Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Another Look: Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

I sat down the other night and, for the first time in three or four years, watched the 165-minute version of this sprawling epic all the way through. That probably made the tenth or eleventh time I've seen it, in various versions; not to mention the dozen or so other times I've paused while channel surfing (back when it played more frequently on cable) and watched some portion of it.
It never lets me down. If anything, like a fine wine, it gets better with age. (Okay, we all know I don't know diddly about wine, fine or otherwise; it all tastes like vinegar to me. So a more honest personal perspective would be to say it's like a big pot of leftover chili that gets better each time you warm it up.)
The point is: This is a fine movie that is to be savored and enjoyed again and again. Each time, you see a deft little touch or detail that you either missed or forgot from the times before. If Leone had never made another film, he would be long remembered for this one. (Frankly, I don't care much for any of his other work anyway, not even the vaunted "Man With No Name" trilogy.)
Two things in particular struck me this time around. (Hate to admit I'm a little slow on the uptake but, in reading some other articles/reviews to prepare for this piece, I found others had hit on these long before me. But nuts to it, I made these observations as notes while I was watching the film so I'm going to go with them.)

First, there is the spare use of dialogue. Leone conveys so much with his music and the eyes and facial expressions on his enormous close-ups that words are not necessary. The longest sequence of dialogue (which almost seems rambling by comparison) is Henry Fonda talking to Jill (Claudia Cardinale) while they are making love in a cave up in the Navajo Cliffs.

Secondly, there is the spare use of actual violence. What's that, you say? This is a violent film filled with nasty, violent people. How can anyone say there is spare use of violence?
Well, uh, because there is.
When you stop and think about it, there are lots of scenes that end in violence. But most of the time in these scenes is taken up with the lead-up to the explosion of violence (again, the all-important music, the narrow-eyed and grim-mouthed close-ups). When the violence comes, it is over very quickly and not especially graphic. Once again, the only prolonged scene of violence is when Harmonica (Charles Bronson) slaps around the operator of a laundry house to get information on where to find Frank (Henry Fonda). Come to think of it, that same fellow meets his maker a little while later in another somewhat prolonged scene of violence when Frank (after asking him, "How can anybody trust a man who wears a belt and suspenders?") proceeds to kill him by shooting him in the chest, snapping both of his suspender straps, and then finishing him with a gut shot that blows apart his belt at the buckle.

All and all, the plot and the characters are pretty simple. The actors are top notch but, except for Hank Fonda playing against type as a really nasty villain, they aren't asked to stretch themselves much. This is truly a director's film. The music, the set-up of the scenes, the scope and grandeur of the outdoor shots, the pacing … it has Leone's stamp all over it.

Oh, and did I mention it has Claudia Cardinale, looking smolderingly luscious in every shot she's in?

Any way you cut it, the final result is a great Western and a really fine film by any measure.
If you haven't seen it in a while—or ever, for crying out loud—give yourself a treat and have another look. If you rent it or buy the DVD, try to get the director's cut, full-length version with added features. The scenes that were cut for general release when the movie first played here in the states aren't necessarily crucial to the story, but they add a depth and texture to Leone's overall work that make them worthwhile.
Strongly recommended.


James Reasoner said...

I love this film. It's one of my favorite movies, not just Westerns, but any type of movie.

wayne d. dundee said...

I agree, James. It always places in my Top 10 --- any genre.

Ron Scheer said...

Nicely reviewed. I'd like to have a version with just the Claudia Cardinale scenes.