We’ve made it through every movie on the Sight & Sound list up through 1945 but not a single one has been a Western, surprising given that the genre was a popular favorite going back to at the least The Great Train Robbery (1903). We’ll soon be getting to a few classic Hollywood oaters, but our first foray into the Wild West is coming via Italian director Sergio Leone. In 1964 Leone brought a TV actor by the name of Clint Eastwood out to make a Western based largely on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961). The resulting picture, A Fistful of Dollars, kicked off a wave of Italian-made cowboy flicks generally known as Spaghetti Westerns, with Leone and Eastwood’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) almost certainly being the most famous. But it is Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era un volta il West, 1968) that has generally ended up being the most critically lauded of Leone’s films. Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Henry Fonda in a rare villain role, Once Upon a Time in the West is something of a culmination of the style developed by Leone in his work with Eastwood. Through a barrage of intense close ups, slow builds of tension, exaggerated sound effects, moral ambiguity, and dynamic widescreen compositions, Leone manages to utterly redefine the Western, making many of his influences seem tame by comparison. (166 min.)
S. – We have made quite a leap forward in time to review this film, but when the Astor Theatre offers up Sight & Sound list goodness on the big screen it is crazy to say no. And Once Upon a Time in the West is truly a spectacle best appreciated in a cinema setting. Leone likes to fill those widescreen frames and whether it is the awesome landscapes of Monument Valley, the dark and rustic interiors of the frontier establishments or the intense close-ups of the main players, there is a whole lot to look at. The pacing of the story is quite slow, almost to the point of being maddening in parts, but it invites you to take in the meticulous detail of every shot. Early on when you don’t really know who are the good guys and the bad guys the slow pacing was quite frustrating. I am happy for a director to let things fall into place for the viewer instead of spelling everything out but the opening piece with the three bandits waiting for the train had me worried that this film was going to feel like an eternity. I was also somewhat concerned that one of the central figures (Bronson) was not only going to be without a name but also without a voice. Fortunately he was just making a point with that creepy harmonica riff and, although rather taciturn, did have something to say. The stylistic devices of slow, quiet scenes and musical elements contributing to the narrative got things off to a shaky start for me. However, once enough of the threads came together things got pretty interesting.
J. – Yeah, that opening is definitely too much, it lasts for a little more than 10 minutes without really anything happening. Leone is a master of drawing out the moments before violence explodes to ramp the tension up to almost unbearable levels, but he definitely takes it too far here. The opening sequence moves from tension all the way to dullness because it is so drawn out. And I think that generally can be said of much of the first hour or so of the movie, which is a real shame because there’s a lot of great stuff in this film. I am a fan of Leone’s work but I think he lets his style run a little too wild in the beginning of the movie, forgetting to create much narrative momentum to go with his visuals.
There is one scene from the early portion of the film that I do think works perfectly and makes excellent use of Leone’s willingness to string out the tension until the sinews are taut as can be. I refer of course to the murder of the McBains. The way Leone prefaces the violence by having McBain and his son shooting birds effectively sets the tone, and enables those unbearable moments when the sounds of the prairie vanish at the unseen approach of the gunmen. What I think really sets Leone’s work apart from traditional Westerns, however, is his treatment of violence. Sure there are plenty of more standard shootouts, but in any older Western the gunmen would have simply shot the father. The audience is already primed for violence, but it is still a shock to see the first target be the teenage daughter. And then to have the ultimate villain reveal: a low angle shot of a group of dusty men emerging from the brush being led by… Henry Fonda! Henry “Tom Joad” Fonda shooting a defenseless child, that’s some crazily effective cognitive dissonance there. But what makes that scene so much more effective than many other moments in the first half of the film is that it also serves to move the narrative forward. And I’m not referring solely to the murder, as McBain’s conversations with his children are also very important to the tale. Too many other bits in the beginning of the film almost get by on cool, but they do little to really drive the narrative or develop the characters, which causes things to drag a bit too much. But I don’t think it’s too much of a problem, because as you said, S., it gets much more engrossing as the story finally kicks into gear.
S. – Who knew that Henry Fonda could be such a cold villain! He totally pulls it off though, and throws in some believable personal conflict for good measure. Frank is a man trying to change to the new ways of doing business on the frontier, which admittedly are still of the ethically bankrupt kind, but who finds he cannot shake off his shoot-first mentality. At first it is difficult to associate those familiar blue eyes (the subject of some major closeups by Leone) with a brutal man. However, his actions speak pretty loudly in that he gives no quarter when it comes to getting his way.
The other stand-out performance for me was Jason Robards as the somewhat less bad guy Cheyenne. He plays the outlaw with a heart of gold role with charisma and enough grit to avoid straying too far into schmaltz. Cheyenne acts as the key piece in making sense of what exactly is going down in this Wild West town, without him there I think I would have been lost until the final show-down. He does do quite a bit of theorising and ruminating out aloud to achieve this, a device that can be tiresome. However, with Bronson’s hero too focused on his quest to find much time for chitchat, Robards’ Cheyenne was useful and very entertaining performance. As “Harmonica”, Charles Bronson was an enigma, I didn’t warm to him, but I don’t think I was supposed to. From the setup I expected him to be the hero and I’m really pleased that didn’t play out in an entirely predictable way.
J. – Well, Charles Bronson basically plays the Charles Bronson part — silent, violent, but ultimately on the side of justice. And quite frankly I like him in that role, particularly in this film because Leone makes such excellent use of his physicality and his famous hard squint. It’s not a particularly demanding performance, but it ultimately works quite well and serves to make his character an effective mystery man.
Robards is awesome in this film, serving in some ways as the moral center of the film (even though he is a brutal outlaw) and also as the comic relief. What I like about the comedic aspect of the character is that he is no buffoon, but rather a man of considerable charm and ironic glee. I think his performance is particularly remarkable given that he is typically acting against the largely silent Bronson or the dubbed Claudia Cardinale, which really means that he has to shoulder much of the heavy lifting acting-wise in this movie. In addition, the script has its fair share of unusual exchanges in which it almost appears like characters who are speaking to each other are actually having two separate conversations — perhaps the result of Italians writing “American” dialogue. I think particularly of the scene that introduces Cheyenne in the bar after his escape from the law. The talk between him and Bronson is thoroughly bizarre (and the scene goes on too long), but Robards nails every bit of it with panache. Still, I gotta give the performance crown to Fonda who is such an icy bastard throughout the film, but I think he really shines in that final third when his best laid plans become increasingly undone. He displays these moments of confusion and vulnerability that drive home how much of a dinosaur he is becoming in the changing West. I’d be curious what you thought of Cardinale, S., because her performance presents a bit of a problem for me — although I don’t hold her to blame for it.
S.- I thought Cardinale put in a strong performance with a somewhat half-baked role. She is certainly a stunning face to throw in among all those grizzled men and early on she shows the smarts and spunk required to make it in a tough environment. I did feel as though Leone didn’t always know what to do with her. In a film that is about the death of the wild frontier under the relentless march of progress the role of women is a tricky one. The feminine ideal does not fit nicely into an uncivilised outpost, yet for a society to develop it cannot be all men. The compromise is usually to introduce a prostitute. Enter Jill McBain. Her story arc is the least satisfying to me. She starts out as a feisty and determined woman trying to make a better future for herself and winds up making coffee and letting hard-working men pat her on the ass. I thought the sections of the film where she was faced with difficult choices were well handled and Cardinale was more than capable of bringing nuance to these confrontations, yet during the last 30 minutes or so Jill McBain seemed more like a token female than a major player. Maybe it is inevitable that the secondary storylines will fade out as the intended climax approaches and she did end up with a rosier future than most of the other characters. What was your take, J.?
J. – Yeah, I’m pretty much in agreement with you here, S. I thought there was a great deal of inconsistency with the character, but that Cardinale managed to weave it all together quite well despite this handicap. It did become something of a thankless role in the latter portion of the film, but I did like the way she handled the departure of Bronson and Robards’ outlaws. She basically doesn’t utter a word during that scene but conveys so much turmoil in her facial expressions and body language. It’s a solid performance.
But one thing that really hurts this film is the fact that so many major players, including Cardinale, are rather obviously dubbed. I think this only bothers me because this is such a serious film. Leone’s previous film The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly also features a ton of dubbing, much of it far worse than what you find in Once Upon a Time in the West, but that movie is much more playful and ridiculous in tone, so the dubbing in some ways feels like part of the fun. And no major players are dubbed in that film, whereas the heroine and one of the two principal villains in Once Upon a Time are dubbed, sometimes not so well. That did take me out of their performances somewhat, which is a pity because on the whole I enjoyed them a great deal, particularly Gabriele Ferzetti’s turn as the crippled businessman partner of Henry Fonda. He really goes for it in that role and is a very enjoyable villain, giving a touch of panic and practicality to complement Fonda’s leadpipe cruelty. I generally feel like I’ve been a bit too negative here in this yammer, S., because I genuinely like this film. What would you say is your overall reaction to the movie? I’m curious because I know we weren’t crazy about some of the pacing but really liked a lot of other elements.
S. – I enjoyed this film very much once things started to come together. During the early stages I was quite skeptical, thinking we were in for a long and self-indulgent ordeal. It was during the roadhouse scene that brings Jill, Cheyenne and Harmonica together, that I started getting pulled into Leone’s story. Obviously there are the requisite shootouts and tough guy shenanigans required of a Western, I enjoyed that these standards were mixed in with enough quirks overlaying the film’s exploration of old times giving way to new, which makes Once upon a Time in the West an absorbing experience. I can understand why so many people love it. Seeing it on the big screen was also a huge bonus, I think I was able to overlook some of the sketchy dialogue (and dubbing) because my eyes were feasting on the visuals.
J. – It is a feast for the eyes, and in that regard I’d say it is definitely the peak of Leone’s style when it comes to his unique visualizing of the American West. It also has the best performances in any of his Westerns, particularly from Robards and Fonda. And as you said, it looks particularly unbelievable on the big screen. I had never seen a Leone movie on a proper screen, and witnessing those tight closeups blown up two stories high is pretty much the coolest thing ever. So why then has much of my write up above been a bit on the negative side? Well, I think it can be summed up in three words: Good, Bad, Ugly. I think from a rational, objective standpoint I can see all of the reasons why Once Upon a Time in the West is considered Leone’s true masterpiece, but damn it, the movie just isn’t as fun as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which easily ranks among my all time favorites (but did not make the Sight & Sound list). That movie is such slam-bang entertainment that I can’t help but feel that Once Upon a Time in the West is a bit turgid by comparison. But only in comparison, because the film is absolutely a big old super chief of a picture, and once it finally gets moving the train is unstoppable.