07 January 2011

Once Upon a Time in the West

The Gatehouse Gazette's 16th issue was recently released, and it focused on the Weird West. Ever the fan of Westerns, I was hoping to provide a review of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), but the time I had hoped to spend writing became engulfed by my recent spat with the stomach flu. The issue is still worth checking out, and marks a major change in the Gazette's style and appearance: the addition of colour!

At any rate, I did manage to get around to watching Once Upon a Time in the West and figured I'd provide my thoughts here while they're still relevant to what's going on over at the Gatehouse.

A question of motive
In a way, Once Upon a Time in the West story hinges a bit on mystery. The film begins with an intriguing scene: Three men hijack a train station and wait for a train to arrive. The sequence is long and drawn out, with each man dealing with his own pesky annoyances while they impatiently await the locomotive's arrival. Finally, the train comes, and brings with it a single man who is looking for a Frank. A rapid shoot-out breaks loose, and all four men fall, though the stranger managed to survive with only minor wounds.

Suddenly, we cut away to an entirely different scene, which ends with its own little mystery. The movie ultimately hinges on the question, "Why?" It doesn't take long to figure out who a lot of the characters are, but the question remains, "Why are they here? What's their reason for being involved in the story?" This is answered, slowly, for the main characters, ultimately climaxing with the nameless character, referred to by the bandit Cheyenne as "Harmonica." Everyone else has their stake in the town and it's events, but why this drifting stranger? What's his connection to Frank? Why did he come at all?

The final reveal, while perhaps not entirely surprising, is chillingly done nonetheless and gives the film a satisfying conclusion.

Clint Eastwood isn't the only man with no name
The film probably excels best in its characters, who remain interesting despite being fairly predictable for a Sergio Leone film. Think of the three Leone archetypes set up in, arguably, his best-known work: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). The Good is a highly-skilled, nameless drifter. The Bad is a cold-hearted, ruthless murderer. The Ugly is a bandit who is a bit more comical and light-hearted than the rest, and which the audience is most likely to sympathize and identify with. Once Upon a Time in the West certainly follows this pattern:

"He not only plays.
He can shoot too." —Cheyenne
No name: Clint Eastwood isn't the only actor to play a highly-skilled, nameless drifter. After all, Toshiro Mifune arguably portrayed the prototype with this character Sanjuro from Akira Kurosawa's films Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). But even in Leone's cinema, Charles Bronson got his chance as the man with the harmonica. As can be expected, he's a mysterious one. For much of the film, we have little idea why he's even there, other than that he apparently came to settle something wit Frank. What, exactly, that is is not revealed until the film's final duel.

Murderer: Henry Fonda is cast against type as the villainous Frank, a hired gunman for the railroad tycoon Morton. His first appearance automatically sets up his cold-hearted nature as he massacres a defenceless family, and he provides the main conflict necessary to propel the other characters throughout the story.

The Bandit: A little less oafish and comical than Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Cheyenne is nonetheless still the most identifiable of the characters. We find out the most about his past. He also shows himself to be a rather decent human being despite his crimes. Much like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Cheyenne and Harmonica form a loose friendship and work together against the villain.

Jill McBain, naked in a bathtub
for no discernible reason other than to have
Jill McBain naked in a bathtub.
The Woman: Once Upon a Time in the West makes one significant addition to the cast that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly lacked: a female main character. Played by Claudia Cardinale, Jill McBain is the widow of Brett McBain, who purchased a supposedly worthless piece of land, but did so with a definitive plan. This plan serves as a major piece of motivation throughout the film. However, I didn't really like Jill as a character. She felt out of place in the Western. I don't mean to imply that women should not have a place within the Western genre, but she felt a bit sexist. As if her main reason for existence was to heave her bosom with weighted breath and require protection from the big, strong men. She is an ex-prostitute, a point that seems to be brought more to sexualize her than to give her more dimension, though it certainly does allow for one of her few lines I actually enjoyed, in which she replies to Cheyenne's claim that she deserves a better life, saying, "The last man who told me that is buried out there."And, really, she only seems to have any use in the plot as a way of revealing more of Cheyenne's human side. On her own, she's pretty much useless, and the overt attempts at sexualizing her only served to make me like the film a little less. Maybe it's because she reminded me of just how masculine and at times chauvinist the Western genre can be, and Sergio Leone's films in particular, but perhaps that's a topic for another day.
Chilling, absolutely chilling
The primary reason I wanted to see this film was because of the soundtrack. I had heard its main theme, "Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod," and it's probably my favourite Western theme. Listen to it. Go on, listen to it.

And boy, do you hear that theme a lot, along with a handful of other songs. The music in this film was just great. It sent chills down my spine. It made the movie. I honestly don't think it would be the same without this soundtrack. And once is all plays through, and you come to that final confrontation between Harmonica and Frank, it all just hits. I loved the song long before I ever saw the movie, but after seeing that finale, I will never hear it the same again. That final sequence is fantastic, and the film is worth watching through just to get to that point. And yes, the ending is on YouTube, but it's not the same without the build up. If you like Leone at all, you should know that. Just think of those final duels. The tension as you wait, and wait, and wait. When is it going to happen? When are they going to shoot? Once Upon a Time in the West is sort of like that throughout the entire film. When are we finally going to get the resolution between Harmonica and Frank? And when it happens? It's chilling. Absolutely chilling.

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