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Once Upon a Time in the West

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/19/09 06:41:53

"If you see only one Western, see..."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 52ND SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The words “masterpiece” and “classic” are too often over-used by film critics, movie bloggers, and self-described cineastes. Sergio Leone’s fourth film, "Once Upon a Time in the West" ("C'era una volta il West"), an operatic, mytho-poetic Western, fully deserves to be called “masterpiece” and “classic.” After completing the “Man With No Name” trilogy ("The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "For a Few Dollars More," "A Fistful of Dollars"), Leone embarked on the definitive Western, a grand summation of the themes and ideas (visual and narrative) that drove an Italian filmmaker to write and direct films in an American-focused genre. But in making “Italo-Westerns” (Leone justifiably disliked the “Spaghetti Western” term), he helped to redefine and reinvigorate a moribund genre. Only Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch," "Major Dundee," "Ride the High Country") did as much to rejuvenate the genre.

In the first scene, three armed men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) wait (waiting are both a given in Once Upon a Time in the West) for a train to arrive in Flagstone, Arizona. When, however, the train arrives and a stranger disembarks, a terse exchange of dialogue leads to a gunfight. Only the stranger, another iteration of Leone’s “Man With No Name” character (who Leone once envisioned Eastwood playing), identified later only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) for the musical instrument he carries around his neck and plays repeatedly, survives. The harmonica’s meaning becomes a central mystery resolved only in the climactic showdown between the stranger and the man he’s come to Flagstone to kill, for a reason (or reasons) left unspecified until the final, devastating flashback.

In just the second scene, Leone breaks a fundamental rule of the Western genre: children are, by their nature, exempt from violence. Outside of Flagstone, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his immediate family wait on their farm, the inaptly named “Sweetwater,” for a later train to arrive. They hunt, prepare food, and argue. Before the oldest son can leave for the train station, men in long dusters gun down the McBain family. The gang, led by Led by Frank (Henry Fonda, cast against type), a cold, cruel gunslinger, works for Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a railroad baron. Morton suffers from a debilitating, terminal illness that’s left him unable to walk without crutches. Morton hopes to see the railroad reach the Pacific Ocean before he dies, but the McBains owned land crucial to the railroad’s expansion. Morton and Frank, however, are unaware that McBain married Jill (Claudia Cardinale) in New Orleans weeks earlier. As a McBain (if only in name), Jill now owns the property. The fourth major character, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an outlaw with a romantic streak, runs into Jill and Harmonica at a trading post, seconds after escaping from an armed escort, later becoming enraged when he discovers he's been set up as the killer of the McBain family (he draws the line at killing children apparently).

Although Leone was ready to leave the Western behind (he already had plans for Once Upon a Time in America, which he filmed 14 years later), Paramount offered him $3,000,000, his largest budget to date, and an opportunity to work with Henry Fonda, who he cast against type, as well as other American actors associated with the American Western (e.g., Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, etc.). Leone initially turned to Dario Argento (Opera, Tenebrae, Suspiria, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, 1900, The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem) to write the story treatment. Argento and Bertolucci included references or quotations to several American Westerns, including High Noon (in the opening scene), The Searchers (in the closing scene), Shane (again, in the closing scene), as well as 3:10 to Yuma (in a line of dialogue), John Ford’s cavalry trilogy (brief shots in Monument Valley), and numerous others, in effect making Once Upon a Time in the West the first post-modern Western.

For Leone, each film was a step away from the ossified visual and narrative conventions of the Western genre and toward an increasingly baroque visual style. A Fistful of Dollars was shot on the cheap for $200,000 on unused film stock, with a then-little known TV actor named Clint Eastwood, and shot in Spain with a mixed Italian-Spanish crew. The commercial success of A Fistful of Dollars gave Leone more money and more time to plan his next film, For a Few Dollars More only a year later. Leone’s style matured with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, e.g., lengthy shots held beyond narrative or causal necessity, characters honed down into elemental archetypes, the music more operatic, and an emphasis on visual composition, including the deep-focus photography that defined his visual style, a visual style that would find its apotheosis in Once Upon a Time in the West only two years later.

Leone’s collaborators were (almost) as important to the success of Once Upon a Time in the West. Torino Delli Colli handled the stunning widescreen Techniscope cinematography. Delli Colli, a visual stylist in his own right, harnessed his talents to Leone’s. Surprisingly, Leone never storyboarded his films, relying on a combination of factors, including period authenticity, as delivered by his production designer, Carlo Simi, Delli Colli’s on-set preparations, his own, on-set creative decisions, and editing, where he molded and shaped the film into its final product. Ennio Morricone, Leone’s composer on the Man With No Name trilogy returned to write the sweeping, soaring score for Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone played Morricone’s pre-composed score during filming to give the actors emotional and tonal direction.

Along with his collaborators, Leone succeeded in creating a grand, operatic mytho-poetic Western, a summing up of the Western’s interrelated themes and preoccupations, e.g., the vanishing of the frontier, the end of the violent gunfighter era (typified in the Harmonica, Frank, Cheyenne characters), and Anglo-American colonization westward are all present in Once Upon a Time in the West. Jill represents the restless, indomitable American spirit, both in her self-conscious reinvention from a prostitute to a landowner’s wife and her desire to move west, a decision guided, perhaps subconsciously, by “manifest destiny” (American imperialism by another name). Frank, Harmonica, and Cheyenne represent the violent, retributive Old West, the romanticized, idealized past ruthlessly swept under the railroad tracks of progress.

Leone would go on to direct only two more films in the next twenty years before his death in 1989 (he was sixty), "A Fistful of Dynamite" in 1972, a film he didn’t want to direct, but did at the last minute, and "Once Upon a Time in America" in 1984. At the time of his death, Leone was working on an epic film centered on the Battle for Stalingrad. But in the "Man With No Name" trilogy and "Once Upon a Time in the West," Leone redefined and reinvigorated the Western genre.

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