Once Upon A Time In The West
Directed by Sergio Leone.
So Once Upon a Time In The West. I've dreaded doing this one for a long time out of fear that I wouldn't do it justice. Every time I come back to this work, I find something new. Some bit of imagery lifted from somewhere else. A bit of foreshadowing subtly done. A tic the actors bring to the characters. It's not my favorite Western. Shane holds a special place in my heart. But if I asked a lot of people to name the greatest Western of all time, most would say Once Upon a Time In The West. And it's kind of a strange answer. It's a very different film then the Dollar's trilogy. It's not even really a Spaghetti Western unless you define Spaghetti Western as a Western made by an Italian. It doesn't fit in that subgenre at all. It has a different perspective on the value of human life. It's lacking the pathos of the Spaghetti Western. The brutality isn't there in the same way we find in Leone's earlier works, or the works of the other Sergios. It's not a static, unchanging area of lawlessness. It has the hopeful tone you find in the works of John Ford.
Once Upon A Time In The West's theme is different. It's the theme of the conflict between civilization and the frontier. One driving forward into the other, creating a place where the worst of both is available. Frank's conflict with Morton, Frank's conflict with Jill showing us Frontier verses civilization. Frank's attempt to move into civilization brought into conflict with Harmonica and Frank's past. Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica trapped in an endless cycle of violence that only completes itself with death. And if these themes are familiar, they should be. OUATITW is a Fordian Western. It is Leone's attempt to move past the Western in his work by taking what has come before and putting his own spin on it. His own style. And Leone is a stylistic director. It doesn't take most people very long to recognize a Leone film. And that's what gives us the remaining elements of the Spaghetti Western, those parts of the genre that Leone defined by putting his stamp on it. But this isn't the same west of his previous works.
And OUATITW is very much Leone's work while being rooted in the classic westerns that came before it. This film embraces homage in a way that even Taratino would blush at the thought of attempting. Almost everything in this film is a nod to films that came before. Some are well known, like the casting of Henry Fonda. But it goes beyond just that. Whole scenes are lifted from other movies. Details and nods abound. The opening sequence for instance is a nod to High Noon. Three men waiting for a fourth to get off a train. But it goes beyond that. The three men in that scene were supposed to be Eli Wallach, Lee Van Clef and Clint Eastwood. But Eastwood's star is on the rise and he doesn't want to do it. So Leone reworks the script to replace them with Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock.
Those three guys aren't accidental castings. All three of them were staples as character actors in Westerns but in particular Woody Strode. Woody Strode was part of John Ford's family of actors. He has a lot of bit parts in Ford films but in 1960, John Ford made him the star of Sergeant Rutledge. Even the gun he carries in this scene is a nod, a mare's leg from Wanted: Dead or Alive TV show. But that gun has an odd modification. The lever has a larger, open hand slot. Something that doesn't appear until a movie prop was modified for the large hands of John Wayne. It gave him the ability to do a signature kind of twirl with it. But he puts it in the hands of Woody Strode. And with it, Woody Strode manages to hit a Leone gunfighter.
The homages continue. Jack Elem had a small role in High Noon. Getting him a place in the opening sequence. Timmy McBain's hunting is a nod to Shane. The funeral scene for the McBains is shot for shot from Shane. The bar scene between Harmonica and Cheyenne is lifted directly out of My Darling Clementine where we first meet Doc Holiday. The final shoot out is lifted from The Last Sunset. The line "How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants." is from Ace In The Hole. The name Sweetwater and the idea of it being the last stop for water is from King of the Pecos. His use of Monument Valley a nod to every John Ford western. When Cheyenne is turned over to the authorities, he's sent on a train to a modern prison in Yuma, a nod to 3:10 to Yuma. Jill McBain is a nod to Vienna from Johny Guitar. The auction a nod to the elections from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance along with the coats. The whole film is bits and pieces of other westerns put together with a bit of Leone.
But even with all of that, it's a distinctly Leone work. His shots of Monument Valley are dark. The rock formations aren't brightly lit but instead they are cast in shadow. Not stark and beautiful but haunting and forbidding. The stylistic touch of lingering on the actor's faces. His use of the Morricone score. Admitted the film was scored before the script went through so much in the way of major modifications. So we get a more sparse soundtrack. One focused on the character themes. But it gives Leone a chance to work with ambient noise. The long opening scene where Frank's men are gunned down. The use of it at the McBain house to tell us something is wrong. The animals stop making noise as men approach. The silence before Harmonica's flashback. He uses that lack of noise to build tension. All of the Leone trade marks are there but combined with a completely different kind of Western.
Even by Leone standards, we're looking at a film that's rather sparse in terms of dialogue. He uses it sparingly. It's a trait he developed trying to keep costs down. Having to have a film dubbed and redubbed into multiple languages is expensive. So it gave him an aversion to dialogue that plays to his other strengths. Those long shots of people's faces tell us volumes about how they handle stress and tension. It gives the actors room to fill in the characters with little movements. They way they breathe. The way they move. Do they tense up at this moment or are they cool. And there is lots of wonderful examples even just looking at the first 10 minutes. Watching Woody Strode just kind of ignore the water dripping on to him gives him an air of cool that a dozen one liners couldn't. We see Jack Elem tormenting a fly that bothered him. Al Murdock's character is the twitchy, nervous one. Archetypes all of them.
And that extends out to the characters we know about. Harmonica is a cipher. We know his motivation but that's it. In terms of script characterization, all we're given is that he hates Frank. And at the end we learn why but that's really all we know. We can infer he's literate because he knows about the station. He's clever in the Red Harvest kind of mode. But the script doesn't tell us any more about him. But Leone gives Bronson the room to fill it in a lot of detail with his acting. The looks he shares with Cheyenne. The way the two men size each other up with just a few lines of dialogue but a scene filled with flickering eyes and small shifts of expression. The looks he gives Frank. The character has weight not because the script gives it to him but because the actor does. And Leone goes a bit further, adding an almost metaphysical quality to Harmonica. He never walks into a scene. His entrances to a scene are him suddenly appearing. Or being revealed to have been there the whole time. He's more a vengeful ghost, or spirit then a man. And given a theme that fits and matches with it. Haunting and dark but turning into something brighter and warmer. A bit more hopeful.
And really all of the characters in the film are the archetype of the Classic western. The man seeing revenge. The charming outlaw. The hooker with a heart of gold. The villainous gunfighter. The corrupt railroad baron. None of whom we know much about but the Leone gives the actors room to give them weight. Each little reveal carefully worked into the tension of the film. And Leone is the master of tension. The film is long, with a run time of just a hair under 3 hours. It's pace is slow. But Leone manages the tension to keep it moving. But the way he juggles tension between the various conflicts keeps the attention of the audience. So all of these scenes where actors can establish character with little looks and glances are part of something more tense. So we learn volumes about the characters and how they fit into the world but with the script providing much less of that when we usually see. The characters have depth but that depth doesn't come from the script, it comes from the actors. Leone uses the silence to speak volumes.
The script while dialogue sparse is full of little hints and foreshadowing. Jill's discovery of the train station playset. Harmonica's theme playing when Frank shoots Timmy McBain. The flying birds and the mention of Jill wearing black symbols of death herald the coming bullets. Harmonica and Frank dress in black and white respectively. The constant references to water. Morton proclaiming he wants to see the water again before he dies. His discussion with Frank about money as a weapon. Jill referencing a hot bath prior to Frank raping her. And that gives us Jill as a figure of rebirth. Once the violence is completed with the gunslinger and the outlaw both dead, Jill is free to recreate both herself and Sweetwater. She controls the water, and with that she has power over the railroads and the ability to bring life from the ground.
So we have a Western directed by an Italian, shot partially in Spain and Italy but also the US. But it's not a Spaghetti Western. We have a director famed for carving out a new niche doing an homage to what came before. We have silence speaking volumes. A director creating a work that is in many ways superficial but one with so many layers and bits of subtle nuance. It's a work full of contradictions. I always feel a bit snobbish and frustrated with people watching the film. Because it's a fantastic film. One that is great if you know nothing about Westerns. But it's also a film that as you learn more about the genre it becomes richer with meaning and nuance. And I dreaded writing this because as I look at it, I realize there is still more for me to learn.