List of Shame: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone is widely acclaimed for his epic films, which mostly appeared during the 1960s. Amazingly, he’s only credited as the director of seven features during his lengthy career. There were others like The Last Days of Pompeii where he was uncredited while shooting most of the movie. Westerns are his primary genre, including the “Dollars trilogy” with Clint Eastwood. Following this trio, he delivered the widely praised Once Upon a Time in the West, a nearly three-hour story of revenge. Although I’ve watched some of Leone’s other work, this movie has managed to elude me. This was one of my first picks for this ongoing series, so my expectations were high. Could anything match the build-up for me? It might not seem likely, but it's foolish to underestimate Leone.


What's this story about?
Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in the Old West town of Flagstone with plans to settle with her new husband (Frank Wolff). This doesn’t work so well. Her husband and the entire McBain family are gunned down by the vicious killer Frank (Henry Fonda) shortly before she arrives. Frank has made plenty of enemies over the years, including a gunfighter known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson). After surviving a train-station showdown with three of Frank’s goons, he arrives in Flagstone for revenge. Right in the middle of the action is Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who's no saint but must deal with false charges that he killed the McBain family. While both Jill and Harmonica pursue him, Frank works with railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) to grab the precious land as the railroad’s arrival looms over everything. These forces collide violently, and very few are likely to survive the ensuing chaos.


Why has it taken me so long to see this movie?
My only explanation is the 165-minute length, which is prohibitive when I’m watching so many films. I love Westerns and have heard praise about Once Upon a Time in the West for years, but it never reached the top of my list. It would have been a perfect choice for a marathon, but I've yet to focus on this genre. I wondered about this pick because I wasn’t thrilled by Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America last fall. Thankfully, my issues with that film became a distant memory right from the start. The story is intriguing from the opening shots and never lets up until the final showdown.


Does the story hold up well today?
Simply put, this movie is awesome. Leone perfectly sets the scene and never loses focus. Although it’s a Western, the story feels modern because of its unsentimental perspective. Frank, Cheyenne, and Harmonica are killers who use their guns without a second thought. Each guy has a different moral code, but there are no tears shed for the departed enemies. It’s kill or be killed in this brutal environment. The railroad’s imminent arrival signifies an end to these wild days, but Leone indicates that corruption will only grow. Morton’s focus on gaining wealth at all costs represents the new era for the Western territories. Although he believes that money gives him the upper hand, the gun fighters show they’re not ready to ride quietly into the sunset. Jill might appear to represent the civilization, but she quickly adapts to this different moral code. She sleeps with Frank to save her life and sells the passion while maintaining her true goal of revenge at any cost.


Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
Although the characters are thin, this isn’t a drawback. It only takes a glance from Jason Robards to realize Cheyenne’s the type of guy who plays all sides. The surprise comes from Henry Fonda, who plays against type as the hired killer. When a young boy overhears his name, he barely hesitates before shooting him in cold blood. His eerily white eyes and wrinkled face mask a killing machine who will do anything to survive. Fonda’s known for playing the good guy, but even his famous roles like Tom Joad and Wyatt Earp have hinted at a darker side. It hasn’t reached this level of nastiness in the past, however. I’m not that familiar with Charles Bronson beyond a few signature roles. He’s excellent as the nearly silent Harmonica, who exudes confidence that he’ll succeed. He’s the closest we have to a good guy, but even he turns around and saves Frank to ensure the story plays out correctly. There are no true heroes in this vision of the West. Finally, the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale holds her own with the heavyweights after a shaky start. Leone gets a bit too close to just depicting her as a sex object, but it’s clear her character knows what she’s doing. It never reaches the blatant sexism of  Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, and her steely performance helps to avoid that result.


What are some of the most memorable scenes?
There are many great moments in this film, but the highlight is actually the opening sequence. We begin with three gunfighters who silently prepare for a meeting. When the train arrives, it reveals a single figure against the desert landscape. Harmonica seems to have little chance against three killers, but he strides confidently into the fight. The striking image of the showdown is worth the price of admission, and we’re only a few minutes into the story. Another excellent scene involves Cheyenne’s daring attempt to rescue Harmonica aboard a moving train. He uses a variety of clever tactics to outwit Morton’s goons from the roof of the car. A more intimate moment that’s equally memorable is Frank’s seduction of Jill. There seems to be no escape for her from imminent death, but he doesn’t seem in any hurry. It isn’t a brutal scene, but he’s basically forcing her to have sex through an implied threat. He makes an offhand comment during their tryst about killing her, which contrasts with the physical actions and shows the menace lurking beneath the surface.


How does this beloved film live up to the hype?
Once Upon a Time in the West doesn’t just live up to the hype, it completely shatters my expectations. I’ve only seen it once, and I’m ready to say it ranks among the Top 10 Westerns ever made. You can feel Leone’s confidence from the very first shot, and his mastery never wavers. A good example is the revelation of Harmonica’s reasons for seeking revenge. With Ennio Morricone’s iconic score blaring at a high volume, he pulls back to reveal Frank’s horrible act. Little dialogue is needed to convince us why Harmonica will do anything to seek retribution. There are so many ways this scene could have gone wrong, but it never hits a false note. The stunning cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli combines perfectly with Morricone’s score to present the pivotal moment. It’s one of countless examples from a classic film that hasn’t lost any of its power more than 40 years after its original release.

Comments

  1. 2 things were enough to sell this movie to me. Henry Fonda playing unconventional role as Villain and Story even though little slow but never boring. Definitely worth watching !!

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    1. I liked the slow burn of the story, which takes it's time but isn't ever boring (like you say). Fonda is definitely a big draw here, and it doesn't feel like a stretch for him to play a villain. He really goes for it and plays it so well.

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  2. Wow great write up. Another classic I need to see. Glad to hear it lived up to (and even smashed!) expectations!

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    1. Pete, I'd definitely suggest that you check out this film as soon as you can. It's been on my list for a long time, and I'm kicking myself for not watching it sooner. Thanks!

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  3. Great review of a great film. I'd actually put this in a list of the Top 3 Westerns ever made. I completely agree on Fonda's performance.

    The only complaint I have with the film, and it's minor, is that Cardinale's 1960's big, fake eyelashes just came across as comical to me and so out of sync with the rest of the film.

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    1. Thanks Chip. I didn't notice the eyelashes, but I'm sure they'd now stand out if I watched it again. It's hard to rank this film with movies like Stagecoach or a few others that I've seen a bunch of times, but it's definitely right up there.

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    2. Jill is a prostitute from New Orleans.She had French blood and European accent.The eyelashes was her trademark.

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    3. Actually fake eyelashes were coming into their own then. There were accounts of women wearing them. They wear often real eyelashes sewn onto gauze or silk. A few years later (I assume the film supposedly takes place around 1880s) around mid-1890s, Parisians actually had them sewn into the eyelids. Ugh. But probably not much different from tattoos today.

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  4. It's a great film, glad you dug it. I think it's my favorite Leone. I think it contains some of his most suspenseful and creative sequences and the cast is stellar.

    Also, I'm with you on Once Upon a Time in America, a film that left a bad taste in my mouth.

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    1. James, it's definitely my favorite of the Leone movies that I've seen so far. Once Upon a Time in America has some great sequences, but I had a lot of issues with it. Thanks!

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  5. Great review, Dan. I just saw this for the first time last year and I loved it as well. I am glad that you highlighted the opening scene -- such beautiful use of scenery, with very little dialogue to boot. It really sets the tone for the entire film.

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    1. Eric, I think that's one of the great openings to any movie, especially if you're just looking at westerns. I was hooked right from the start, which isn't that easy to do. Thanks!

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  6. Like it a lot, but there are spaghetti's that I like a lot more (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, Django, etc). I don't mind the slow pace of the film. Love the opening scene. Jason Robard's Cheyenne character is a little putsy. This part was originally written with Eli Wallach in mind, and I think he would have been better. Bronson is good as Harmonica, but was much more effective at the beginning when he didn't speak. Fonda played his part perfectly. Cardinale is stunning, but with all three lead characters fawning over her, it became tiresome to watch. Overall, just a little too much "fluff" in this movie for me. I prefer the grittier spaghettis, though I still rank this one in my top ten spaghetti western list.

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    1. I'm not as much of an expert on spaghetti westerns (though I do like For a Few Dollars More), and I can see how Wallach might have brought more to Robards' character. Even so, I can think of few westerns that I've seen that match this one in terms of great setpieces. The introduction is amazing, and there's enough throughout the film to make it work for me. I appreciate the comment!

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    2. Totally agree with you regarding the setpieces. It's a very lavish production, especially by spaghetti standards. If you haven't seen it already, I can hesitantly recommend Keoma. If not only for the fact that it marked the end of the spaghetti western era (released in 1976), it's also surprisingly good on many levels while never really reaching "great" on any level. Be warned, the musical score is beyond polarizing!

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    3. I'm sad to admit that I'm unfamiliar with Keoma. I'm definitely adding it to the watch list. Thanks!

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  7. The shooting scene where the shooter falls through the roof and lands on his neck, makes you flinch. I’m sure he snapped his neck, too hard a fall. Watch it in slow mo, very interesting stunt...

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    1. I need to check it out again, at least to see that scene. I guess it's possible that it's just a great stunt, but you never know...

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  8. Thanks for this great review of a timeless masterpiece! And while the production value is only one amongst many other aspects which make the movie so great, the movie still looks good - even in the second decade of the 21st. century! Maybe, even better than many recent movies, because there was no use of CGI in Leone´s days.
    Did you know, btw, that the great Roger Ebert - may he r.i.p. - gave the movie a mostly negative review? ;) Goes to show that even well respected reviewers have a bad day once in a while! And I tend to remember that the movie which went into the US theaters, was a trunkated version. The full length version was only shown in Europe, where the movie was an instant hit and made a ton of money! I know that for a few years many people saw the movie regularly every Sunday - instead of going to church! And since there were no videos back then, they had to buy theater tickets! In the US however the movie was a financial flop. So, Roger Ebert was not the only one who did not get the movie. He changed his mind later, though....

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    1. Thanks! It does hold up really well, which is saying a lot given how much time has passed. I can see why people would go see it over and over. In terms of Ebert's review, there are a lot of examples from critics and others where their initial opinions can vary from the consensus now. It's part of the job where they're just watching so much and having to come up with a response right away.

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  9. I saw this in high school in '68 at the drive-in. It was the second feature which was always the worst of the double feature, which gave everybody great make-out time. However, the dialogue and music interrupted me from my original plans and I ended up watching the movie rather than doing other things. And it became my favorite movie of ALL TIME! I watch it every year or two and I remain blown away. And I've had the film score in all the iterations since then--record, cassette, CD and DVD soundtrack. I wonder what my date thought of the movie!

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    1. That's a great story! I didn't see it until much later, and I can't imagine what it was like to see such an original film back in 1968.

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