renowned perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick, was notoriously difficult for actors to work with, because of his demands and inflexibility. Leone, on the other hand, gave his actors plenty of latitude to do as they saw fit. Integrating such freedom from performers with his own crystal clear vision is something that boggles my mind.

A final note on Leone's film genius. As I'd heard mentioned when researching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, apparently Leone never did any story boarding of any kind. Unlike nearly all other highly visual directors, who physically map out their scenes so that the sequencing is correct, Leone had a pure, completely finished tale worked out in his head by the time filming began. I'm reminded of the scene in Milos Foreman's Amadeus when Salieri marvels at seeing Mozart's uncorrected, flawless first drafts of his symphonic and operatic scores. Whether this was true of Mozart or not, it was very true in Leone's case. The fruits of such a sharp imagination can be seen in all of his works.

So again, I highly recommend seeing this movie for those with the time and who know what they're in for. Be patient, soak up the beauty of it, and know that you are watching a film Western classic the likes of which can only be imitated, but never replicated.

If the film artistry isn't enough of a draw for you, maybe this shot will entice you. It also explains why Claudia Cardinale as Jill had jaws dropping across oceans.

That's a wrap. 66 shows down. 39 to go.

Coming Soon: A Touch of Zen (1971)


I'm totally in the dark about this movie. Never heard of it, and only know that it looks like a sword-swinging kung-fu extravaganza. It'll also be the first Chinese movie that I review for this project.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.