Tuesday, March 27, 2012

REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in the West

Once Upon a Time in the West
Director: Sergio Leone
Year 1968
Once Upon a Time in the West is an epic spaghetti western that expertly uses its three hour runtime to make a film that is truly larger than life in every aspect of its production. Sergio Leone imagines a brutal and savage world filled with gritty gunslingers that fight under their own personal code of morals. Some murder in order to become powerful and wealthy, some kill because it’s the only life they know, and some extinguish life because their thirst for revenge just can’t be quenched. This sprawling journey into the harsh environment of the Wild West should not be missed and it’s a prime example on just how good this genre of filmmaking can be when pushed to the limit.
This ambitious film follows the hectic lives of a plethora of different individuals as they try to make a life for themselves in this viscous frontier of the American West. There’s Jill McBain, a recently widowed woman, who moves from New Orleans in order to find a new life that will hopefully help her forget her sordid past. Then there’s Cheyenne, a leader of a gang of bandits, who has recently been framed for a pair of murders that he hasn’t committed. Then there’s the nasty gun for hire Frank, who works for a railroad tycoon and is legendary for being cruel and unsympathetic to those that meet their end by the barrel of his gun. Finally there is the mysterious man known as simply, Harmonica, a lone gunman beckoned by destiny and gifted with the skills to accomplish his own personal goals, revenge. All of these characters collide in a flurry of gunfire that change the look of the American West, while in the process forging a new path on this wild and dangerous frontier.

Charles Bronson plays the role of Harmonica, the nameless stranger that appears from out of no where, leaving nothing but death in his wake. Bronson does an amazing job with this dynamic character by giving him a cool and conservative disposition. His subtle nuances and laid back attitude, results in a chilly performance that really snatches your attention and allows the character to steal each scene he appears in. Not unlike the other characters that Bronson has depicted throughout the years, Harmonica comes off as a no nonsense type of hero, never falling into the category of good guy, but straddling the divide between hero and villain to the point at which it’s hard to pick which side of the fence he might fall. His story is that of revenge, giving Bronson plenty of opportunity to showcase his talents in the way of swift justice. Another especially ingenious trait of Bronson’s Harmonica, is the fact that he is always introduced by an audible cue that chimes in by the sound of a wickedly creepy harmonica riff, composed by legendary film composer Ennio Morricone, that just chills the bones. This is definitely one of Bronson’s most iconic characters of his career.
Another stupendous role of the film is that of Frank the ruthless gunslinger, played by Henry Fonda. Mostly known for his more friendly and sympathetic characters, Fonda uncharacteristically brings the pain in his portrayal of Frank. This guy is the scum of the earth doing anything he can to prosper and financially survive in this wild environment. What is truly memorable about his character is that he has these cold blue eyes that Sergio Leone purposely focuses on during many of the close up shots for his character. This contrasting sight of peaceful blue eyes compared to the character’s cruel and ruthless persona is rather shocking, and Fonda makes sure to give us a performance worth remembering.

Bringing a lighter flare to the proceedings is Jason Robards as the bandit Cheyenne. When we’re first introduced to the character of Cheyenne, he comes off as a bad dude, mirroring a combination of both Frank and Harmonica, but as the movie rolls along we come to find that he is a bit of a loose cannon and highly unpredictable. Robards’ strange performance as Cheyenne has to be one of the most entertaining interpretations of a character that I’ve seen in a long while. Almost bi-polar in delivery, Cheyenne can present himself as a badass one moment and then flip that entirely, turning his personality into a wise cracking, yet dryly delivered, gun slinging comedian. There are even some action moments in the film that showcase some zany situations that Cheyenne gets himself into, like hanging upside-down outside a train window smiling like a mad man at Bronson’s Harmonica. I enjoyed the bizarre character twists of Robards’ performance and felt that his inclusion in this diverse cast melded quite nicely together.

With the male leads all giving an outstanding group performance, the sole female main character has some rather large shoes to fill. Luckily Claudia Cardinale takes this role on in stride, giving one of the most heartfelt performances that I’ve experienced in some time. Not only does she look absolutely stunning in the role of Jill McBain, the grieving widow, but she has an extraordinary gift in making us feel her character’s pain without even uttering a single word. The scene where she arrives to meet her new family, only to see their dead bodies laid out across the front yard, is heart wrenching and she expresses all of these distraught feelings through the pain in her eyes. It’s a wonderful moment that nails home the dangerous quality that this untamed frontier holds in store for our cast of characters. My eyes first caught sight of Claudia when doing some research on Jean-Paul Belmondo’s filmography and I came across a trailer for their 1962 film Cartouche. It looked absolutely entertaining and I knew that I’d be running across some of this actress’ work in the future. I’m so glad that I got to witness a role that must have truly made her a star and her portrayal of Jill McBain is nothing short of sublime.
With the fantastic cast aside, the visual look of the film is a work of genius. Sergio Leone is a master of the medium, filming some of the most picturesque wide angle photography shots that the cinema has ever seen. The panoramic views that are displayed in this film are breathtaking to say the least, and you really get a good feel for how expansive the frontier of the American West really was during this time period. The hardships of the characters and the turmoil that each one experiences in this epic, yet intimate, tale is astounding and Sergio grabs your attention the very instance the film starts and never lets you go.
The film begins with one of the most iconic sequences to ever come out of the spaghetti western genre, and that would be the almost eight minute long build up to Bronson’s Harmonica character’s big entrance. With three armed men waiting for his arrival at the train station, the anticipation is amped to the max. This super charged moment is a blast and when the confrontation hits the critical point of no return, the end result is something of a cinematic wonder. From that point on I was hooked and their literally was no turning back. From that explosive introduction to the final pulse pounding showdown during the closing moments of the film, I was glued to my seat, sitting in wonder over witnessing one of the most well established films that I’ve ever seen. The characters were raw and genuine and the story was wholly entertaining. Top that off with Leone’s expert eye, which gave the film a gritty realism and you’ve got yourself an honest to goodness classic. With Leone’s interesting combination of wide angle shots and tightly framed and zoomed in compositions, he creates a style that is truly his own. I couldn’t get enough of this three hour juggernaut of a film and I’m making it my duty to plow through the rest of his wonderful masterpieces.

Once Upon a Time in the West is without a doubt one of the most iconic depictions of the spaghetti western genre that I’ve had the pleasure to witness. Filled with all the grit and splendor that make this film classification so much damn fun, Leone hit it out of the park on accomplishing something bigger than the genre itself. Shot in a style that truly demands your attention, the film makes you believe that you’re witnessing an actual event play out, as guns start to fire and the bodies begin to pile up. Never has a more diverse group of actors come together to make a cohesive and well thought out fictitious world come to life, and the heart and soul that is felt within each actors role is unparalleled.
The age of spaghetti westerns has come and gone, but the presence of this film has been felt long after and it still maintains that same power to this day. It takes an accomplished filmmaker to pull off that timeless nature, and Sergio Leone makes it all the more clearer that he was one of those true masters of the cinema. Once Upon a Time in the West is proof that some genre efforts can surpass the confines of their respected categories and break into uncharted territory right beside some of cinemas most treasured classics. This film is a…….

Here comes the welcome wagon..... of PAIN!

Play me some sweet tunes there Bronson.

This was not a good day for a picnic.

What are you so happy about Claudia? Oh yeah, that's right.... you're hot.

Sweet sassafras! You're HOT!

Damn Bronson! You can play!

The worst welcoming commitee EVER.

The door says STAY OUT, but you can COME IN.

Let those baby blues sparkle Fonda. You look fabulous!

Hi all! Hope you're enjoying the show.

Get up you lazy crippled bastard! Damn that's cold Henry.

Money, Money, Money, Money......... MONEY!

Aint this some shit?!?!

There's only room for one badass in this town.

I love bubbles!

Turn around Bronson! There's a half naked chick behind you!

Missing out on the massacre makes Frank sad.

What kind of demented circus act is this?!?!

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