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Once Upon A Time In The West

After finishing The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Leone planned to work on a film titled Once Upon A Time in America. He wanted to do something different than the western that had brought him fame. Yet the studios knew that another western would be very popular, since the Dollars trilogy did quite well, especially for how little money was put into making them. So, Leone agreed to do another one, titled Once Upon a Time in the West.

The first treatment came from Bernardo Bertolucci, cult-favorite Italian Horror director Dario Agento, and Leone, but was significantly reworked by Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati. Before the film was shot, Ennio Morricone had already written the music, which included a prominent harmonica which Leone decided to add to the film. Thus the plot was completed. But the plot in this movie hardly matters much. The plot keeps the movie going, but it is not what makes the movie special.

The story concerns, once again, a man with no name (Charles Bronson). He's out for revenge, targeting Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless killer hired by a railroad boss. The railroad boss Mr. Morton wants the land of Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), and the man with no name and his newfound ally Cheyenne (James Robards) team up to defeat the railroad boss and Frank.

The plot is admittedly lifted from Johnny Guitar, starring Sterling Hayden. Well, that's what they tell you, at least. To some extent, it is true. But anyone who has seen Johnny Guitar knows that only a few elements of the film were borrowed. Namely, the presence of a loner, a bandit and his men, and the defense of a beautiful woman's land. Many other specifics, such as Frank, the railroad tycoon, the quest for revenge, and in fact most of the latter part of the plot is different. However, it is not original, intentionally. Leone combined elements of many famous westerns to create the perfect one for this movie. At any rate, Johnny Guitar is certainly not to Once Upon a Time in the West what Yojimbo was to A Fistful of Dollars.

Once Upon a Time in the West is, in my opinion, the greatest western ever to be made. Nothing even comes close. Watching the film, one can feel the love Leone had for the genre. The movie is a nostalgic farewell for the simpler days, the last days of the gunfighter. There are two kinds of characters in the movie: the characters who belong in the old world, and those that belong in the new. The man with no name, Cheyenne, and Frank are the old-timers. Jill and the Mr. Morton are the new breed, building the new civilization. Even though on one level, it is Jill and the railroad that is fighting, on a deeper level, the conflict is between the old-timers and the new breed. This conflict first shows up when the old carriage driver is riding through Monument Valley, carrying Jill towards the McBain's. When he comes to the railroad workers extending the railroad, he spurs his horse on and gives the workers a good scare by almost running them over. That's the only way he can fight progress, and it makes him pretty happy. At the end of the film, after the last tiny piece of plot has been played out, the camera shows a close-up of the man with no name. But then a whistle blows, and the camera tracks up to show the train arriving with new workers. It is at this moment where the power shifts from the old to the new. Jill goes out to give the workers some water, and we feel simultaneously good about the new town that is being built, but also nostalgic for the loss of the frontier.

This is the first really slow Leone film, almost three hours long. The credits, which is Leone's way of pointing to the fact that he destroyed the notion of the traditional Hollywood western (High Noon), last for around ten minutes. Under a more efficient director, the film could be told in under two hours, yet it wouldn't be nearly the same movie. The magic of this movie is in the length. Every scene is allowed to play itself out, without being hurried. Many people have compared Leone's works to opera... slow, languid, and beautiful. In ordinary opera though, it is the musical beauty that is important, yet the Once Upon a Time series, the quality of the music is matched and even surpassed by the incredible direction. Camera movements that climb, swoop, and zoom abound, a perfect match for the sweeping majestic music. This movie is perfect.

One my favorite parts in the movie is after the plot has ended. The man with no name has bought Jill's land, the railroad tycoon is dying near a small pool of water (an obvious ironic parody of the ocean he wanted to see before he died), Frank's men are dead, and there is basically nothing left to do. Except one thing: there must be the duel. For some reason that is hard to put into words, this is a beautiful thing. Frank riding towards Jill's house, past the railroad workers, to where the man with no name waits... I find this one of the most moving scenes in the movie. It's almost as if Frank wants to die; he is a product of an age that is ending. He has no place in the future. Or perhaps Frank is following the code of honor among gunfighters. Never run out on an opponent. The showdown is a ritual, a rite of closure, where the opponents go to opposite ends of a circle, face each other, and whoever can draw the fastest lives. And they never shoot each other in the back, no matter how evil or desperate anyone is. This is Western chivalry, and at the end of the movie, we realize that soon, even this honor among thieves will end.

This movie is thankfully easy to see in letterbox format. AMC (American Movie Classics) shows this movie frequently, about once a month. Usually when they show it, as with most of their movies, they will show a pan and scan version in the daytime, but the late night showing will be in letterbox format. Do NOT see this movie in the pan & scan version, because it pan's on one of the best parts of the movie, when Frank and his men emerge from the shrubbery after gunning down the McBain family. That one pan totally ruins the mood, and it pained me even when I hadn't seen the letterbox version. Evidently there is also a shortened, near 2-hour version that people should stay away from, but I've never seen it.