Friday, October 05, 2012

Once Upon a Time in the West

Originally Written and Posted at on 5/8/06 w/ Additional Edits & Extensive Revisions.

Directed by Sergio Leone and screenplay by Leone and Sergio Donati, with English translation by Mickey Knox, from a story by Leone, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci, Once Upon a Time in The West is the story about an outlaw and a mysterious man protecting a woman from hired killer who is trying to attain a piece of land for a railroad baron. The film serves as Leone's first part of a trilogy about the changes of American life as well as an exploration into revenge and gain. Starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, and Gabriele Ferzetti. Once Upon a Time in the West is a grand yet operatic western from Sergio Leone.

At a desert far from the town of Flagstone, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) prepares for a feast as he's set to pick up his new wife Jill (Claudia Cardinale). Suddenly, a gang of gunslingers arrive to kill the McBain family as its led by its leader in Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill arrives at the town of Flagstone via train from New Orleans as she waits for the arrival of McBain as she ends up taking a ride from a local named Sam (Paola Stoppa) where they stop at a bar where she hears a mysterious man (Charles Bronson) playing the harmonica as another man named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) arrives with his gang. Jill watches Cheyenne confront the mysterious man known as Harmonica as she continues to ride with Sam to the McBain home where she learns about what happened. After the local sheriff finds evidence believing that Cheyenne is the killer, Jill decides to stay at the McBain home.

After news spread about the McBain massacre, Harmonica tortures a man named Wobbles (Marco Zuanelli) who reveals information about who killed the McBain family as it relates to the involvement of a paralyzed railroad baron named Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Morton isn't happy about what Frank and his gang did as they conspire to own the entire railroad system so that Morton can have a legacy to hold on to as they learn that Jill has arrived. After hearing Harmonica's playing, Jill attempts to leave only for Cheyenne to arrive at his home with his gang where they talk about her life in New Orleans as Jill realizes that Cheyenne isn't the killer. Harmonica later arrives after Cheyenne's departure as he reveals some information about what happened to McBain. Harmonica and Cheyenne decide to work together to figure out what Frank and Morton are up to while Jill makes a discovery of her own about the land her late husband had bought.

Frank kidnaps Jill for his own reasons as he tries to convince her to sell the McBain land at an auction that is held until Harmonica arrives with a tied-up Cheyenne to get the reward money so he can buy the McBain land. Jill realizes there is a connection between Frank and Harmonica as Frank's alliance with Morton falters as Frank discovers about the plans McBain had fro the land. This would eventually lead to a showdown between Frank and Harmonica as Cheyenne watches from afar realizing that the days of the West is about to end.

In Leone's past trilogy of Westerns with Clint Eastwood, he wanted to reveal what was great about the genre while giving it a fresh coat of European sensibility in terms of its violence. For this particular film, Leone clearly wanted it to be not just his best Western but a tribute to the genre itself. Leone aimed for an operatic end of the genre by making the film play as a background where it's the time where the railroad starts to emerge where it's the start of modernization and the end of the West. In some ways, the film is considered to be a political film by Leone since the railroad is where the power is. In many ways, it's Leone's most complex film among his Westerns while the structure and plot is a bit more simple.

The script's structure and timing might seem slow to some viewers but its pacing and observation is deliberate to the way Leone tells his story. The credit for hashing out Leone's script is his co-writers in Sergio Donati and Mickey Knox plus contributions from Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. What the script reveals is Leone's transition from action-driven, stylized Westerns to more dramatic elements that helped evolve his unique ability as a storyteller. While there's only a few main characters of the film, they're all wonderfully developed and fully realized in their intentions and in the presence they bring. Particularly the way heroes and villains are portrayed as multi-dimensional characters. Cheyenne and Harmonica aren't true good guys since Cheyenne is a fugitive who does bad things but at least has his own morals while Harmonica is a bit more vicious since he's here for far more personal reasons in a vendetta.

Part of Harmonica's story is told in flashback since his objective is to find Frank where it eventually reveals itself in a flashback and how he got the name. The main villain of Frank is truly one of the most chilling villains in the history of cinema. Notably for his lack of remorse as he is willing to kill anyone including women and children without no pretenses and morals. He is a sadist and he doesn't have a care in the world except for money and pride. While another villainous character in Morton is in the story, he's not that much of a villain since he has his own morals and his desire to dream of a legacy. Plus, he’s the brunt of abuse in his already tumultuous business relationship with Frank where all Frank cares for is money and power. The real hero of the film is the most unlikely hero of any of Leone's film and that is in the part of a woman.

In the films prior to this one, the women Leone had were often portrayed as hookers or mothers trying to take care of their children. For this film, his main protagonist is a woman where she ends up becoming an unlikely heroine. Not with shooting or playing cowboy but a woman who isn't playing a just a former hooker, but someone who ends up helping create a lost dream while maintaining her dignity. It's in not just the script of Leone but his wandering direction that allows the characters to connect while making them their own as characters that audiences can care about or totally dislike. In his epic vision, Leone aims for a scope where all the tricks he used in previous films work for him where he goes from a close-up of a house and then have the camera move to show an entire town in one long shot.

Leone's love for conventional Western cliches, notably the shootouts are done with great style while making them unconventional at the same time. He starts off with a near-ten minute opening where for a while, nothing happens until Harmonica arrives playing this haunting, harmonica melody. Then, the film immediately opens with a shootout. Even the final shootout between Harmonica and Frank is done with great complexity about the history that reveals a key point to the film's plot in Harmonica's hatred for Frank. Its his presentation that gives voice to the Western while declaring it dead at the same time. While his love for many Westerns including the ones by John Ford are mentioned, he also breaks them to give the genre a great send-off where we understand some of Frank's motives for not wanting the McBain dream to stay alive. In many ways, what Leone would do for ending the West with Once Upon a Time in the West. Sam Peckinpah would confirm it even more in its ideology a year later for his 1969 film, The Wild Bunch.

Helping Leone out in his epic, visual-scope is his longtime cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. Colli's widescreen photography is not very good when its shown on a fullscreen format but on widescreen, the presentation is beautiful. Taking advantage of the light from the sun in many of the film's exterior settings and giving the interior a grungy yet true atmosphere to the genre. The photography in the film is wonderfully authentic in every frame. Two more of Leone's longtime collaborators also do great work in their respective trade. Longtime art director/costume designer Carlo Simi whose presentation of the Western towns and bars is wonderful in its detail while his creation of the Flagstaff town is rumored to be worth more than the entire budget of Leone's first Western in A Fistful of Dollars. Simi's costume work is great while giving Henry Fonda a great look to his villainous persona and doing great work on the clothing of Claudia Cardinale.

Editor Nino Baragli whose iconic cutting style in The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly is used to great form as he does great work in dissolves and transitional cuts to create a wonderful atmosphere and pacing to the film. Helping with the film's sound work are Fausto Ancillai and Claudio Maielli who help create the atmosphere of the West. Notably, the film's first scene where the sound is amazing from its windmills, creaking chairs, and the noise of a fly. The makeup team of Alberto and Giannetto de Rossi do great work in getting the tanning look to help create the heat of the West along with the red sand of the American West.

The final key collaborator of all of Leone's great films is the work of music composer Ennio Morricone. The score of Morricone is divided into four themes to be played for its main characters. The first is a sweeping, operatic arrangement of strings for the character of Jill while Cheyenne gets a rhythmic, banjo-like guitar accompaniment that plays to the film's humor. The character of Harmonica has a theme to the tune of a haunting harmonica melody while Frank gets a droning, dorbo-like guitar riff when his character arrives. Each arrangement and note Morricone would put would often mix into some of the greatest score work ever assembled which he wrote just before the film was even made. Morricone aims for the same tone of opera and tension, notably in the film's final shootout where the arrangements are sweeping to convey the sense of momentum. In the end, it's one of the best film scores ever composed by the always brilliant Ennio Morricone.

Now we come to the film's amazing, large ensemble cast. While there's some nice, memorable roles from Claudio Mancini as Harmonica's brother and Dino Mele as the young Harmonica in a flashback sequence along with Marilu Carteny and Enzo Santaniello as the McBain children. There's some great performances from veteran Western character actors Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock in the film's opening sequence. Notable small roles like Paola Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, and Marco Zuanelli are memorable as is Frank Wolff as the ill-fated McBain. The most memorable supporting role is the role of Morton by Gabriele Ferzetti. Playing a cripple, Ferzetti brings a complexity to his role of a villain who wants to hold on to a final dream as he keeps on hearing and looking at images of the sea. Ferzetti holds his own in many scenes, especially with Henry Fonda as its really two actors just acting with each other while being very comfortable. While he may not be known to Americans, Ferzetti holds a lasting impression.

Claudia Cardinale gives an amazing performance as the hooker with dignity known as Jill. While most of her dialogue was dubbed to cover up her heavy Italian accent, Cardinale still maintains a presence that is matched by her beauty while most of her performance is in reaction shots and observance. It's truly one of the best performances in any Western while she becomes an unlikely heroine despite her past as a hooker. Cardinale has great chemistry with her co-stars but its with Jason Robards that has the greatest impact of sensitivity. The late Jason Robards gives a great performance as the sensitive but dirty Cheyenne whose knowledge of morals and codes of the West brings a man with a lot of integrity despite his criminal background. Robards also plays the moral conscience in the film of sorts despite his deeds while he is the only one to calm someone like Harmonica and bring some good company to Jill. It's a great role from the late actor who also had a great performance in another Western, the often-underrated Sam Peckinpah film, The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

The late Charles Bronson is great in his role as the mysterious Harmonica. Bronson brings a dark, quiet presence to the film where the audience is aware that he's dangerous and he's got something up on his sleeve. His face also carries a sense of pain and mystery as he uses his body language to maintain a performance that is minimalist in its lack of emotions. It's truly an iconic performance from the late actor, who has been an icon in being a badass. The film's most shocking performance goes to none other than the late but legendary Henry Fonda. Throughout his career, especially in films like The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men, Fonda has played men of struggle and men who just wants to do and do the right thing. In this film, he does the exact opposite. Fonda uses the right look and tone to play a character that is pure evil from every of his intentions for his own gain. Fonda truly captures everything that a villain is needed to the point that he's a villain some can like despite his actions. It's truly one of his many iconic performances.

The 2003, 2-disc Special Edition Region 1 DVD from Paramount is truly one of the best packages of any DVD. Particularly since it's the uncut version of the film where the American release cut 25 minutes from the film in 1968 where in later releases, the scenes that got cut were restored. Presenting the film in the preferred widescreen format that is the only true way to watch a Leone epic. The film looks wonderful in all of its glory while its 16x9 aspect ratio is perfect for TV. With 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound plus restored mono audio in English and French along with English subtitles. The 2-disc set features the first disc presenting the entire film in all of its glory with its only special feature is a huge audio commentary track. The second disc is filled with several documentary shorts plus cast profiles, theatrical trailers, and photo galleries.

The first disc features a full-on audio commentary track with excerpts recorded separately from different places. On the commentary are film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, film directors John Carpenter, Alex Cox, and John Milius, and from the actual movie, co-writer Bernardo Bertolucci and the film's star Claudia Cardinale. While John Milius and Claudia Cardinale had brief commentary tracks, they're wonderfully informative as Milius talks about his friendship with Sergio Leone. Claudia Cardinale comments on her love scene with Henry Fonda which she thought was a terrible day since she and Fonda were shooting the scene in front of journalists and Fonda's wife at the time. The shooting made things tense as Cardinale recalled though she had a good time with the legendary actor. She also talks about how Leone is compared to the great directors she worked with like Federico Fellini in 8 1/2 and Luchino Visconti.

Alex Cox and John Carpenter provide the more enjoyable commentaries as Cox talks about some of the scenes that got cut in the heavily-edited American version. Carpenter talks in a couple of scenes from a technical standpoint and his enjoyment of Leone's tracking and crane shots along with the editing and pacing style that was inspired the Japanese films of Kurosawa and Ozu. Bernardo Bertolucci also had a couple of cuts where he talked about the writing of the film and how pleased he was with the film's final cut while talking about his love for the Western genre as a kid and how Leone got him to regain his love for the genre after being enamored with the French New Wave. The more informative commentaries come from Dr. Sheldon Hall and most of all, Sir Christopher Frayling where they talk about the scenes that got cut while Frayling describes a lot of the mythology of the film. Plus, the noted references into the many movies of John Ford whom Leone loved among all Western directors while the harmonica playing is a reference to Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar.

The second disc of the DVD features several little documentaries relating to the movie. Three of them is about the film with interviews from Cardinale, Bertolucci, Cox, Carpenter, Milius, and Frayling along with late cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli and Gabriele Ferzetti. The first of the three-part documentary is a 30-minute segment called An Opera of Violence where Frayling discusses Leone's film background where his father was a silent film director and mother was an actress that did the first ever Italian Western. Leone would eventually become an assistant director for Mario Soldati in many Roman-like epics while doing some camera work in other movies like Cleopatra and Ben-Hur where Leone was part of the crew shooting the chariot scene. When Soldati died during production of a film, Leone took over to finish where he got to do his first ever film entitled Colossus of Rhodes in 1961.

Then in the early 60s, the Italian film industry went bust after the era of Roman epics were gone, Cleopatra just bombed while Luchino Visconti's Il Gatopardo also failed commercially. Frayling discusses that the Italian industry was at the time, an industry that will go on one trend and then make films of that same style. While there were films by Visconti, Federico Fellini, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rosellini and Vittorio de Sica at the time, they weren't big commercial films. Then came Leone with the trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly. The Italian industry went up and running again while Leone was becoming a hero. During the premiere for The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly in December 1966, Leone met with a then-new filmmaker named Bernardo Bertolucci and a local film critic from Rome named Dario Argento. Though Leone had planned to do an epic mob movie that would eventually become Once Upon a Time in America, he didn't want to do another Western.

Paramount from the U.S. convinced Leone thanks to the international buzz of his Western trilogy as he decided to do one more Western with help from Bertolucci and Argento. Bertolucci talked about how he came up with the idea of getting a female protagonist for the film which Leone resisted at first only to be won over by the idea. Claudia Cardinale discusses how she got contacted and how she wanted the part to be more complex and it helped the writing more. The documentary also features rare interview clips from Leone in 1984 when he was finishing Once Upon a Time in America and an old 1975 interview with Henry Fonda talking about taking the role for Once Upon a Time in the West. Part of a trilogy of the events that touched America, Leone wanted to pay homage to the West but also attack the American ideology while Alex Cox talked about the opening scene where there's a legendary story about the stars of The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly playing the part of the three men only to be killed in the first five minutes.

The second doc short for The Wages of Sin is a 20-minute segment where the discussion is on Leone's working style. John Carpenter, Cox, and Delli Colli discusses his precise detail for everything right. They discuss the photography style of Delli Colli as well as the work of the late art director/costume designer Carlo Simi. Frayling talks about while most of the film was shot in Spain with some interiors in Cinecetta studios in Rome. The famous shot of Jill with Sam riding through Monument Valley was one of the few scenes in America. Before shooting, Leone and Delli Colli went to America for a tour group to look at Monument Valley where Leone acted like a kid in a candy store since that's where John Ford shot some of his Westerns. Leone and his crew even went up to get the red sand from Monument Valley to use for the film. The segment also discusses the Leone close-ups and his canvas where Carpenter, Cardinale, and Frayling all feel it's the key to being a great storyteller.

The third and final part of the documentary is an 18-minute segment called Something to Do with Death where they discuss the music of Morricone where in this film, it was the first time he wrote an entire score just before the film was even shot. They discuss the themes he wrote and how Leone got inspired by them. The opening scene of the film originally was supposed to have music but the themes Morricone and Leone tried to use didn't work until Morricone went to a performance art show about a guy making sounds with ladders. There, it gave the idea for the film's opening scene with its array of amplified sounds. This leads to the discussion of the film's release where in Europe, it was a success but in the U.K. and U.S., it wasn't. Especially in America where they cut 20 minutes of the film for length reason, which would be the case for the remainder of his films in the years to come where they would get chopped up in the editing room.

The short six-minute featurette entitled Railroad-Revolutionizing the West is a short doc about the evolution of the railroad and its impact that it had on the West. Especially in its influence on the cinema where Alex Cox reveals that it talks about the process of industrialization where machines came and the beginning of the end of man. Two galleries appear for the DVD. First is a locations gallery to compare and contrast the locations of the film where many of the railway locations from Spain show no railroad but more grass. The McBain house looks more colorful while keeping the wood that was actually taken from a film by Orson Welles. The look of Monument Valley remains insatiable in its red look while the trail don't exist only as a path of sorts. The film photo gallery features black-and-white stills of the cast and crew working including a deleted scene that never made the final cut of Harmonica being assaulted by the town's sheriff.

Also included are the cast bios of the five main actors, French and English subtitles, and the original theatrical trailer for the film. Overall, this is a fantastic DVD though the only flaw is its packaging where both discs are on top of another and if anyone is trying to get the second disc. Get the first one out or you'll cause some scratches.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a majestic and outstanding film from Sergio Leone. Featuring incredible performances from Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, and Gabriele Ferzetti. It is truly one of the great films that transcends the western genre as it also serves as a worthy introduction for anyone new to the western. The film also features amazing technical work as well as an awesome score by Ennio Morricone that is truly one of the great film scores ever composed. In the end, Once Upon a Time in the West is a remarkable film from Sergio Leone.

Sergio Leone Films: The Last Days of Pompeii (1959 film) - The Colossus of Rhodes - A Fistful of Dollars - For a Few Dollars More - The Good, The Bad, & the Ugly - Duck, You Sucker! - Once Upon a Time in America

Related: Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone - The Auteurs #16: Sergio Leone

(C) thevoid99 2012


Alex Withrow said...

Dude, seriously epic movie and DVD review. Damn. I love this film, and it definitely contains my favorite "late" Henry Fonda performance. So much to appreciate here.

Well done man.

Chip Lary said...

I actually consider this to be an even better film that the classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex-Well, if you're going to do a grand Leone film. You might as well try to write a review that is epic.

@Chip-I prefer The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly but this film is a very close second. Based on the westerns that I've seen, I would say those 2 films are the best of the genre.

David said...

Epic review of a en epic film,this is my fave Western of all time,and the opening sequence is the greatest build-up scene ever.

I'm not sure if the Paramount dvd presents the final cut,I believe there is an Italian version that is even longer than this one.

thevoid99 said...

@David-I have read that there is a longer cut of 171 minutes from Italy but it's really a bootlegged version. There's another Italian version in 168 minutes that really doesn't feature anything new so the Paramount Region 1 DVD/Blu-Ray is considered the definitive version.