C' era una volta il West

(Once Upon a Time in the West, It - 1968)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice

Cast: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Frank Wolff, Woody Strode
Genre: Western
Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Donati
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 165 minutes

Mike: In the days when I was a huge Dario Argento fan but hadn't seen much of anything from Sergio Leone, Dan used to describe Leone as "The Argento of Westerns." For most people, describing Argento as "The Leone of Horrors" would be more helpful.

Vanes: This is quite a fitting comparison and description of the two. They're both masters of "look" and "style" in their own respective genres.

Mike: In any case, although these two will never get the respect they deserve due to the genre they usually work(ed) in, this film is more important today than it was at the time because it's the lone collaboration between three of Italy's greatest directors, Leone, Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Argento, who got his big break here, and Bertolucci, who hadn't made it big as a director yet, were the main writers of the story. Leone and Sergio Donati were involved as well, but regardless of what account you believe as to who was most responsible for the script, it mainly plays like a classic Argento film (when his writing to the visual cues was in top form) set in the unfamiliar territory of the west. Argento, whose father Salvatore was a producer, originally only wanted to be a writer. Luckily, the year after this film he wound up being asked to direct L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, which he had written, as writing was not something he was very good at. However, the visual style he learned under his mentor Leone and from the films of others like optical wizard Mario Bava combined with his own innovation has given us some of the most amazing looking films of the past three decades.

As is the case with most Argento, the story is confusing as it's actually happening. This is the case because we see things happen before we get any explanation as to why they are happening. This can lead to a massive amount of frustration among the uninitiated, but it's fascinating to those who have come to expect it. Here, the best thing about his writing is that the characters all eventually have a reason for being who they are and acting the way they do. The one major flaw of Argento's writing has always been that some things are never explained. This is the case here, but for the most part when Argento is involved the look of the film is so wonderful that you don't
mind too much.

Once Upon A Time In The West is one of those cases where you don't care. It's a tour de force of direction by Leone, who makes virtually every frame into a work of art. Many moviegoers consider what is said to be the most important thing about a non effects laden movie, but in spite of the lack of dialogue, Leone has gotten many of his viewers to consider this the greatest of all westerns, or at least one of the top 5.

Vanes: The experience, the feeling, is what sets this apart from other westerns. You're not exactly sure why things are happening until the story truly directs you there, but there's an amazing sense of involvement. It's like a drug, you enter a Leone movie, and until the credits roll you're totally caught by the visuals and the way he shoots the film.

Mike: Leone tells almost the entire story through the active and intrusive camera of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. There are an exorbitant number of close-ups, but actually very few reaction shots. The close-ups show the events with a rare combination of innovation and ambiguity. We see what happened in a way that's so interesting, yet because the shots are so tight we don't actually know who was shot until the next set of shots. The lack of reactionary shots is largely because the characters are almost all tough in the intense, stone-faced kind of way.

The highlight of the film is the scene where Jason Robards saves Charles Bronson, who is being held captive on the train until Henry Fonda gets around to killing him. One of the main reasons the scene is so good is that Leone, like everything else in the movie, lets it play out so slowly. Robards, hanging down from the top of a rail car, slowly pokes his head down. We get a shot to show us that Bronson sees him, and Robards winks back at Bronson. We aren't sure if Gabriele Ferzetti sees him or not. Robards could just try to shoot the sleeping guard, or he could wake him up abruptly, but he just taps the window ever so slightly until the guy wakes up and stands up angrily. As he is getting closer to the camera looking pissed, it cuts to a shot through the window of Robards shooting him then quickly to a shot from the outside where we see the guard falling down through the window, which now has a bullet hole in it. A flash later, we get a wide shot from inside the train of the guard falling back into his chair. What could have been a standard killing turns into a must see, but Leone isn't done yet. Another guard is looking for Robards, who has now retreated back to the top of the train. He's sure he can hear his footsteps and is ready to shoot him when he comes down, but he's been lead in the wrong direction and we see Robards boot hanging down in front of the opposite window. It has a curious bulge in it. When we hear a cocking sound, we know what it is. The cocking sound gets the attention of the guard, who turns around and walks over to the window. He figures Robards has the gun in his hand, and when he sees Robards body come down he'll blow him away. He walks over with a sly look on his face, but then we get an extreme clasp of Robards turning his boot toward the guard and firing it through his boot. We see the end of the gun, as it blows a whole in the front of the boot, and then a close-up of the guy's face. He's screaming in pain as he falls back; it got him right in his right eye. We might wonder how Robards managed to pull a trigger with his toe, but the subsequent shot is a wide angle of Robards pulling his arm, which is in the boot, back up and hopping back to the top of the train.

The soundtrack by the great Ennio Morricone is simply amazing. It's incredibly effective, and so engaging. At times it's highly dramatic, but usually it's a combination of haunting and lyrical. Each of the main characters even has their own theme so to speak. It can be a little mournful, especially when Cardinale is involved since her family was slaughtered, but for the most part the negative aspects are in the undercurrent of the soundtrack. This is a cynical movie about life in the badlands. The land where most women are whores, "people scare better when they're dying," and the only thing that can stop a bullet is a wad of bills. In spite of the horrors the movie presents, its settings and music are often quite pleasant and nice. Only when there's violence is the volume turned up to emphasize the crudeness of it all. Why was the film made this way? I think the railroad is the key.

Vanes: This is Ennio's best score to date, and the most touching. That covers a lot of ground though because Morricone is the same genius who composed "Cinema Paradiso," "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly," "The Legend of 1900," "Once Upon a Time in America," "The Red Tent," & "The Untouchables." All amazing works of art. The fact that he wrote the score before the movie was shot just amplifies how good the Leone/Morricone collaboration was. Being able to set the pace for the movie and having freedom of writing, Ennio's talent wasn't limited by the needs of the director. The main theme is just stunning, part because of Edda Dell'Orso's beautiful voice, part because of Ennio's way of highlighting it. "A Man With A Harmonica" is just as impressive as the main theme, so touching. The main strength of Ennio is to convey emotions using his music. Other composers are good at this, but Ennio's the best. For instance, try to watch the more dramatic scenes in "Once Upon A Time in America" with the television muted. Without the superb "Amapola," nothing has  the same impact. The same thing happens here, listening to the soundtrack (the '99 release is much better due to added tracks and better sound quality) you're immersed in Leone's world, and it captures you so much and helps you follow the movie. This is one of the best soundtracks of all time. I prefer the soundtrack of Once Upon A Time In America, but the score of Once Upon A Time In The West is better because it's a more involving one and helps the movie way more than the America one. They're both masterpieces, but while America has much better single tracks, West is the best overall "soundtrack."

Mike: In Europe, the lousy effects of the industrial age had already set in. For Americans though, the railroad still represented something romantic that allowed us to easily travel to land in the west that was largely natural and somewhat scarcely populated. In this story, the railroad has not yet spanned the country and lead to the destruction of the beauty. Thus, the beauty is emphasized as often as possible. That said, the appearance of all the characters (dirty) and buildings (decaying) directly contracts this to show that it's the last days of the west as these people know it. Still, all the evil, the unnecessary deaths and the men taking advantage of the heroine, are centered around the fight to control the station the railroad will have to stop at once it expands it's tracks to cover this territory. For the most part, all the wrongdoing takes place either on a railroad or on the McBain's property since they own what will become the station. The film is nostalgic for the good of the west, but never afraid to show the west at it's worst. At the same time, the film realizes that west is largely an American myth. Although there were many downsides to the way it occurred, the progress, as a whole, was something that had to happen and an improvement.

The movie is not about the railroad though; that is just the focal point that brings the characters together. I don't think one can give a definitive explanation of what the movie is about. It's about what the west was. It's about what it could have been. At the same time, it understands why it wasn't.

As style was the storytelling method of choice here, the acting not surprisingly wasn't nearly up to its level. There's a whole lot of staring that's oozing with tension, but that doesn't exactly require great range. Considering the type of acting these movies require though, everyone was effective in spite of the poor audio dub. Even though she's mainly memorable for her looks, Claudia Cardinale's resume boasts two of the greatest films, Fellini's 8 ½ being the other. Her looks are important though because they are used as the symbol of hope. She is a whore, but Leone allows her to be far more than that. She does make us care about her and exudes a toughness that makes us believe she can hold her own with her male counterparts. Charles Bronson has the man with no name character that was played by Clint Eastwood in Leone's previous three movies. Clint is by far the better actor of the two, but Bronson certainly has his moments here. In particular, the bar scene where he tells Robards he killed a few of his men. Henry Fonda shocked his many fans by going against his symbol of honesty and decency typecast and entering such unfamiliar territory. He does quite a good job portraying the evil, greedy hired gun. Technically he's much more memorable in his trademark roles such as Hitchcock's The Wrong Man and Lumet's 12 Angry Men, but who could ever forget how evil their hero could be? Jason Robards is the best of the bunch as the weary somewhat misunderstood half breed that is normally a villain, but isn't here since he gets dragged into this mess involuntarily and only has a beef with Fonda. He went on to a much more impressive performance as a gruffy dreamer who lucks into water toward the last days of the west and is tamed by Stella Stevens in Peckinpah's excellent, underrated The Ballad Of Cable Hogue.

This movie is hard to describe because it's more of an experience. The main knock on it is that it's slow moving. It's 165 minutes, which is too long for people who have been trained to flip the channel every 5, but the images and sounds are too fascinating to be bored by.

Vanes: This is the main strength of the movie, and what makes Leone's work so fascinating. He lets the story unfold without manipulations, without rushing anything. He's not afraid of what "Hollywood" moviegoers might think. Although the story takes time to reveal itself, there are no wasted shots and everything has a meaning. This is what makes even a silent shot, a look, a staredown, so intense and more meaningful than crisp dialogue or action. This is Leone's main strength. He's able to convey what's happening without the need to delve into "smart" dialogue. Doing this, he helps immensely the actors, and makes the experience even better. This is what we'll remember of such greats as Bertolucci, Dario, & Leone for; being able to tell a story and convey the emotions through the images, sounds, & looks. It's a beautiful thing; it's a beautiful movie. I'm not too comfortable debating if this is the best western of all time like some people say because I haven't seen enough of John Ford's and Peckinpah's movies, but I can certainly say that it's a masterpiece of visuals and emotions.



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