Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Movie – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the best westerns ever made.  And to think that director Sergio Leone didn’t even want to make it because he was tired of doing westerns.  He couldn’t find any interest in a film he wanted to make titled Once Upon a Time in America, so he resorted to doing what he was best known for in the U.S.  It wouldn’t be until the 1980s before he would finally get to make that other film.  Despite the fact that this wasn’t his first choice he put together a great cast and story.  It includes not two antagonists, but four or even five – all with their own agendas that cause them to sometimes join with one another and sometimes to oppose one another.  That complexity is rare in westerns, whose stock in trade is easily identifiable good guys and bad guys.  Perhaps this complexity came from the fact that the film was co-written by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento.  The latter two would go on to become successful directors in their own right.

The film opens with three men (two of them played by western character actors Jack Elam and Woody Strode) waiting for a train to arrive.  It very consciously echoes the classic western High Noon (1952).  Leone wanted the stars of his last film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef, and Eli Wallach – to cameo as these three men, but that didn’t work out.  The scene is one of the more famous film openings for how long and drawn out it is.  It emphasizes the boredom of the location of the station, as well as the resolve of the men waiting.  Sound becomes very important as every drop of water and creak of a windmill vane become more and more apparent as time goes on.

There are a lot of looks exchanged by the men as well.  And when one of them is being played by Jack Elam, even just a shot of him staring is enough to be entertaining.  He certainly had a unique look because of his eyes, perfect for playing the kinds of characters he did in westerns.

Eventually the train arrives and we meet the first of the main characters, a “man with no name” played by Charles Bronson.  He is supposed to meet a man named Frank, but these other men were sent instead.  They are there to kill him, but this man kills them instead.  He then heads into town.

We now meet the second of the main characters – Frank himself.  A distant ranch named Sweetwater is getting ready for the arrival of a new bride for the man who owns it.  Just then shots ring out and all of the people there fall dead, except for a small boy.  The camera pans up from the boots of one of the shooters, there is a close up of his face, and we get a big surprise – it is Henry Fonda, whose character of Frank proceeds to shoot the boy so that no witnesses are left.  This very clearly establishes that one of the most well known “good guy” actors out there is most definitely not playing to type in this film.

Speaking of eyes, Fonda originally showed up for filming with a mustache and brown contact lenses to play the evil character.  Leone immediately had him shave and get rid of the lenses.  He wanted every viewer to immediately recognize Fonda as the bad guy so evil he will gun down a small child without thinking about it.

We meet the third main character – the bride who comes into town.  She is Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) and while riding to the ranch, she meets the last of the main characters – Cheyenne (Jason Robards).  They, along with the man from the train, all end up in the same saloon.  Cheyenne dubs that man “Harmonica” because he is always playing one.  Harmonica lets Cheyenne (a man with a bad reputation) know that the men at the train wore the same dusters as the ones Cheyenne and his men wear.  It is as if someone was trying to frame Cheyenne for Harmonica’s death.

When Jill gets to the ranch and finds everyone dead, and a duster just like Cheyenne’s left behind, a warrant for Cheyenne’s arrest is issued.  He ends up out at Jill’s ranch and swears that while he may be a bad man, even he wouldn’t kill a little kid.  Meanwhile, we find out Frank is working for a rich railroad baron named Morton and it was at Morton’s orders that Frank killed everyone at the Sweetwater ranch.

Why did he do that, though?  The mystery deepens when tons of lumber get delivered to the ranch – enough to build several buildings.  Jill’s murdered husband had paid cash for it all ahead of time.  What is it for?  And what is Harmonica doing trying to get a meeting with Frank, especially after Frank’s men tried to kill him?  And will Cheyenne be able to continue to dodge the authorities?  And will Frank be content to keep working for the rich man or might he get some ideas of his own?

As you can tell, there are a bunch of interesting storylines, as well as a several running mysteries.  We find out the answers to all of them by the time the film is done.  And as complex as the story gets, this film still satisfies those people looking for all the usual things they would expect from a western.  There is a man on man gunfight.  There are intrigues around the railroad.  There are people looking to steal other’s property.  There is someone looking to get revenge for a killing of a relative.

In short, this film has a little something for everyone.  The only negative thing I have to say about it is really silly – Claudia Cardinale wore the most humungous 1960s false eyelashes in the film.  They were so distracting and out of place that I laughed a few times during scenes that were supposed to be serious.  If that’s the biggest thing I can complain about, though, then this film must be pretty damn good.  Unless you just absolutely hate westerns, I highly recommend you see this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. If you were to ask me what are the 10 great westerns. I would put this film at #2 w/ The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly at #1. It's a film of what not just the genre should be but it's also the kind of film I think manages to get better since its release. It's very operatic and has elements that I think today's film lack.

  2. Nice write-up, Chip. The score was amazing and so was the cinematography. The opening scene is stunning to look at, good observation that emphasizes the boredom of the location of the station, as well as the resolve of the men waiting.

    I like stylistic films, so it worked for me, but you could also argue the director at times was showing off his sets rather than getting on with the story.
    Probably in my top 10 of westerns I've seen. Was surprising to see Henry Fonda as a villain, that was a treat.

  3. While this isn't my favorite Western, I'd be hard-pressed to stop it from being at or near the top of greatest in the genre. It really has everything you could want. And that's not a dig to say it's not my favorite. I'd still put it top-5.

    What clinches it for me is Henry Fonda playing such an evil role. I love when actors dive in against type like that.

  4. Classic, Classic, Classic. You cannot go wrong with this one. My dad and I often watch westerns together. I miss westerns of this caliber. The last good ones we've had have been remakes, '3:10 to Yuma' and 'Appaloosa.'

  5. @thevoid99, Chris, and SJHoneywell - This would definitely make my Top 10 westerns and very likely my Top 5. The Searchers or High Noon might be my number 1. The Ox-Bow Incident would be right up there, too.

    @Chris and SJHoneywell - Yes, Fonda as the villain certainly adds a whole other dimension to this film. I wonder what it would have been like to have seen this for the first time in a movie theater not knowing about Fonda's character.

    @msmariah - If you haven't seen it, I thought 2003's Open Range was a pretty good modern-made western.