Saturday, November 8, 2008

Once Upon a Time in the West

C'Era una Volta il West; western, Italy / USA, 1968; D: Sergio Leone, S: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti

The Wild West. Three bandits await a Harmonica man at a railway station. He arrives and shoots them. On the Sweetwater farm the evil Frank kills the whole McBain family in order for his boss, the rich Morton, to build a railway station on that part of land. McBain's wife, prostitute Jill, returns home to find the farm empty. Harmonica and criminal Cheyenne join their forces against Frank. After Frank kills Morton, they organize the railway construction so that Jill will become the owner of the precious land. Harmonica then kills Frank because he once killed his father.

Those who love dashing beaus and mannequin actors should better avoid cult western "Once Upon a Time in the West" because in that naturalistic film by Sergio Leone almost every character is unglamorous, dirty and ugly in order to achieve a special charge about the dark world. The 15 minute opening sequence, realized almost without any dialogues, is bravura directed and is rightfully considered one of the highlights of 'anticipation cinema': three gangsters enter an isolated railway station and just mutely stand there while the old train conductor does not know what they want. They settle at the station and wait to ambush someone. One of them is bothered by a fly that constantly walks around his face so he captures the insect in the pipe of his pistol. Finally, Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives via the train, exits and asks them where his horse is. The 3 gangsters, obviously enemies set to ambush him, jokingly tell him: "We have one too little." - "No, you have two too many!", replies Harmonica and then shoots them in a gun duel.

In almost every scene Leone crafted a homage to either "Shane" or "The Searchers" and crafted slow-burning, absorbing takes or hypnotically huge close up shots of faces (the director's trademark: they can be best appreciated in cinemas, not on small TV sets, because the viewer is in awe and feels insignificant when he or she watches a head 10 times bigger than a normal human on the big screen) which have weight, but unlike his previous films which were cold, "West" actually has a more emotional story, especially initiated through the prostitute with the heart of gold, Jill (Cardinale), as well as Ennio Morricone's untypical enchantingly-gentle-melancholic score, which is one of the reasons why the director managed to create his best film. Some scenes today seem like cliches, but only because they were so influential they were copied a hundred times in numerous films and thus even placed dust on the original. The whole story is passionately directed, but among the best moments is also the finale, where it finally dawns to the bad guy Frank that he once killed Harmonica's father and thus caused an angry backlash that came back to him, in a two-decade delay.


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