August 15, 2010

In Appreciation of... Once Upon a Time in the West

So, I know the Film Festival finished 2 weeks ago and I still haven't written some sort of wrap-up for it, but I've honestly needed this time to de-frag my brain. In addition I've got Inception and Scott Pilgrim to write up.

In the meantime though, I coerced my friend Rajeev to write about one of his favourite films ever and that had a special presentation at the Film Festival. Over to you, Jeeves...

Magical. Just amazing. I find it difficult to put into words just how much I enjoyed seeing Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (C'era una volta il West – I always feel so wanky calling it that, but it is the film's actual name) up on the giant Embassy theatre screen – New Zealand's premier picture house. I don't know a superlative good enough to describe the feeling, my vocabulary is lacking. If I had to choose a favourite film (and I hate such scenarios – when will I ever have to have just one film? It there going to be some cataclysmic film destruction event and I can only save one? Silly) it will always come down to this or Citizen Kane (I know, I know, obvious film nerd choice, I'm sorry, but have you seen it? Wow). And Once Upon a Time.. is always the winner, mainly because it's cool and has shoot-outs. And Charles Bronson.

You see, I love this movie. From the first time I saw it on ye olde VHS cassette tape, borrowed from a local video store, I was hooked. I was already a fan of Mr. Leone, having seen A Fist full of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. But this was something else. It was so serious and deadly, while at the same time having a real sense of fun. It was beautiful and grimy, a love letter to the western that was also a hard fist to its face. And that score, man, that is Morricone at his absolute best. I felt all of these things again and more seeing this played large and in charge all over the glorious Embassy cinema screen. It was like that first time all over again, except instead of a terrible VHS transfer, it was hitting my eyes in glorious 35mm film. Good god, I am a ridiculous nerd. Sorry.

It stars Charles Bronson as our hero with a cloudy past and a white hat (Harmonica); Jason Robards (Cheyenne) as a lovable outlaw, mistaken for a killer, Claudia Cardinale as the strong willed hooker with a heart of gold looking for a new life in the West (Jill McBain) and Henry Fonda as Frank, the evil gun for hire that works for the railroad. What a cast. I won't bother with anymore plot stuff, suffice to say that this is a western of the highest order. I consider the western pure cinema and this film is one of the best. It has all the great things you need: the gunslinger showdown, themes of civilisation versus wilderness, betrayal of trust, men with honour, men without honour, beautiful desert vistas and bursts of sporadic violence.

French theorist Jean Baudrillard called Once Upon a time In the West, the “first post modern film” because of the way that Leone was referencing all of his favourite westerns thoughout the story. The excellent making of documentaries on the DVD of his film reveal that Leone, and his screenwriters, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci (Argento and Bertolucci?! Can this film have a higher pedigree?) were doing just that when they were writing the screenplay. Christopher Frayling (who is the biggest Leone nerd there is) has dissected the filmic references made throughout the move and the list is amazing. I like to think of myself as a western fan, but I have seen nothing compared to what Leone and company were referencing. Here is a sample of the films:

High Noon, Rancho Notorious, Vera Cruz, The Far Country, Man Without a Star, The Man from Laramie, Two Rode Together, Sgt Routledge, The Professionals, The Iron Horse, Johnny Guitar, Shane, Night Passage, Pursued, Union Pacific, The Searchers, The Return of Frank James, Dodge City, Winchester '73 and so and so on.

The list goes on for four pages with explanations of how they relate to the film. Having seen a few westerns myself, it's easy to see that yes, Leone is referencing so many other westerns with Once Upon A Time... and I probably haven't even seen a fraction of the movies homaged. It's amazing. Tonino Delli Colli (cinematographer) recalls how when on a location scout in Monument Valley, Utah, Leone would stop the car and point at the scenery, citing where Ford had shot The Searchers or Cheyenne Autumn or Fort Apache. The man had stupidly good recall of films.

The cinematography is amazing. Leone's signature move of coupling wide vistas and often ridiculously tight close-ups is in full effect here. There is a push in on Bronson's eyes that John Carpenter says is the tightest zoom shot he has ever seen on a cinema screen. Delli Colli really captured the essence of the western with the beautiful exteriors of Monument valley (where Ford shot many of his westerns) and the deserts of Spain (where Leone had shot all of his three previous westerns). Nobody framed desert sand, rocky cliff faces and never-ending railway tracks quite like Leone and Delli Colli.

Special mention must be made of the dialogue, which is sparse, often beautiful and simply kick-ass. When Charles Bronson (who was a real tough guy – War veteran, former coal miner and lover of art) is confronted with three men at the very beginning of the film they say they're “shy one horse”, indicating they intend to kill Harmonica. He quips back “No, you brought two too many”. Brilliant. Sparse, funny, tough and almost poetic when delivered in Bronson's tough guy voice. And what about the exchange between Cheyenne and Harmonica as Bronson's character brings in Cheyenne to collect the bounty on his head:

Harmonica: The reward for this man is 5000 dollars, is that right?
Cheyenne: Judas was content for 4970 dollars less.
Harmonica: There were no dollars in them days.
Cheyenne: But sons of bitches... yeah.

They make a great pair. Both short on words, sly of delivery and just plain cool. Even though they all spoke Italian (Leone, as confirmed by Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood and Henry Fonda knew very few English words), the writers knew how to make the English dialogue sing (special mention must go out to Mickey Knox, the English language writer on the film).

I think I have gushed enough. Somebody out there in Monument Valley would have shot me by now. I am sorry, but I don't really think I am the best choice to do a proper review and that's why this is an appreciation. There are so many legends surrounding this film and I heartily recommend any of the books by Christopher Frayling for those wanting to know more. I can't really be critical of a movie I love so much. Thank you for the opportunity to go on and on about this film, Andrew. It is a masterwork, and I love every minute of its languid storytelling.

Thank you Mr. Leone, you were a true Maestro.

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