Saturday, February 13, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


A strange gunman recognizable only by the harmonica he carries (Charles Bronson) teams up with a ruthless outlaw, Cheyenne (Jason Robards) to help Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a city girl prostitute who opts for a new life only to find her recent husband and his family dead at the hands of a well known killer, Frank (Henry Fonda).

If I were to go with a second director whose work I truly love after Kurosawa, Leone would likely hit right there at number 2. It's not that I think he's the greatest director of all time, it's rather that I've never seen a movie of his I would consider bad. And while Once Upon a Time in the West sits right on the outskirts of my top 100 films, have no fear it's about as close to a honorable mention as they come. I remember mostly the first time I watched it. Right off two things stood out to me: 1) It's about 15minutes longer than it needed to be and 2) I absolutely loved it. From Fonda as the evil murderer, to the social commentary on the transition of times, end of the west, and rise of the railroads. Once Upon a Time in the West is a narrative on revenge, new life, and the cost of a violent one.

Carried perfectly by 4 charismatic performances, it's safe to say I found little to complain about in the acting department. Fonda is a vision as the scruffy and violent Frank, a performance I'm sure few would expect from the seasoned veteran, and good guy character actor. While Robards is a hilarious echo of Tuco, with a bit more of a human flair, and Bronson is the perfect, Blondie-esque, quiet killer with his own motives... though not quite as much flair. Of course it would be a crime to not note that this is also the movie that introduced me to the vision that is Claudia Cardinale. She lights up every scene as the ex-prostitute seeking a new life only to be forced back into similar circumstances to save her life.

Though, like all his films, Leone's characters have more layers than you would imagine. Frank may be a mass murderer, but he dreams of being a business man, and a respectable man... within his own limits. Frank's boss, dreams of seeing the pacific ocean before he dies. Jill dreams of having a nice, pleasant, family oriented life. While our two heroes (or anti-heroes - depending on point of view) seem to want very little. Harmonica wants to kill Frank, for reasons we are not privy to, until the very end. While Cheyenne seems to just not like people taking advantage of others, or himself. There's a lot of layers to it all, and Leone handles it with that beautiful character love you'd come to expect from him. Sure there's some questionable points on morality, and men and women in the west, but it's really not about that. From his unique character introductory melody to the somber tales, and aspiring hopes, Once Upon a Time in the West is a film about the cost of following your dreams... and still having to pay for your past.

It may not be absolutely perfect, and it's a bit of a far stretch from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, but Leone's tale of the final days of the west is a beautiful, intriguing, and episodic look at the intersecting lives of gunmen.

4 better thoughts:

Chase Kahn said...

This is my favorite western, love it.

Univarn said...

@Chase I'll always hold The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly well over this one, personally, but there's enough depth here I can't make any argument against it.

Chase Kahn said...

Well I'll defend any Leone as the best Western of all-time. Peckinpah might be close (Or "High Noon" now that I think of it) but you can't go wrong with "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

FilmFather said...

I love the line by Bronson as Harmonica early in the film, when the men come to kill him:

Snaky: Frank sent us.
Harmonica: Did you bring a horse for me?
Snaky: Well... looks like we're...
[snickers] ...looks like we're shy one horse.
Harmonica [shaking his head]: You brought two too many.

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