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Review of Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

25 Oct

C’era una volta il West also known as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is an Italian western/adventure film, about a mysterious harmonica player protecting a widow of a farmer.

Directed by Sergio Leone (The Colossus of Rome (1961), Once Upon a Time in America (1984)).

Written by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars (1964), A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)), Sergio Donati (The Sicilian Girl (2008), The Big Gundown (1966)), Dario Argento (Giallo (2009), Dracula 3D (2012)) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Triumph of Love (2001), The Conformist (1970)).

Starring: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander and others.

We start off with a blast to the cinematic nerves in our eyes. There’s one iconic image after another. A cowboy standing in the door-frame, with his coat flailing in the wind. Two of his associates come inside, they take over a railway station without uttering a word. They just wait for a train to arrive, doing pointless and minute things, that don’t serve any other purpose than guide us into their characters. It’s pure cinema, we enjoy what we are seeing as it is happening. We live in the moment on screen, because a few moments later the lifeless bodies of the bandits will fall to the ground and we realise, there was no tangible reason for these characters to be introduced.

The train arrives. It leaves. A man is left standing there, playing a harmonica. They watch each other, a classic suspense building excercise in westerns. The leader of the bandit speaks and soon after that they meet their sorry fates. Now maybe all the posturing wasn’t so pointless after all. If we saw these, distinct in their own bad-ass ways, bandits fall from the gunhand of this harmonica player it means something. It means he’s pretty damn bad-ass himself. I mean, it’s Charles Bronson after all.

Sergio Leone is known for his almost B-movie like, fast-paced and in some ways mocking westerns, but there’s always been something that elevated them way over some classic American westerns, with his iconoclastic approach, while developing his own style and showing incredible potential as a filmmaker. Now here we see Leone fully embracing the iconic wild west, slow pacing, almost Shakespearean themes, Tonino Delli Colli’s absurdly beautiful cinematography, Morricone’s score (now involving some wild electric guitar work), turning this in a full on spaghetti western epic.

A fact that can’t go unmentioned is Henry Fonda as Frank, the villain of the film. He shoots a man and his three kids and then shoots us with his piercing blue eyes, leaving us trembling and asking ourselves how this good guy of American cinema can now be this ruthless bastard.

Charles Bronson plays the main character named Harmonica. I guess, because he plays that harmonica so much. Although, I wouldn’t call him a good player, since he keeps playing the same bit over and over, it’s a cool sounding one, but really it’s not that hard. It’s like his own little theme song. Every hero should have one, but not so often they are played by themselves. Kind of pretentious.

I would by no means call myself an expert on westerns, my familiarity with the genre mostly comes down to Leone’s work and general knowledge of movie history. But including Leone’s films, the few other westerns I’ve seen and clips in documentaries on films, this is the most visually impressive one I’ve seen. I don’t want to constrain it to just westerns, it’s arguably among the best looking movies ever made.

The slow pace at times gets tiring, but it’s not because Leone failed to make an action movie, it certainly wasn’t his intention. He has made a tribute to westerns and that’s what makes it so cool. It’s a compilation, a distillation of the best western imagery. It’s in a way a ‘best of’. But as it sometimes happens when you try to list examples that represent the best of something, you might find it hard to stop, to know where to draw the line of what to keep in. It really is more about the silence before the storm than the storm itself. There’s these sudden bursts of violence, but each preceded by a long, suspenseful game of waiting for the exact right moment. It’s that period in a revolver duel stand-off, where two characters sweat and grimace. A lot of skill is necessary not to cut short or extend to boredom this period. If anyone can pull it off, Leone is the man.

Overall, I loved this movie. How can you not love a movie that has a line like “How can I trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”? Maybe not the best introduction to the genre, but definitely worth watching after gaining some experience in the western/spaghetti western genres. Recommended.

“Hey, have you heard this one?”
“Yes, I’ve fucking heard it, you’ve been playing it like non-stop since we met! If you’ll play it again, I’ll jam that harmonica down your throat, you repetitive fuck.”