Once Upon A Time In The West

Dir: Sergio Leone, 1968. Starring: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards. Westerns.
Once Upon A Time In The West

Sergio Leone's giant mega-Spaghetti Western is the ultimate Spaghetti Western. It may be the greatest Western of all time, period (it's at least up there with Shane and The Wild Bunch) and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Like a novel, we are introduced very carefully to four separate characters, their motives and links to each other slowly come together. Like an opera, Ennio Morricone's masterful score gives each character their own theme. Once Upon A Time In The West is such a unique and fascinating film, it's no wonder that its influence can be seen in so many films after it, including the works of directors Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez.

The Spaghetti Western is a term which refers to a genre of Westerns generally starting in the 1960s which were produced by Italians (but often shot in Spain). They usually had another Euro co-financier (usually Spain) and they would use an international cast (usually Italians and Spaniards and maybe an American) to sell the film in different countries. The '70s would also see the rise of sub-genres such as Spaghetti Gangster and Spaghetti Zombie flicks. A number of Spaghetti Western directors had an impact like Enzo Barboni (They Call Me Trinity), Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown), Gianfranco Parolini (the Sabata trilogy), and Sergio Corbucci (Django). But the big dog, the Orson Welles of the genre, was Sergio Leone. He hit it big with his "Dollars trilogy" (Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly). Beside Leone himself the trilogy also made international stars out of the score's revolutionary composer, Morricone, and its star, Clint Eastwood, then only known as a hack American TV actor.

Once Upon A Time In The West combines everything that worked well for Leone in his previous films - the style, the score, the dirty sun-dried faces - and added a complex puzzle of a story, with more quotable dialog this side of Sweet Smell Of Success or All About Eve. Leone and Sergio Donati (Orca) are the credited screenwriters, with the "story" credited to Leone and two young future legends, Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango In Paris) and Dario Argento (Suspiria). Imagine being a fly on the wall getting to watch those three filmmaking titans bang out that script! It would be like three Michelangelos painting the Sistine Chapel.

Death Wish, to many, may be Charles Bronson's signature film and role. But playing the strong silent cynical hero in Once Upon A Time In The West, essentially the Clint Eastwood part, in retrospect gave Bronson the highlight of his career (of mostly terrible films). Known as Harmonica (for the instrument he wears around his neck and often plays, the explanation of which is one of the coolest reveals in film history). With his stoic ant trail of a face, Bronson also gets to sport one of the best outfits in Western films - a sun bleached white getup, it's certainly as cool as Eastwood's Spaghetti Western red poncho.

During an amazing twelve minute credit sequence as three killers wait for the arriving train with no dialog between them, Bronson finally arrives and kills all three, and we find out he is looking for Frank. One of the great villains of all time, Frank is a nasty thug, a hired gun for a corrupt businessman, Morgan, who is buying up land along the train tracks which are growing and heading west. In as big a piece of casting-against-type as there ever was, Henry Fonda (The Grapes Of Wrath) perfectly captures the cold villainous Frank, a man trying to branch out from killer to businessman.

The other two main threads to the film are the stunningly Italian Claudia Cardinale (The Leopard) as Jill, an ex-New Orleans prostitute, now a widow, who inherits the land Frank needs for his scheme. And Jason Robards (Oscar winner for Julia and All The Presidents Men) as the grizzled outlaw Cheyenne, who is being set up for murder by Frank and taking a shine to Jill, so he teams up with Bronson to protect her and her interests from Frank. The characters' motivations slowly come to light and build to an epic climax.

Leone was doing his best John Ford impression - he even shot some exteriors in Ford's old stompin' grounds of Utah's Monument Valley - but, like most great artists, the result was all his own. He would follow it up with the fun but challenging revolution adventure Duck, You Sucker (A Fistful of Dynamite) with Rod Stieger and James Coburn (as a Mexican and an Irishman!). For years after he would develop ideas and work as a producer (uncredited on the Henry Fonda meets Trinity Spaghetti Western My Name Is Nobody), until finally in '84 he would direct a massive epic about Jewish Brooklyn gangsters, Once Upon A Time In America. The film, starring Robert De Niro, would span decades, though maybe a little too excessive and extremely violent (the ambitiously long original cut of the film was chopped by the studio into a mini version that makes no sense). Two versions exist, perhaps that’s why the film has never gotten its due.

Though, in their day, Spaghetti Westerns were ignored by critics as violent exploitation films. Once Upon A Time In The West, in particular, was considered too long and was a financial bomb in the States. It is now, of course, deemed a classic. The final gunfight would be aped and spoofed in films that followed - it goes on for ages, cutting back and forth between each gunman’s eyes and then a flashback before triggers are pulled. Morricone's score (like all his work with Leone) has been sampled and ripped-off countless times. He would go on to score hundreds of films from around the world including maybe his greatest piece of music, the South American inspired experimental soundtrack for The Mission.

Leone was planning a joint Russian-American co-financed film about the Russian revolution (with De Niro) when he died at the age of sixty in 1989. It's unfortunate - over a 25 year span, for a man who loved films and filmmaking, he only officially directed seven movies. We could have used a few more movies with that Leone vision. It was original and it was revolutionary. Once Upon A Time In The West is the perfect introduction to that vision, now it's a must for any film lover.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 28, 2010 4:24pm
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