Friday, September 4, 2015

Watch This: Once Upon a Time in the West

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Directed by Sergio Leone

Three gunmen in brown duster overcoats await the arrival of a train at an isolated station in the middle of the desert.  They are nasty-looking customers, grizzled, cold-eyed, and full of malice.  After locking up the stationmaster, they have spread themselves out around the station, holding themselves in cool readiness for the train's arrival.  Each passes the time in his own way.  The trio's leader (Jack Elam) sits in a shaded rocking chair outside the station house, where he proceeds to try, with as little effort as possible, to shoo away a bothersome fly that has landed on his face.  Another of the gunmen, played by Woody Strode, takes his place beneath the water tank at one end of the platform, where he remains steady and unflinching as the leaking tank drips water first on his bare head, and then on the brim of his cowboy hat.  Finally, the whistle of the approaching train sounds, and the three men converge on the platform, weapons ready.  The train stops, but no one gets off, and just as the three gunmen turn to leave, there comes the sound of a harmonica playing.  The train pulls away to reveal the source of the music, the expected passenger (Charles Bronson) standing on the smaller platform across the tracks.

"Did you bring a horse for me?" asks Harmonica, noting that there only three horses tied up behind the platform. His question is met by smiles and laughter from the three gunmen.

"Looks like we're shy one horse," replies the leader, still amused.

Harmonica shakes his head.  "You brought two too many," he says.  The three gunmen are no longer amused, their smiles fading quickly at the implication of this remark.  Not surprisingly, a shootout soon follows.

This opening scene, inarguably one of the very best in all of cinema, is pretty much perfect, and sets the tone for one of the greatest western films ever made.  It is the first of many long set pieces in the film, and the deliberate pacing, the superb framing of the shots, the subtle humor, and the expertly-staged action of this first scene are all present throughout the remainder of the film.  The opening scene lasts about fourteen minutes, and although the film features a superlative musical score by the incomparable Ennio Morricone, there is no music and almost no dialogue as the opening scene unfolds.  There are only the sounds naturally heard at the railroad station: the incessant squeaking of the windmill, the sound of footsteps on the wooden platform, the ticking of a telegraph machine in the station house, the creaking of the rocking chair, the fly's buzzing, etc.

As the story continues, we see a man named McBain and his children brutally gunned down as they prepare for a celebration at their remote desert home.  The killers are led by the steely-eyed Frank (Henry Fonda, whose casting was intended to shock audiences unaccustomed to seeing him play villains).  The celebration, as it turns out, was meant to welcome McBain's new wife, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who has just arrived on the train from New Orleans.  Jill crosses paths with Harmonica (we never learn his real name), who has come looking for Frank in order to avenge a past misdeed, and the outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards), whose duster-clad gang has been framed for the recent killings.   Both men agree to help her discover a motive for the family's murder and to defend her against further attacks by Frank and his men, who we learn are working for the railroad magnate Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti).  McBain, it turns out, was smarter than anyone thought, anticipating the path of the coming railroad through his property, a development that makes his land invaluable, and thus the target of Morton's greed.  As allegiances shift and Cheyenne's men work to build a station ahead of the approaching railroad workers, the events of the narrative lead to a final showdown and the revelation of Harmonica's revenge motive.

Once Upon a Time in the West was co-written and directed by the great Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, whose famous "Man with No Name" trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)) launched the wave of Italian-made genre entries known as "spaghetti westerns," not to mention the career of the trilogy's leading man, Clint Eastwood.  Aside from being the spaghetti western sub-genre's progenitor, Leone was also its indisputable master (although some might argue that the title belongs to Sergio Corbucci, whose influential Django (1966) and The Great Silence (1968) are also genre masterpieces).  Leone's films have often been compared to operas, and Once Upon a Time in the West is without a doubt his most operatic.  The film exhibits the narrative tendencies of Italian opera, with its unhurried pacing and emphasis on themes of revenge and betrayal, and score composer Ennio Morricone's use of a recurring musical theme for each of the four main characters (the soaring, wordless female vocals that accompany Jill's scenes are particularly memorable) recalls the use of operatic leitmotifs.

The "Once Upon a Time ..." that begins the film's title suggests a legend or fairy tale, and the film's sweeping grandeur and scope do indeed grant the story an almost mythic quality.  Like another great western masterpiece of the late 1960s, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Once Upon a Time in the West depicts the social change that took place in the western United States in the late nineteenth century.  The coming of the railroad and "civilized" society created an environment in which men like Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank, men whose lives are defined by violence and lawlessness, would be out of place.  Leone's film is an elegy to that bygone era, and it recognizes the inevitability of society's civilizing influence, even though it may bring the corruption that is characteristic of men like Morton.

Many consider Once Upon a Time in the West to be the first entry in an informal "Once Upon a Time" trilogy directed by Leone, along with the western Duck, You Sucker (1971), which was alternately titled Once Upon a Time ... the Revolution, and the Jewish gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).  Both Duck, You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America are also available in the Reeves Memorial Library collection.

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