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Author Topic: A Meager Groggy Review  (Read 6348 times)
Groggy
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« on: June 12, 2009, 03:30:13 PM »

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Now I will finally review Sergio Leone's magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It's not a task I take lightly. The film is a quantum leap from Leone's Dollars trilogy in quality and richness, and stands on its own as an unparalleled work of art. In short, it is pure cinema.

Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is a New Orleans prostitute coming West to join her husband Brett (Frank Wolff) at his Sweetwater Ranch to start a new life. Unfortunately, Jill arrives only to discover that her husband and his family have been brutally massacred. Evidence points towards Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a Mexican bandit whose men wear dusters "like a signature", but a mysterious, harmonica-playing stranger (Charles Bronson) knows better; it was the work of Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless hired gun working for dying railroad magnate Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), who wants to appropriate McBain's land for his railroad. Harmonica and Cheyenne form a shaky alliance to protect Jill and defeat Frank's men - while Harmonica has a score of his own to settle with Frank.

So much has been written about Once Upon a Time in the West (even I have written several reviews and essays on the film already) that it's hard to know from what angle to approach the film. Certainly, in terms of plot and themes, it's hardly original, but in presentation, it something else entirely.

The movie is an affectionate patchwork of homages to American Western; every scene a distillation of dozens of Hollywood Westerns gone before, providing both an affectionate homage and a pointed, cynical commentary. The film's opening is an extended High Noon parody, with gunslingers Woody Strode (Spartacus), Jack Elam (innumerable Westerns) and Al Muloch (the one-armed bounty hunter in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) menacing the station master, shooing flies and waiting for Harmonica to arrive on a train. Such references, from major set-pieces (the massacre borrowed from The Searchers, the Shane-inspired funeral) to minor details (Cheyenne sliding a gun to Harmonica a la Ward Bond to Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine), permeate the entire film. Besides the usual Almerian landscapes and elaborate, rough-hewn sets, Leone also sets several key scenes - Jill's ride to Flagstone and the film's climactic flashback - in Ford's Monument Valley, returning the Western to its home. Unlike many modern directors, Leone uses such homages to brilliant effect, making them an essential part of the film; Leone takes everything old and worn out about the American Western and turn them into something grand, creating his own iconography in the process.

The most effective "homage" by far is Henry Fonda's casting as Frank. Fonda had played morally dubious characters several times - the martinet Colonel Thursday in Ford's Fort Apache, a guilt-ridden gunslinger in Warlock, a bad guy in Firecreek - but they were by far the exception. He was the iconic Wyatt Earp, cleaning up Tombstone with a few well-placed shots; John Ford's pious Young Mr. Lincoln; the righteous Tom Joad; the grimly determined Juror Number 8; and innumerable Presidents, generals and statesmen. Fonda is at times almost unrecognizable under a sun-burned face and scraggly beard-stubble (and he bears a full beard in his flashback sequences), but all it takes is one close-up of Fonda's ice blue eyes and sinister half-smile to remind us who he is. The scene where Fonda casually guns down a ten year old child caused shocks when the film was released; it has less impact today, but it still works a transcendent moment in its own right.



The movie's plot (a straight re-working of Nicholas Ray's wacky Johnny Guitar), characters (all archetypes out of the hoariest B-Western), and primary theme (the death of the West) are hardly novel, but the way Leone handles them transcends the cliched material. The film treats its gunfighter-protagonists like Gods of old mythology, embodying everything the Western genre has stood for in the past. Like John Ford's larger-than-life heroes, Harmonica, Cheyenne, and even Frank have their place in the settling of the West - but ultimately they must die, or else fade away into the sunset, to make way for progress they have no part of - progress personified both by Jill the reluctant Earth mother, bringing water to rail workers and birthing the town of Sweetwater, and the malevolent Morton, whose terminal illness, sacks of money and "beautiful, shiny rails" show a darker side. Progress brings prosperity to those who survive, but also destroys everything already in existence - the film's cast of characters martyrs to the inevitable taming of the Old West.

Upon repeat viewings, the film's weakest aspect is Cheyenne, the "romantic bandit" who falls for Jill and reluctantly ends up on the right side. He's far too eloquent and verbose to be a convincing tough guy, and casting Jason Robards in the part certainly doesn't help matters. The pistoleer introduced shooting his way out of a sizeable prison escort (albeit off-screen) and later rescues Harmonica from a slew of Frank's henchmen seems an entirely different character from the half-baked philosopher musing about the life of an outlaw and warning Jill about the propensity of cowboys to pat her behind (one of the film's most awkward moments). Frank and Harmonica's brief exchange before the final duel says far more about the subject of the dying breed of gunslingers than any of Cheyenne's long-winded stem-winders. Robards gives a fine performance with what he has, but the character just seems out of place, and his lengthy death scene makes the movie a beat too long.

Leone's direction has never been better. The entire movie is one long, dream-like ritual, with blatantly theatrical devices (a train "revealing" Harmonica like a curtain, a swinging lantern illuminating and shadowing his face, characters constantly framed by doors and windows) that are made transcendent; even trivial incidents like Cheyenne's forcing a trading-post patron to shoot his manacles turn into bravura set-pieces. The lengthy opening scene makes brilliant use of time and sound; no music, just the creaking of the windmill, the dripping of a water tower, the buzzing of a pesky fly, and the shriek of a locomotive. The final duel between Frank and Harmonica, interrupted by a lengthy flashback, is one of the most astonishing sequences in film history; with the plot all but over, Leone allows the film to become pure ritual, with brilliant use of Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography, Ennio Morricone's operatic score and of course, the epochal close-ups. Such scenes are beyond brilliant, and the movie as a whole is perhaps the ultimate argument for Film as Art.



Special note must be paid to Ennio Morricone's extraordinary score, up there with Maurice Jarre's Doctor Zhivago as one of the best of all time. Morricone's work on Leone's Dollars films is excellent in its own right, but his score for Once Upon a Time is something on a whole other level. His whacky, off-the-wall themes of previous films make way for a series of stately themes: Jill's sweeping soprano and orchestra, Harmonica's wailing mouth organ and electric guitar, Frank's blaring trumpets, Cheyenne's lazy whistle-and-banjo theme, Morton's simple yet tragic piano and oboe piece. Even the incidental music is better than most of its type, and the music adds immeasuribly to every scene, driving even some of the movie's more banal moments and making them grand.

The cast is top-notch. Claudia Cardinale is stunningly gorgeous as Jill, creating easily the strongest female character in a Leone film; haughty, sexy and acid-tongued, but with a soft, decidedly feminine side. Henry Fonda is pitch-perfect as Frank, subverting an entire career's iconography with one evil grin. Charles Bronson gives arguably a career-best performance; Jason Robards does good work with a rather weak part. Gabriele Ferzetti steals all of his scenes with a poignant, layered performance as Morton. The supporting cast includes Woody Strode and Jack Elam as two of Frank's henchmen, Italian star Paolo Stoppa (The Leopard) as a crabby coach driver, and American expatriates Lionel Stander and Frank Wolff.

Once Upon a Time in the West is by far the greatest Western of all time, with only The Wild Bunch in serious competition, and it's up there in my top three films of all time. Whatever its minor flaws, the movie embodies everything grand that cinema can achieve, and is ultimately a masterpiece.

Rating: 10/10 - Must-See


http://nothingiswrittenfilm.blogspot.com/2009/06/ancient-race.html

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« Reply #1 on: June 12, 2009, 04:22:28 PM »

Wow, a beautiful review.  I still disagree with you about the childlike Cheyenne but other than that you're right on the money.  Its been three years since I have last seen OUATITW.  I must see it again soon.  Thank you.   Afro

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Groggy
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« Reply #2 on: June 12, 2009, 05:00:02 PM »

Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it Colonel. Afro I think I prefer the one I penned for Marco Leone's site but I have no idea if that's still around.

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« Reply #3 on: June 13, 2009, 07:57:52 PM »

Great review there Groggs.   Afro


Only thing I gotta disagree with is your opinions on Cheyenne. I find no flaw in his character, in fact I think he enhances the movie with his presence because he is the most human of all the characters, no definitive morality with a good conscious even when we know he's not a complete good guy.

Matter of fact, to one of my friends who watched the film more than once, Cheyenne was his favorite character and stated "I hate it when he dies, he had an awesome theme song"  Grin

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« Reply #4 on: June 13, 2009, 08:45:59 PM »

Yes its fascinating how each gunslinger has a different reaction to progress.  Frank wants to conquer and control Jill's (and Morton's) America while Cheyenne wants to survive and thrive in this brave new world.  (Like Juan and Tuco, Cheyenne is really more of an innocent child than a hardened criminal)  Only Harmonica knows better, though both Frank and Cheyenne realize the truth before they die.

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« Reply #5 on: June 14, 2009, 01:47:29 AM »

I like your reviews Groggy, even when I disagree with them.

But for OuTW I would also only disagree about Cheyenne. His death scene is one of the great scenes of this film, and the omission of his first and last scene in the theatrical US version damages (destroys?) the film film considerably. How could these idiots cut out 2 of the highlights of this film?
Well, they were rewarded with a flop, while the full lenght version was s surprising smash hit in Europe.

And of course, OuTW and The Wild Bunch are the best westerns ever, and also amongst the best films ever.

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« Reply #6 on: June 14, 2009, 08:16:37 AM »

Well, I don't have a problem with Cheyenne dying, I just think the scene itself is ludicrously drawn out. The movie has already reached its emotional catharsis and high point with the duel and the goodbye scene with Jill, Cheyenne's death (at least taking as long as it does) just adds an awkward extra half-beat.

I do think his introductory scene is brilliant, but I think I say as much in the review. To be honest I think ALL of the scenes that were cut from the American release print are inexcusable in absence, as all are important to the plot and film.

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« Reply #7 on: June 16, 2009, 12:11:59 PM »

Upon repeat viewings, the film's weakest aspect is Cheyenne, the "romantic bandit" who falls for Jill and reluctantly ends up on the right side. He's far too eloquent and verbose to be a convincing tough guy, and casting Jason Robards in the part certainly doesn't help matters. The pistoleer introduced shooting his way out of a sizeable prison escort (albeit off-screen) and later rescues Harmonica from a slew of Frank's henchmen seems an entirely different character from the half-baked philosopher musing about the life of an outlaw and warning Jill about the propensity of cowboys to pat her behind (one of the film's most awkward moments). Frank and Harmonica's brief exchange before the final duel says far more about the subject of the dying breed of gunslingers than any of Cheyenne's long-winded stem-winders. Robards gives a fine performance with what he has, but the character just seems out of place, and his lengthy death scene makes the movie a beat too long.

I remember a long comment by Leone in Simsolo's book about his casting of Robards and how he wanted the character of Cheyenne to be played out by him. Robards performance concurs exactly with what Leone wanted to portray. There is also a nice little bit about how Morricone and Leone chose Cheyenne's theme. I'll try and translate it for you when I get the time unless HG or Noodles_Leone want to beat me to it...

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« Reply #8 on: June 18, 2009, 01:45:06 AM »

I'll let you do it... I'm overstreteched by commitments right now  Sad

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« Reply #9 on: June 19, 2009, 12:42:10 PM »

I swear I've read that before, at least in part. Although I'd heard it was The Lady and the Tramp and not Beauty and the Beast.

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« Reply #10 on: June 19, 2009, 05:52:13 PM »

Yeah, Disney didn't do Beauty and the Beast until 1991.

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« Reply #11 on: June 22, 2009, 11:36:48 AM »

Nice review.  And I'm with you in regards to Cheyenne being the weak area of the film.  His character wasn't rough enough for who he was supposed to be.  Had I been at that horse trough/bar, he wouldn't have scared me.

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« Reply #12 on: June 24, 2009, 01:08:53 AM »

Totally off-topic:
Groggy, I'm reading your blog and I'm bothered by your constant spelling of Miloš Forman's name as "Foreman". Just because I'm Czech and I know. No Foremans here, sorry. Please, correct it, so it won't be bothering me anymore... and you'll come across as a more distinguished film critic if you do it right.



Back to topic, great review, although I also don't quite agree on Cheyenne... but I agree with this:
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Frank and Harmonica's brief exchange before the final duel says far more about the subject of the dying breed of gunslingers than any of Cheyenne's long-winded stem-winders.

Although I do not quite remember Cheyenne ever talking about this particular topic... maybe only touching upon it. But it's been a long time since I last watched it, because I didn't have much time for long and thought-out films recently...

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There are two kinds of films in this world:those which stay,even when their genre is forgotten,and those which don't.
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« Reply #13 on: June 24, 2009, 07:16:18 AM »

Not surprising. Whether it's a typo or ignorance is open to questioning. I note I also spelt Ra's al-Ghul's name wrong in my Batman Begins review.

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« Reply #14 on: June 24, 2009, 09:42:40 AM »

I noticed more mistakes (not just in names) and in most cases I guess it was typos or laziness (i.e. unwillingness to read your own text after yourself or something like that), but in this case it borders on ignorance, because it's constant...

But I had great time reading your blog. It, again, reminded me of how much I want and have always wanted to see Lawrence of Arabia...
And it explained a lot of your recent signature pictures to me. Grin

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There are two kinds of films in this world:those which stay,even when their genre is forgotten,and those which don't.
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