Friday, December 5, 2008
Review – Once Upon a Time in the West
December 5, 2008
Once Upon a Time in the West – 1968, Italy
Once Upon a Time in the West begins with a door opening. As it does so, it creaks, bringing attention to what would ordinarily be nothing spectacular, a potential customer walking into a railway station. However, one look at the face of the station agent is all that is needed for us to understand just how dangerous the moment has become. And with that realization, we are taken back to a time of discovery, great advances in technology and ingenuity, and sheer, unadulterated terror. The station agent is soon locked up; a Native American woman is then prevented from leaving. Whatever is about to happen is clearly not meant to have witnesses. And now the men wait. One cracks his knuckles, one drinks water that continuously drips onto his hat from a hole in the ceiling, and the other sits steadily in an old armchair attempting to dissuade a fly from treading on his face by blowing at it. Minutes pass in this fashion. The sound of an approaching train puts an end to their temporary inactiveness, stirring them to reconvene on the arrival platform. The train slows, a single box is tossed to the ground, and then the train with its tentative crew starts to roll again. In truth, the box is only half of what is left behind, for when the train has completely departed, we see a shadowy figure on the other side of the tracks. Instead of talking, he plays a sad, haunting melody, one that will become his calling card. The tune portends doom for the three men standing before him, men who ultimately failed to complete their one endeavor, to murder this mysterious stranger.
We’re given one clue, a name, Frank. And yet we really know nothing. Is Frank a villain or a hero? Is the man on the train a ruthless killer or a reticent protagonist? Instead of answering these questions, the mystery deepens. More characters appear before us, each as equally unexplained as the first: a father of three waiting for his fiancée to arrive on a train, a young woman transplanted from New Orleans to a place called Sweetwater, an escaped criminal with a large posse, and the ruthless leader of a roving band of desperados who seem intent on committing murder and spreading carnage in the beautiful land that is the West. The setting itself provides the perfect juxtaposition – the West, a land of amazing natural wonders and opportunity, simultaneously a land of utter lawlessness and violence. It is no surprise that it has been the setting for some of the best and most complicated films of all time, film such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Searchers, Stagecoach, and My Darling Clementine.
As Once Upon a Time in the West unfolds, the reality of the West becomes clear. It is a place of community and opportunity, a place where people believed they could make a new start regardless of who they had been or what they had done. It is also a land of immense opportunism, of people who have only one goal and will stop at nothing to achieve that goal, no matter whether that goal is money, justice, power, or revenge. Belonging to that first group are people like Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), a man who sees his and his family’s future as one of immense promise. In the second category are men like Frank (an unforgettable performance by Henry Fonda), men who wreak havoc for profit. In the middle – if there is such a category – are men like Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti in a surprisingly sympathetic role), an entrepreneur who doesn’t mind associating himself privately with men like Frank so long as it helps him accomplish him personal goals, which in reality are more romantic than wicked. As often occurs in life, the dreams of one person collide with those of another, and in such a place as the Wild West, this can only result is loss of life. McBain, his daughter, and his two sons are shot down in cold blood, just as a woman named Jill (impressively played by Claudia Cardinale) is arriving to become McBain’s wife. This day should have been the fulfillment of her dreams, of her personal redemption, and of a fresh start in a new land with a man who loved her. Frank robs her of that, and it becomes clear that Jill is not the kind of woman to simply let it go.
Sergio Leone’s film works on many levels. First, every member of the cast gives a powerful performance. In particular, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson are exceptional. Second, the film perfectly captures the reality of the West, while simultaneously surrounding it with moments that are both realistic and like nothing we’ve ever seen or are likely to see again. For example, the film accurately depicts the vulnerable condition that women in the West – in particular single women or widows- sometimes found themselves in. More than once does Jill face the real risk of being assaulted by roving bandits, a risk that becomes all too real when Jill and Frank do finally meet. On the other hand, the film includes a character that wanders around playing the harmonica when he should be drawing his weapon and saying lines like “Inside the jackets were three men; inside the men were three bullets.” Moments like these are simultaneously mesmerizing, poetic, and outrageous (but in a good way). Later the unnamed man is questioned as to his identity by a rather frustrated Frank. After being told several names, Frank remarks that the names he rattled of all belong to dead men. The anonymous man’s response: “They were alive when you met them.”
Once Upon a Time in the West is a mystery that unravels slowly, yet meticulously. This process of discovery is vital to the film, and therefore it’s probably best not to know much of the details beforehand. A first-time viewer, such as I was when I watched this film, would be wise to sit back, relax, and prepare himself to be spellbound by a film what deserves its place on the list of the best films of all time. (on DVD)