Our review of Once Upon a Time in the West (Blu-ray), published June 27th, 2011, is also available.
There were three men in her life. One to take her…One to love her…And one to kill her.
The decline in popularity of the Western is probably one of the more difficult to understand plummets in the history of the media. Every couple of years, another of our gifted filmmakers states that they are going to re-invent this genre and give it a new life for modern audiences. And unless it stars members of the Brat Pack (Young Guns), qualified American icons (Unforgiven), or rebellious visual velocity (The Quick and the Dead), all other attempts fail. Seems the public just doesn't want to cross the wide Mississippi and stake a claim in the classic prairie home companion anymore. And that's so odd, considering that, until the 1960s, it was a cornerstone of most media. Hollywood thrived on it, TV relied on it, and publishing made a mint off Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. Heck, singing cowpokes even penned some of our favorite tunes, from yuletide classics (Gene Autrey's "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer") to beloved country standards. But like a tumbleweed wandering across the vast plains, it seems like one day the entire conglomeration just up and blew away, drifting across the arid pop culture landscape and into obtuse oblivion.
One could accuse over-reliance or constant repetition for its death. But maybe the reason the Western finally died out is because, once the Italians stepped in and reinvented it, the old fashioned formations of the purple sage just couldn't compete. Directors like Gianfranco Parolini, Sergio Corbucci, and the master of them all, Sergio Leone, stripped the Western of all of its heroic garb and defeatist moralizing and gave it a spark and a darkness all its own. Long considered the pinnacle of the rudely categorized "spaghetti" western, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West is considered not only a great example of the new genre, but a great film. Paramount goes all out for a two-disc DVD presentation that reestablishes the movie's preeminence.
Facts of the Case
In order not to spoil any of the wonderful plot details of this film, a simple rundown of the four main characters and the dynamic between them will suffice. We begin with:
Jill McBain: Arriving from New Orleans, she travels to Sweetwater to meet her husband and his family. Along the way, she stops off at an outpost and meets Cheyenne, a criminal on the run, and Harmonica, a quiet, contemplative loner. When she finally arrives at the settlement, she is shocked by the tragedy that has preceded her. With Cheyenne and Harmonica's help, she wants revenge against the people responsible for the slaughter.
Frank: Working for the diabolical railroad tycoon Mr. Morton, Frank's self-professed job is the removal of "little obstacles" from the train's push westward. Such barriers include human (the McBain family) and the personal (his feelings for the widow McBain and his own greed).
Cheyenne: A criminal on the run who meets up with a strange man he calls "Harmonica" for the mouth harp he constantly plays and Jill McBain at the outpost. He learns that Frank may be using long duster jackets, a symbol of his gang, to wreak violence against those who will not bow to Morton's wishes. He is smitten with Jill and vows to help her save the settlement and get revenge on Frank.
Harmonica: A mystery man in town, he is seen around the periphery of things. He is after a meeting with Frank. Once he meets Jill and Cheyenne, he wants to help her as well. But his motives may not be pure and his methods may be equally suspect.
For many, the western is divided into three distinct categories of classic oater. First, there is the traditional Hollywood ideal. In this black hat and white hat dynamic, the good guy eliminates the evil influence of the bad guy and saves the ranch, un-rustles the cattle, or cleans up the town. For them, John Wayne is always riding off into the sunset with Gabby Hayes and a collection of television cowboys at his side, the shiny sheriff's badge glimmering in a uniquely jingoistic way. In our modern moviegoing world, the new name for a western hero is serial murderer. Usually portrayed as a man so far down in a pit of degradation and despair that he wouldn't know up if someone showed it to him, this sad psychopath stalks the landscape looking for a righteous man to challenge, condemn, and kill all in one key sequence of human ethical debate as an exchange of gunfire. But somewhere in the middle of all this fun, fear, and self-loathing is the Italian stab at the saddle saga. In the pasta prairie tale, nothing is good and nothing is bad (it is occasionally ugly, though), and the parameters of acceptable symbolism are thrown out the stagecoach window. Heroes can be heartless killers, bad guys can have romantic underpinnings, and revenge is a dish served cold, hot, dry, bitter, recklessly, exact, and often. Far more concerned with suspense than slaughter and using stylized illusions to underscore the unspoken arrangements between the characters, these films not only mock the movies that came before them, but lovingly embrace their nobility and mythology. Indeed, the best way to appreciate this version of the home on the range homily is to consider them the epic poems of the prairie, a chance for the modern Roman to do the same for cowboys and Indians as his ancestors did for gods and mortals.
Slow, deliberate, resonating with tension and foreboding, Once Upon a Time in the West could be considered the ultimate spaghetti western if it wasn't for the fact that it plays on a much higher level of existentialism than your standard Italian horse opera. Indeed, opera would be an appropriate term for this film, since it is overstuffed with the kind of larger-than-life personalities that make the old mammoth musicals so passionate and powerful. Once Upon a Time in the West is the Pulp Fiction of westerns, a radical rethinking that directly cribs from everything that came before it while saving the best and tossing the trash. It's a brutal and brash story that substitutes glowering for gunplay and uncomfortable heat for pure heroism. As much an homage to John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Akira Kurosawa as it is a statement of Leone's own decidedly romanticized view of how the West was won, it is a film that sings its significance in subtle shifts while glamorizing grime and grit. It is an experience that concerns itself almost exclusively with tone, with the use of darkness and light, the gruffness of man with the voluptuous beauty of woman. But because it deals in the thesis of the old West ethos dying and being replaced by a very modern idea of poisonous progress (the railroad tycoon's cutthroat ways, Mr. McBain's dream of a town all his own), it transcends its stagecoach trappings to become a quiet and powerful eulogy to all Westerns, the final stamp on an entire genre of filmmaking.
Once Upon a Time in the West is actually a brief sketch of the western ethic, a tale of the railroad vs. the land stripped bare of all but the very basics of character and plot. It unfolds like a picture book, images and sounds slowly being revealed to emphasize and propel the story. It's not until the very end of the film that we understand everything that has happened, the characters' full motivations, and the way we should respond to them. But even then, Leone still wants to make us think, to have us question what we have seen and resolve any ambiguity in favor of our own interpretation. That is why Once Upon a Time in the West is so dense. It adds tidbits of dimension to its players and then leaves us to fill in the gaps. We wonder if Harmonica's motivations are clearly revenge. Is Jill working for or against Frank? Is Frank shrewd, evil, or a combination of the two? And where does the felonious Cheyenne fit into all of this? Is he really behind Jill and her dream to fulfill her dead husband's destiny, or is there an ulterior motive behind his caring compassion? Without everything spelled out for us like grammar school lessons, we are able to free associate ourselves, our ideals, and our biases all over the film, and this is part of the reason why it hits so close to home for so many movie buffs. The characters in Once Upon a Time in the West don't just become what we need them to be, but actually transform into what we want them to be, playing directly into our cinematic sensibilities. The fact that Leone can maintain that magic for almost two and one-half hours is the reason this film is such a masterpiece: it supplants expectations as it constantly circumvents them…and it's mostly happening in our mind.
The iconography of casting is also crucial to a film like this, and Leone finds a motley crew of famous (and infamous) faces to fill out his rogue's gallery woodcarving. Playing against type, Henry Fonda uses his piercing blue eyes to suggest the cold steel heart that lies inside. His wholesome American standard style is perfect for the cold-blooded killer who systematically removes any impediment (no matter the age or sex) for his own advancement. Jason Robards, who doesn't strike one as being a member of the cowboy clan, lets his whiskers define his trailblazing as he imbues Cheyenne with just the right amount of mischievous charm. Like a sedate snake silently sunning himself on a rock, he seems too anesthetized to strike…until his defenses are up and then the venom flows. As the enigmatic hero who holds a great many secrets in his presence, Charles Bronson brings his own decidedly different ethnicity to the role of Harmonica, creating a walking puzzle whose pieces fail to fall easily into place. And as the woman who causes most of the commotion around them, Claudia Cardinale is walking femininity, all curves and comeliness. Her excessively sexual presence stirs all the men in this movie, and yet she is never completely degraded or exploited because of her ample assets. With such character creatures as monster man Jack Elam, the classic cowboy cornerstone of Woody Strode, and the funny familiarity of Lionel Stander (as the outpost's leering bartender), Once Upon a Time in the West provides emblematic figures that act as guideposts through this ambitious, ambiguous discussion of man's dual nature: not the one between good or bad, but between evil and indifference.
Without someone of exceptional talent at the helm, however, this entire movie would implode under its own self-righteous rigidity. The story as developed by Italian luminaries Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci is an exercise in artificial information deprivation, never giving more than is necessary and then only meting it out in short bursts of dialogue. Thankfully, in Sergio Leone, we have a director who can make that march from artifice to art in a simple, single step. His direction here is the very definition of control. From the carriage POV shots that illustrate Jill's journey to the infinite widescreen images that present grand sweeping vistas (each recalling the final days of the West's true uninhabited nature), Leone's camera is a paintbrush, filling in the visual information necessary to comprehend the lack of outright explanation. Leone does have a distinct style, a way of moving his camera into and around gatherings and situations to accent the important and highlight the hidden. Many have commented on how he uses entrances to define a character, from Harmonica's seeming arrival from the ephemera to Frank's clandestine stalking. But Leone is also obsessed with the face and eyes. He loves the extreme close-up, a chance to focus on the head of a character as he or she stares directly into the camera. From this vantage point, he hopes to expose the human being within through the windows of the soul and the tiniest movements of the mouth. Leone is a man fascinated by details and intricacies. His camera then becomes a recorder, a medium through which the finer points on life in the West (or in turn of the century New York) are revealed. His goal is to make you experience the heat, the sweat, the sour taste of defeat, all the ancillary accessories that surround these people, and he achieves it time and again.
Ennio Morricone is as important to the genre and this film in particular as Leone is. Morricone provides the final narrative link, after the script, the acting, and the direction. Without his score, we would be missing a great deal of the impact of this film. Morricone seems to be able to effortlessly incorporate all manner of musical styles into his orchestrations, from the carnival like circus sonnets to the all-out straightforward symphonic and make each work with, not against, each other. Like an opera, he develops distinct, aria like themes for each of the main characters and relies on these leitmotifs almost exclusively to color their presence. For most American ears, used to syrupy string arrangements meant to telegraph every emotion before or even while it happens, the use of such structured, stylized scoring will either move your soul or make you uneasy. Harmonica's harmonica theme is played constantly (obviously to reinforce the idea that his story is the "omnipresent" force driving the narrative) and the beautiful theme for Jill is so heartbreakingly evocative that it surpasses the settings in which it is used to say something universal about the woman's place in the world. There is no denying the power and majesty in Morricone's canon of work. He is as important to the motion picture galaxy as any of its acting or directing stars. Once Upon a Time in the West is a memorable, mesmerizing display of melody and main theme. Without his work on this film, it would only be the barest of masterworks, a pretty picture without soul.
When added all together, the actors, Leone, and Morricone define the very nature of the Western as viewed through a non-American, European set of eyes. The USA has always stylized the founding of the West, from lottery like homesteading to the perverse pull of the rush for gold. But it's the outright brutality on this second Civil War (this time, between natives and interlopers) that truly defined what the United States would become. We are a nation founded upon the gun and the West was ruled by it. We are also a nation known for solving its problems with violent, sometimes thoughtless outbursts. The history of the West is stained with the stunted way in which we have resolved our differences. Looking from the outside in, it's no wonder that the desperate, desolate tone is accented and the mean-spirited violence is celebrated. For the average Italian, the West was won via blood, death, and deception, and all of these ideals are present in the spaghetti western, especially in Once Upon a Time in the West. The interesting aspect to this film is that it never condemns the actions of those who swindled the bank and the robber barons to get the exclusive rights to the Sweetwater station. Mr. McBain's death frees him of any shady dealings he made to secure the land rights. Indeed, the final act of the film is what Frank and the tycoon wanted all along, handled in a mostly bloodless fashion by Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Mrs. McBain. The notion that the same result could be accomplished within wholly legal (not necessarily ethical) ways means that Once Upon a Time in the West transcends its gunfight formula to illuminate the overall human condition. No matter how it was going to be done, the rail was going through to the Pacific, the land was going to be tamed, and the natural inhabitants were going to have their long-term leases "revoked." Leone lets us in on the mindset that would destroy nature to make it over in its own image. The idea of the white man playing God to tame the wilderness is at the heart of Once Upon a Time in the West…as is the idea that when turned against himself, he cannot control anything.
Fans of the film have waited what seems like forever for it to finally make its appearance on the digital medium and, thank goodness, Paramount has avoided its barebones philosophy to load this DVD with bonus content contentment. But what most aficionados will care about is the edit and the image. According to some online sources, there was a 171-minute version of the film that played in Italy upon initial release. Also interesting is that the movie was cut by 20 minutes just a few weeks after making its US premiere. What we are given here is the 165-minute international version that is missing the material in the initial Italian cut (including a fight between Harmonica and the sheriff's men) but incorporating everything available before the US edits. No matter the time frame or missing footage, this is still a fantastic film made even better by the pristine print rolled out. Once Upon a Time in the West is absolutely gorgeous in this 2.35:1 transfer. The original laserdisc version of the film from Paramount was full of scratches and faded colors. The transfer here is rich, robust, and shockingly crisp. Minor details become major images in the film, and all the actors look that much more trail weary and realistic.
Equally exceptional is the gorgeous Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that simply explodes with evocative atmosphere. This is a film that's musical score and minimal dialogue exist within a terrific mood of carefully conceived ambience and this new audio addition is remarkable (especially during the gunfights and showdowns). Morricone's masterful score is also served well. The clarity and crispness is awesome and the lushness of the score really comes across in 5.1. For those sticklers regarding the original sound recording, a newly remastered mono track has been included and, again, it is just great, if not a little anemic, alongside the 5.1.
Finally on disc one is a commentary track that features incredibly in-depth analysis and a great deal of famous fan worship. John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing), John Milius (Conan The Barbarian, Flight of the Intruder), and Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy, Repo Man) all add interesting anecdotes from their own personal interpretations and fascinations with the film and Leone. Carpenter and Cox are very obvious with their dissertations ("it was a hot day when this was filmed"), while Milius goes for the overall philosophical bent. Claudia Cardinale adds a little behind the scenes intrigue with her one and only addition to the commentary (she reveals just how uncomfortable it was to shoot the sex scene between herself and Henry Fonda). As for the rest of the narrative, it is divided between storywriter and famous filmmaker in his own right, Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor) and two British scholars who have obviously studied this film a great deal, Sir Chirstopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall. While their names suggest dry, professorial preaching, they are actually engaging, witty, and incredibly insightful. They are constantly interjecting the names of the movies the film is paying homage to as the scenes are happening and offer expert analysis about Leone's themes and obsessions. Bertolucci gets a couple of really fine stories in, including how he hoped this movie would be the ultimate Western, and how upon seeing it, he knew it was.
The rest of the bonus material is found on Disc Two and it is a wonderful treasure trove of history. Beginning with a three-part documentary on the making of the film (subtitled "An Opera of Violence," "The Wages of Sin," and "Something to Do with Death" they can only be watched individually: there is no "play all" feature), we are immersed in the career of Leone and the reasons behind Once Upon a Time in the West's existence. Many may be interested in hearing about the link to Once Upon a Time in America, Leone's cinematic sensibility, and its influence on French student radicals in the 1960s and how Claudia Cardinale looks in 2003. But the more dynamic presentation comes from the endless discussion of Western genre history, the direct references to classic cowboy movies, and the initial disregard the film met with upon release. Many of the commentary participants are here (with a couple missing and a couple new players involved) and there is little overlap in the info. What we end up with is a fascinating, detailed account of Leone's filmmaking art and the effect it had on his films, cinema in general, and those around him. And this is not the sole featurette here. We also get a discussion of the importance of the railroad in ruining Western ideals in the name of progress. We also examine, in a series of contrasting stills slideshow, the beautiful landscapes of Monument Valley and the Arizona locales used in Once Upon a Time in the West reflecting how these areas looked in 1968, and what they look like now.
Additional materials include a production stills gallery (again, presented slideshow style without the benefit of "stepping through" them), a brief set of cast profiles (which, frankly, glaze over the details in these famous people's careers), and the original trailer. It's amazing to see how cheaply America sold this film to the public. It contains practically every gunfight in the film, some brief glimpses of Cardinale and Fonda in their love scene, and even showcases the opening "shocker" at the railway station. Film fans who think that modern movie studios ruin films with their current "show it all" mentality will see that it wasn't only in the 1980s and '90s where cinematic secrets were spelled out in the preview. Together with the magnificent transfer and glorious audio tracks, these bonuses help the viewer understand why this film was, and is, a forgotten masterpiece.
It's impossible not to go back to the Pulp Fiction illusion and imagine what would have happened to the Western had Once Upon a Time in the West had been released in 1990 instead of 1968. The genre was gasping for breath, but it would be a good decade or more before the oater died a rather undignified death. With the coffin nails already driven in, Leone's opus acted like a hammer and not a crowbar. Indeed, with the horse opera dead and buried (or better yet, PC'ed all out of proportion by Dances With Wolves and others), something as resoundingly fresh and frighteningly artistic as this film would have been the resurrecting wake-up call this kind of movie needed. Young fans would have celebrated its brilliance and de-constructive tendencies, while old school film types would have championed its cross-referencing recall of Hollywood classics. Leone would have been celebrated and his entire legacy relived in specials, seminars, and talk show appearances. But Leone died in 1989 and was barely able to get his last film, Once Upon a Time in America, shown in its original theatrical running time. Like most geniuses working their masterpiece art, he was appreciated but never fully accepted in his time. It's only now, when we see how poetic and majestic, fanciful and fatal, his films are that we recognize how ahead of his time he really was. And how much we miss his vision. Leone understood the mythology of movies. He also understood the need to pick apart those myths and show their soft, seedy underbelly. Once Upon a Time in the West was, as Bernardo Bertolucci said, the last great Western. If it is dead forever, at least the genre can truly rest in peace.
Brilliant film, excellent transfer, spectacular extras. All parties are acquitted and are free to go.
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