Monday, July 20, 2009

This One Time? In the West?

spaghetti western,sergio leone,movie image,western

To follow up with his successful "Dollars" (or "No-Name") trilogy, Sergio Leone directed Once Upon A Time in the West. Starring a relatively young Charles Bronson as "Harmonica" and an against-type Henry Fonda as "Frank," it's your rather typical Leone spaghetti western. I don't mean to be trite about it, or lessen its impact: When I say "typical" in this context, it means that Leone is typically excellent, and doesn't disappoint.

Ennio Moriccone provides a haunting score, as usual. Dario Argento also helped write the screenplay, and I'm a big fan of his thrillers, giallo, and horror/slasher films. I'm used to Bronson in his later films, of the Death Wish ilk. I didn't have the same pop-culture surprise/recoil at the early revelation that the villain is Henry Fonda, but I'm sure it was extremely effective on its contemporary audience.

It's an unusual experience for me, in general. This film was released in the United States 40 years ago. Since that point, many of the things featured in this film (and others like it) have become the standard, the norm, and even clich├ęd in this genre. I have to continually remind myself of when the film was produced and released, and imagine what the audience of its day must have thought and felt.

I must say, my favorite character in the film was Cheyenne, played by Jason Robards. He was a criminal, gunfighter, and gang leader, but I didn't really find him to be menacing. He's good-humoured, and often slightly off-put by Harmonica's tendency to, well, play the harmonica instead of talking, or basically doing what's expected. And when you expect him to play that stupid harmonica, well, he'll either shoot you or start talking.

As with most movies based on the American old west (even those filmed in Spain by Italians), this film centers around gunfighters, a tough-as-nails but beautiful woman (just a touch out of her element, and played perfectly by Claudia Cardinale), and most importantly, the friggin' railroad. Trains were the most technically advanced, as well as fastest and highest-capacity methods of transportation at the time, and is responsible for a great deal of westward expansion (and ill-treatment of immigrant workers, but that issue isn't really addressed here). Even the worst westerns (Roger Corman's Gunslinger immediately and unfortunately comes to mind) feature plots involving the railroad.

In Once Upon A Time..., a rich dude with (I kid you not) bone tuberculosis tries to build his railroad across the country, so he can see the Pacific ocean before he dies (spoiler: he doesn't, he dies by a mud puddle near the Claudia Cardinale character's home). Originally, Frank killed Jill's(Cardinale's) new husband and his children in order to gain control of his property, to monopolize the railroad or something. Little did he know that Mr. McBain (I kept shouting MENDOZA! in my head every time I heard the name) married some former prostitute in New Orleans the month before, so she inherited the homestead. She eventually helps the railroad go through for whatever reason; probably for something to do, because the old west was as boring as it was deadly.

It's near the expansion of the railroad that Harmonica has his confrontation with Frank, where we see that Frank hanged Harmonica's brother when he was young; Harmonica supported his brother while a noose was about his neck, with a harmonica in his mouth. He either fell, or his brother kicked him away, and thus he died, and Harmonica got his harmonica, and swore his silent vengeance on Frank. So, basically, Charles Bronson can only act if his character is in desperate need to kill another human being (or multiple human beings). I half expected him to say typical Bronson-isms like "No dice," or "Dis ain't over."

This film is undeniably a classic of the spaghetti western, a genre that doesn't get nearly enough respect. It's subtly shot, with nary a wasted frame. The music is so good it's become the stereotypical staple of this kind of film (or at least a musical score extremely similar to this). It features memorable performances, a great turn as a villain for Henry Fonda, a perfectly understated role for Charles Bronson, and the sexy and talented Claudia Cardinale looking troubled and smoky most of the time, which somehow works. Also, we get to see Henry Fonda shooting an 8 year old point-blank in the chest within the first fifteen minutes (it takes about ten minutes for the credits to roll).

I recommend it. It's violent, but it's 1960s violent, which means not a lot of blood and gore, but a lot of shooting and people grabbing at their stomachs, wincing, groaning, spinning, and then falling down, falling off roofs, falling through tables, etc. Plus, the main villain gets his in the end, which was a trend already falling out of favor by the late '60s. It's important to note that Cheyenne dies, as well, leaving Harmonica alive. Apparently, because he's the only one that killed in a "justified" manner; Cheyenne and Frank killed for (occasionally) less "noble" reasons.

I rate it four and a half warbling harmonicas out of a possible five warbling harmonicas.

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