Wednesday 17 February 2010

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Director: Sergio Leone
Stars: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti and Paolo Stoppa

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

For most of my life the western has been a dead genre, occasional revivals by stars like Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner notwithstanding. This is reflected well by the fact that there are a bunch of westerns in the IMDb Top 250, but Eastwood's Unforgiven aside, the newest of them is The Wild Bunch which was made in 1969, two years before I was born and thus hardly new. Sam Peckinpah, who directed The Wild Bunch, spent most of his life lamenting the final demise of the old west and his westerns obviously reflect that. This does no less, highlighting the reasons for the beginning of that demise and the consequent transition from the old west to the new west, not least through the railroad which brought connection, communication and speed.

The thing is that the genre in film declined along with its real life subject matter. While people two or three generations before mine flocked to westerns to watch the great stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper or even Hopalong Cassidy, my parents' generation only got to see their last hurrahs. As a good example, Sam Peckinpah directed a wonderful film in 1962 called Ride the High Country that starred two great western legends, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. It may have been a great movie but it was McCrea's last and Scott's last but one. By the time I came along most of these names were dead or at least retired from the screen. I just saw the revivals.

The strange thing is that when these legends started to die out, westerns stopped being made by Americans and started being made by Italians, something that makes almost as little sense as the fact that the Italians took their influences from the west via the east. While the American western was dying, the spaghetti western was being born out of the Japanese samurai saga, itself influenced by the old American western. The first was A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone's 1964 remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Kurosawa was the greatest name in his field but he frequently acknowledged John Ford as a key influence. Leone went on in turn to become the greatest name in his, one of the three Sergios (Leone, Corbucci, and Sollima) who dominated spaghetti westerns. Three Leone films can be found in this list, two of which are westerns, and he even appears once more as an actor, in a small role in Vittorio di Sica's The Bicycle Thief.

I know and appreciate Leone from his famous Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), but he also directed two epics that I hadn't yet seen until I caught up with at least this one in 2004. Both are long tributes to traditional American story forms, the western and the gangster movie, and both appear in this list. As befits the enormity of their scope, they go by grand titles: Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. I still haven't caught up with the latter but I've worked through the former twice, once back in 2004 and then again in 2010. There's a lot to say about Once Upon a Time in the West, but the first thing that leapt out at me was the sound, something I can't ever recall happening before, at least not like this and probably not again until I saw Fritz Lang's M.

It caught my attention at the very beginning of the film which opens with a few rough looking types waiting for a train at Cattle Corner, three men sent to kill the mysterious gunman who it will bring. Waits are by definition inherently boring affairs and thus usually avoided by directors, especially at the beginning of movies, but Leone uses sound to keep our interest here. There's no music to begin with, just sounds. We listen to the rhythmic creakings of a swinging seat and the blades of a windmill, chalk on a blackboard and a tickertape machine. Al Mulock makes strange noises to a caged bird. Woody Strode finds himself under a leak in the roof and instead of moving just puts his hat on so we listen to the water dropping onto it. Jack Elam tries to shift a fly off his face with the least effort possible, eventually catching it with his gun and listening to it buzz inside the barrel.

Of course we hear the train before we see it too, first its whistle then its wheels, and when it finally arrives, a bell tolls, the credits finish and it sits there breathing at us. We're fifteen minutes in and we've only heard a handful of lines of dialogue and even those are sparse. 'Looks like we're shy one horse,' says Snaky. 'You brought two too many,' replies Harmonica. To be fair, that isn't the only dialogue thus far but it's not far off. Once Upon a Time in the West really aims at depicting the vastness of the old west through the inherent lack of anything but natural sound and the introduction of the new west through the introduction of the overt sounds of civilisation. It does a magnificent job. As if to highlight the fact that civilisation will bring order to the wild west, we also quickly learn that when sounds stop, people get nervous and things happen, usually bad ones.

This is emphasised by the next scene after Harmonica, that mysterious gunman at Cattle Corner, disposes of the three men who have been waiting for him. We watch Frank, the man who sent them, massacre Brett McBain and his family, even though McBain obviously pays a lot of attention every time the background noises stop. Only when everyone outside is dead and the youngest McBain runs out of the house does Ennio Morricone's music really kick in, with all his trademark bells and whistles, literally. Only when it stops does Frank shoot the kid dead too.
Morricone scored most, if not all, of Leone's westerns and it's an understatement to suggest that he's both distinctive and accomplished. One of the most imitated composers in cinematic history, his whistle from For a Few Dollars More probably as iconic as the shark theme from Jaws by John Williams or Bernard Herrmann's shrieking knife from the shower scene in Psycho. His wailing harmonica here is merely one of many memorable themes he's composed. Leone had so much respect for Morricone that he directed much of this film around the soundtrack rather than the other way around.

Brett McBain dies quickly but he's the reason this story exists. He's a canny Irishman who knows that the railroad will run on from Flagstone so buys up the only land in its way that has a water supply that can feed the engines, calling it Sweetwater. Water is our McGuffin and it's as prevalent in our story as it's absent from most of the land around Flagstone. McBain makes all the right decisions but he dies for them too. His dream is carried on by his wife Jill, who arrives alive that day from New Orleans, because Frank didn't even know about her. She's played by top credited Claudia Cardinale, who portrays both aspects of her character well: the lady that McBain is expecting and the prostitute that she was in New Orleans. She's certainly a strong lead but she has plenty of backing from the rest of the cast.

Frank is Henry Fonda, apparently Sergio Leone's favourite actor, so much so that he flew to New York to persuade him to take this role after he initially turned it down. This was a real change of tone for him, having been a perennial hero for a few decades in films like The Grapes of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident and 12 Angry Men, but he obviously relished the villainy and did it well. He apparently looked back at this as one of his favourite roles. He's a blistering villain, his vivid blue eyes highly memorable. Leone's decision to ditch the brown contacts and facial hair Fonda arrived with was definitely a good one.

He works for Morton, a crippled railroad baron played by Gabriele Ferzetti, who lives in his luxurious railroad car pressing ever west in a dream to connect the two oceans by rail across the country before he dies. When he's out of his train, Frank calls him 'like a turtle out of his shell.' They get a few memorable exchanges. 'I only told you to scare them,' points out Morton after hearing about the McBain massacre. 'People scare better when they're dying,' says Frank. In their way the characters also represent the changing times. Morton is the future, the businessman. Frank is the past, the gunman, though he does attempt to change with the times, albeit not successfully.

As Frank is unable to change, Harmonica is able, though he generally chooses not to do so. Throughout the film he recognises what's coming and the reasons for it far quicker than anyone else. While he remains true to himself he deliberately aids those who are changing the times without any need for financial recompense. He's played by Charles Bronson, who here epitomises the quiet and inscrutable tough guy he'd been playing for over a decade, not only in westerns. The sixties were a great decade for him, beginning with The Magnificent Seven and also including The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen. Harmonica is the mysterious character who obviously has a very deliberate purpose in being in Flagstone but who plays his games while everyone else tries to work that out. We never even learn his name, though he throws a bunch of fake ones out to tease Frank.

Finally, there's Jason Robards as an outlaw called Cheyenne, certainly the lest known of th actors at the time. He knew the old American story forms though, having come to this film from playing the best Al Capone I've ever seen in Roger Corman's The St Valentine's Day Massacre, as well as Doc Holliday alongside James Garner's Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun. He's a highly versatile and frequently underrated actor who is one of the real discoveries in American film. Rather than use each further film to consolidate our expectation of his characters, he used them to add something new and he has the most flexible of the lead roles here. We're introduced to him through a gunfight that we never see. We're in a bar watching the reactions to the shots outside, only for Cheyenne to burst through the door and ask for a jug. It's only when he lifts his hands to drink that we realise that he's handcuffed and so shot his way out of a trip to jail.

As much as I think about sound in Once Upon a Time in the West, the visuals are just as good. There are so many scenes like this one where the camera pans and we discover something. The first view we have of Flagstone is from a crane shot moving up over the station and it's majestic: the music sweeps, the dust blows and we can't help but be caught up in the passion of the thing, even though we're following Jill, who's about to find out that her husband and new family have all been murdered. When she finally gets to Sweetwater, she sees a funeral party which we pan along all the way to the four bodies laid out on tables. Cheyenne's back story is eventually told, of course, and that ties to a truly great discovery shot that only gets better the more the camera moves away.

The buildings are great, not just the apparently rickety construction of the things, but also the way light plays into them. All the faces are memorable, with many of them highlighted in frequent closeups, usually facing straight at the camera as if they're facing us down. We haven't a chance against the poker faces of people like Fonda and Bronson, let alone when the camera zooms in to depict nothing but Harmonica's eyes. The scale is powerful even on a big screen TV; I'd love to see the immensity of it on a theatre screen. The scenery is impeccable, not just what was shot in Monument Valley, so recognisable from no end of John Ford movies, but also what was shot in Spain, the usual filming location for most spaghetti westerns, even though they were generally made by Italians.

The story is a great and iconic one, as befits such a grand title, and the names behind it are surprising. Leone, already well established after his Man with No Name trilogy, hired two men best known at that time as film critics to collaborate with on the script. Both went on to be highly successful directors themselves. Bernardo Bertolucci had made a few films already but his best known ones were all still to come, not least The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor. Dario Argento wasn't entirely inexperienced but he wouldn't begin his acclaimed directorial career for another two years, going on to make some of the most memorable giallo movies of them all, beginning with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and going on to films like Deep Red, Suspiria and Inferno.

To create this script they spent most of a year at Leone's house watching and discussing what seems like every American western they could find, to deconstruct the genre and build it back up into a conglomeration of all the great western stories, iconic themes and reminiscent details. Many films are obvious influences, not least High Noon, The Searchers and Shane, but there are recognisable details from a whole string of others, right down to the time on the Flagstone station clock when Jill looks up at it, wondering why nobody is there to meet her. It's 10.40am, the time Will Kane gets married in High Noon, beginning the hour and twenty minutes until his showdown with the bad guys.

Even though so much of this film was obviously sourced from (Wikipedia reads 'made up almost entirely of references to') the body of classic American westerns, it was not initially a success in the States, either commercially or critically. Without critical praise at its original length of 165 minutes, Paramount chopped out twenty minutes for its theatrical run but this fared no better with the public. Only later did it build a cult reputation that grew into something much more, as major directors talked about its influence on them during the late sixties and seventies. Perhaps its substantial length, its generally slow pace and the fact that there are deceptive periods where little seems to happen contributed to its failure on initial American release. Conversely, those are some of the key reasons why it's so memorable and so highly regarded today.

1 comment:

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