Friday, December 11, 2015
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci
Photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Editor: Nino Baragli
Cast: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, Keenan Wynn, Paolo Stoppa, Lionel Stander, Jack Elam, Woody Strode
I started preparing to take another look at Once Upon a Time in the West a week or two in advance, by listening to the soundtrack album. Interestingly, it is less than 40 minutes long, compared with the movie, which is nearly three hours. The music makes such an impact in the movie that I hadn't realized or thought much about all the silence in it—silence and sound effects, that is, such as the squeaking and creaking windmill that punctuates the long first scene. There's some dialogue too. But focusing on Ennio Morricone's soundtrack may be as good a way as any to ease into the glacial pace and brutal cruelties of this movie.
The narrative involves four main characters, operating and conniving in and around railroad crews laying track in the American Southwest. Indeed, so classic is this movie in its intents that Monument Valley is one of its most recognizable settings (though other scenes were shot in Italy and Spain). Each of the four characters—Frank (Henry Fonda), Harmonica (Charles Bronson), Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), and Cheyenne (Jason Robards)—comes with his or her own interlocking musical theme, which swirl together as the characters encounter one another, elevating the music to a dramatic involvement that's rarely so integrated.
Working on multiple levels that way is pretty much how the intensely creative and singular visions of Sergio Leone went. I have often heard this movie, and Leone's style, described as claustrophobic, even though many of the scenes take place in vistas that stretch for miles in every direction, alternating with close-ups so tight you can count the pores and nose hairs. "Oppressive" might be the better term. Yet there's no question we're in the hands of a master filmmaker. Once Upon a Time in the West is stultifying in its slow pace, it is populated with unpleasant people busy ruining the lives of innocents, yet it is virtually impossible to look away once it starts. It's violent, brutish, and unlikely, but mesmerizing. It's another movie few people turn the channel from if they happen to land on it at random on TV.
Not surprisingly, at its heart it's a revenge story. That's another primary Leone thread. I think you have to take the revenge narrative in Leone pictures as the pro forma counterpart of meet-cute episodes in romantic comedies or shock cuts in horror. It's the base material Leone is most comfortable working with. In Once Upon a Time in the West, he stretches and pulls it, working it tight, like fitting a canvas to a frame.
Henry Fonda is cast hard against type. That was a deliberate decision, and one Fonda had to be talked into. The man we have known as Abraham Lincoln, Wyatt Earp, Tom Joad, and Juror #8 is here made into a reprehensible sadist. It's a shrewd move, because Fonda is up to pulling it off, and the cognitive dissonance it produces only makes the spectacle more confusing and awful. Bronson and Robards show up with craggy faces and trot their intricate paces. They are all superhuman specimens, of course, pulling off impossible feats with fancy shooting, and they can take a lot of punishment too. Bronson's character is called Harmonica because he plays one, but when he does, standing out in the lonesome desert, it sounds like full-on studio production, with reverb and other recording effects. Claudia Cardinale doesn't have to do much more than look beautiful and she does that very well. There are shades and nuances to her character that make her interesting still, but a lot of the action involving her is marred by outdated attitudes—and I mean those from 1968, not from 1868.
It's a movie made in what I think of as a characteristic Italian style. A certain latitude is taken in matching visuals and sound. The sound in a scene is not necessarily ambient. Obvious looping, for example (recording dialogue elsewhere under other circumstances and then tracking it in), pops up all over this, especially in Cardinale's performance (which is actually voiced by Joyce Gordon). Dubbing like this was done originally so a movie could be released in multiple languages. I first noted the practice as a kind of aesthetic in Italian films of the '50s (such as La Strada), but for a long time it felt phony and off-putting. Yet here Leone produces practically a masterpiece of that aesthetic, notably in the way he uses the music. It's not just that the four characters have their interlocking themes, a strategy that by itself clearly had to take planning and forethought, but isolated sounds, musical and ambient, are deliberately placed as well, the harsh fuzztone of plucked electric guitar or banjo strings, or, again, that squeaking windmill. The confluence can be tremendously evocative for the careful way sound is played off against visuals.
At the same time, as much as I admire this picture, it's hard to argue passionately for it. It has a kind of monolithic unyielding presence that almost feels inhuman, whereas the Clint Eastwood pictures by Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) have much more humor and warmth mixed in with all the beautiful geometries. For that reason, Once Upon a Time in the West is rarely my first choice when I'm in the mood for this kind of thing. Critics, however, have been staunch about making it Leone's greatest, elevating it to the top 100 movies of all time in the aggregated list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Once Upon a Time in the West is done so well I just don't feel a need to second-guess anyone about it. If you like Westerns, if you like movies, you really ought to see it at least once.