Friday, February 12, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

All the injuns, orientals and negroes you can handle.

The eternal question with westerns has always been, "Wayne or Eastwood?". I think it's time we reevaluate that question and start to add Sergio Leone's name into the equation. Leone's "spaghetti westerns" from the 1960's are absolute triumphs of film-making, better than the vast majority of westerns made in America by a long-shot, and it's slightly unfair that his movies get lumped in on the Eastwood side when his best western doesn't even have Clint Eastwood in it. Once Upon a Time in the West is, by no small margin, the best western I have ever seen and a movie that has grown on me every time I have seen it. From the beautiful opening scene until the last bullet is fired, which takes a suitably epic three hours, this is a truly special movie.

It's no small feat to condense a three hour film into a brief, appealing summary, but Once Upon a Time in the West is a pretty easy film to summarize. On arrival from New Orleans, newly married Jill McBain, Claudia Cardinale, discovers her new family murdered and herself in the middle of intersecting plots involving three less than savory men. The men, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda, all have interests of their own and the resulting hurricane of action revolves around them and Cardinale. Once Upon a Time in the West was Sergio Leone's 4th western, off the heels and success of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and this time he got the budget he deserved. He hired a knock-out cast and built beautiful sets on location to capture the feel of the American west. The film was a huge hit world-wide, but tanked in American theaters critically and financially. Since 1968, the film has been acknowledged as the masterpiece it is, becoming a classic darling in the eyes of critics and film buffs and it commonly tops lists of the best westerns ever made.

Finding a place to start talking about Once Upon a Time in the West is extremely difficult, but I'll start with the one, obvious, complaint almost everyone who sees the film has. It's too long. While I don't disagree that the movie is a little too long, that fact doesn't bother me. The film is just so beautiful to look at, listen to and experience that three hours flies by for me. Everyone raves about Ennio Morricone's score in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and, while that is an unquestionably classic work, I found the music better here. The visuals here are out of this world as well. The shots, everything from the beautiful views of the scenery to Leone's trademark close-ups, are masterfully chosen and executed. I could watch the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West over and over again. Leone does such a brilliant job with sound that you hardly notice the lack of score or dialog. This amazing mixture of score and ambient sound is present for the entire film and of it's most appealing traits. The mastery of technique here is matched by a exceptional knack for storytelling. Once Upon a Time in the West is full of compelling characters. Each one of passionately motivated, deeply involved in the story and really complex and interesting. It's interesting enough just for the casting choices. The movie is famous for putting Henry Fonda, the perpetual good-guy, in the role if despicable villain. He does a marvelous job.

So next time someone asks you "Eastwood or Wayne", you'll know to say neither. Once Upon a Time in the West is as good as westerns get. Every moment of it's epic run-time is a joy for me. There are so many reason to see the film that I can hardly start list them here. If you are a fan of Leone's other "spaghetti westerns" this is a must see. If you haven't seen any yet, you might as well start with the best.


1 comment:

Squish said...

Holy amazing review alfindeol. I think it's your best one yet.