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Once Upon a Time in the West (DVD, 2003, 2-Disc Set, Special Collector's Edition)
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In Sergio Leones Western Fairy Tale, Henry Fonda is the Evil One
Jun 11, 2001 (Updated Jun 11, 2001)
Review by David Abrams
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:The first half hour is an example of near-perfect filmmaking
Cons:The other two hours and 15 minutes sometimes feel dense and weighty
The Bottom Line: All of director Sergio Leone's previous "spaghetti Westerns" were like training wheels for this epic masterpiece of Manifest Destiny
When I was about eight years old, I saw the first 30 minutes of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. That experience scared the spit right out of my mouth and most likely shaped the way I saw movies from that day on.
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No more Bambi, goodbye Jungle Book. Hello, cruel world.
It was a Sunday night and my parents were making their usual post-church rounds to members of my father’s Baptist congregation. Everywhere they went, they dragged me, dressed in footie pajamas, overcoat and untied tennis shoes. While they sat in the kitchen, enjoying coffee and conversation about sermons and Bible study groups, I was placed in front of the host family’s television set, an electronic babysitter while my parents performed their church duties.
Normally, on a Sunday night, I’d opt for the Wonderful World of Disney (you have to understand, this was the early 1970s, when the words “wonderful” and “Disney” could be legitimately used in the same sentence). This night, however, the family we were visiting had something entirely different tuned in on their small color television set: a bleak and bloody vision of the American West. (You also have to understand that back in the days before zillion-channel cable TV, movie premieres on network television were a big deal.) Even now, three decades later, I can remember sitting there in that dark den, cross-legged in front of the floor-model Zenith, my mouth hanging slack and my fingers gripping the threads of the plush carpet. All I could think was, “This sure isn’t Charlie the Lonesome Cougar.”
A father and his son are quail hunting near their homestead, a hand-built dwelling in the middle of low hills and sagebrush. It’s a bright morning. Cicadas buzz. Birdwing flaps skyward with a bony whistle. The father and son kill several birds, then head for home. At the edge of their clearing, the cicada-buzz stops, as if God had flicked off the volume switch. The man and his boy freeze. Something is out there in the underbrush. Maureen, the teenage daughter comes out to set food on a long table which is already burdened with plates and bowls. She has been preparing this meal all day long in anticipation of the arrival of her new stepmother. Maureen is wearing a white dress. Her red hair is pulled back, she has freckles, she is the picture of sunny pioneer innocence.
The father’s eyes, in close-up, reveal his worry. Something doesn’t feel right. A gunshot cracks through the silence. You think, “Ah, the boy is still firing at quail.” But no. Maureen, so lovely in her spotless white dress, crumples to the ground. A single word roars out of the father’s mouth, a word full of rage and pain: “Maaauuuurrrreeeeeen!” He sprints toward his dead daughter. He looks like an Olympics runner as he blurs from left to right. He, too, is gunned down. Another son, an older teenager we’ve only just met, tries to ride for help on his horse-drawn wagon. Crrr-ack! A bullet catches him in the chest, throws him off the side of the wagon like he was a rag doll.
Now the only one left is the youngest boy. He’s got red hair and freckles, just like his now-dead sister. He looks like he’s probably eight years old. In another time and another place, he would probably be wearing footie pajamas and untied sneakers. But this is the Old West. He’s wearing long pants, suspenders and a wide-eyed expression of terror that spreads across his face like blood seeping across dirt. The boy still holds the fresh-killed birds in his hand, but they hang limp and forgotten. Tall men step out of the sagebrush. They are silhouetted, black figures in the sunny yard. They wear dusters and carry guns. They move toward the boy, slow as the approach of certain death. One of the men says to another, "Hey, Frank, what're you gonna do with the kid?" The lead gunman spits and says, "Well, since you used my name..." He raises his weapon, points the muzzle at the boy’s face. There is a roar and the camera mercifully cuts away before I could see myself killed on that Zenith television screen.
Now you know what I mean when I say I was scared spitless.
This fifteen-minute section of film is actually the second opening to Once Upon a Time in the West (more about the first fifteen minutes later), but it is the one that seems to have been seared in my memory with a woodburning iron. Understandable, since I saw myself reflected in that doomed boy on the TV screen. It is safe to say that director Sergio Leone was the first one to tell me of my pending mortality.
Watching Once Upon a Time in the West this past weekend for the first time in thirty years, that first half hour of Leone’s 1969 epic Western is still just as potent and chilling—all the more so when I think about the killer on the end of the gun blowing away that little boy on screen. It’s Henry Fonda. That’s right, Henry Freaking Fonda. Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. All-American-Next-Door, Mr. Honesty and Integrity. Henry Fonda, owner of the sky-blue eyes and the easy-going, reassuring voice. Henry Fonda killing a kid (me!) in cold blood. What’s next? Jimmy Stewart gutting rabbits on-screen?
Fonda originally turned down the role of Frank, the hired gun who slaughters an entire family in a few minutes so that a railroad baron can have rights to the land. Leone, however, convinced the actor that there was plenty of shock value to be had in that first shot of Fonda holding the smoking gun. In fact, that feeling of unease and disbelief carries over the entire film as we watch the black-clad Frank continue to exude menace with every dusty boot-step. We simply cannot believe this is the same Henry Fonda who has been so warm and endearing in every other film of his career. It would be like someone telling us that Julia Roberts had been cast as Patricia Bateman in American Psycho 2.
Still, this is not to say we don’t feel some amount of sympathy for Frank—this is, after all, Henry Freaking Fonda we’re talking about—especially as the movie slowly grinds toward its surprising conclusion. It might be a bit of a casting novelty, but I really think this is one of Fonda’s best performances.
The same goes for the rest of the characters we meet in the 2 hour, 45-minute film: Charles Bronson, taking over duties from Clint Eastwood as the drifting hero, the Man With No Name (though everyone calls him “Harmonica” because of the mouth-organ he’s always playing); Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain, the hooker with a heart of gold—and ownership rights to the murdered family’s property (Jill is one of the few—if not the only—female lead characters in a Leone Western and she lends a much-needed tenderness to the grim proceedings); and Jason Robards as Cheyenne, the renegade outlaw who ultimately sides with Harmonica against Frank and the railroad tycoon. Leone had a remarkable way of drawing deeply-layered performances from actors who, in the hands of other directors, might have otherwise gotten lost in the panoramic landscape. The script—written by Leone, Sergio Donati and Mickey Knox (from a story by famed Italian directors Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci)—is as mythic as a fairy tale the title refers to: “Once upon a time, there was a nation that believed in manifest destiny and built a railroad to prove it and they all lived sort-of happily ever after.”
It’s a big, ambitious story with just a few characters. It would be easy for the cast to disappear underneath all that Western myth-making, but in movies like Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the acting is as big and grand as those towering rock formations in Monument Valley. Cardinale is sexy, even if she’s laboring under two pounds of mascara and looking like she just stepped out of a Raquel Welch double feature. Still, she’s not all Italian bimbo beauty; there’s intelligence and passion going on under those side curls and mascara. Robards, like Fonda, was one of our national screen treasures. With his theater-timbre voice, he always spoke sincerely and gravely. His turn as an outlaw who can’t get an even break is ultimately heartbreaking. And Bronson gives what is perhaps his best performance in this movie. Oh sure, he’s still only got one expression—concrete-faced stoicism—but it perfectly fits the mystique of his character, the silent hero who communicates with monosyllables, slow stares and fast guns.
The real star of Once Upon a Time in the West is, of course, Leone. As he proved in his other so-called “spaghetti Westerns,” the Italian director garnishes every shot, every scene with the kind of innovative artistic style last seen in the works of his fellow countrymen: the fellows named Michelangelo, Bottocelli and Caravaggio. The camera is Leone’s canvas and he shows us things like we’ve rarely seen them before (and certainly in 1969, the effect on audiences was even more stunning). Leone uses close-ups and vistas in equal measure, making you feel claustrophobic and expansive in the space of two minutes. Eyes—even those icy blue eyes of Fonda’s—fill the screen. You feel like you could crawl onto the image and sit on the furrow of the actors’ foreheads. Then, in the next blink, Leone sweeps his camera across a flat, endless horizon as a railroad gang pounds rails in the foreground and a locomotive approaches from the distance. Exact geometric composition is everything in Leone’s pictures.
So is silence. Leone nails this aspect of the American West perfectly. In reality, the prairies and dusty streets were probably not filled with constant gunfire, drunken whoops and saloon piano music. That’s Hollywood’s revisionist history of the West. Instead, there was silence—lonely, wind-filled silence…broken sporadically by gunshot, whoops and plinka-plink. Leone’s style cuts away the Hollywood noise, shears it all the way back to silence, then builds it back slowly, noise by noise.
The first opening sequence in Once Upon a Time in the West is a perfect example of this and is, perhaps, the greatest use of sound in film. Among other things, it also includes these classic lines of dialogue delivered by Harmonica to the three gunmen Frank has sent to the train station to kill him:
Bad Guy: Frank sent us.
Harmonica: Did you bring a horse for me?
Bad guy: Err... looks like we're shy of one horse...
Harmonica: No. You brought two too many!
Blam! Blam! Blam! The three assassins are dead and Harmonica has plenty of horses to choose from. [This also sets up another priceless quote which comes later in the film when Harmonica tells Cheyenne, “I saw three of these dusters today. Inside the dusters, there were three men. Inside the men, there were three bullets.”]
This is actually a large chunk of the dialogue spoken during those first fifteen minutes, a quarter of a hour which is also nearly devoid of Ennio Morricone’s memorable, harmonica-driven score. The long scene begins with the entrance of the three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock [a bit-part actor who, sad to say, committed suicide during the filming of the movie]). They wordlessly walk through the train station, intimidating the only other two people there—the station master and a Native American woman. The opening credits slip on and off screen unobtrusively as the gunmen settle themselves in to wait for the train carrying Harmonica. The sound starts to take on a music of its own: a creaking door, squeaking chalk as the station master writes the schedule on the board, a whining dog, water drops smacking Strode’s hat, a clacking telegraph machine, cracking knuckles, a buzzing fly that Elam traps inside the barrel of his pistol and—layered underneath all of it—the yee-haw yee-haw of a water vane turning in the wind. The spare poetry of this scene establishes the tone of the next two-and-a-half hours and encapsulates Leone’s vision for his movies, especially the ones about the American West.
If there is a problem with Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s that the poetry runs on too long and is too densely packed. It’s not always easy to sort out who’s good, who’s bad and who’s neutral. This is deep, lyrical cinema and at times it’s akin to reading a novel by James Joyce…but if you can get through the labyrinthine motives and plot devices, then Leone’s poetry will be music to your eyes.
And, who knows, it might just suck the spit right out of your mouth.
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