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Once Upon a Time in the West

Once Upon a Time in the West(1969)

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When the Western went out, it went out with a bang in the summer of 1969. Sure there have been Westerns since that time, even some genuinely great ones, but the release a month apart of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West conveniently mark a sharp gasp after the long dismantling of the genre begun in the mid-1950s. Both are shot through with romantic fatalism, progressive politics, a deep melancholy and are obsessed with the effects of technology. It would be nice to think that critics and reviewers caught this at the time but the controversy over the violence of The Wild Bunch apparently fogged anything else. Once Upon a Time in the West (or OUATITW as buffs sometimes call it) had premiered in Italy right before Christmas 1968 but didn't hit American shores for several months. In the few decades since then it seems if not necessarily a greater film than The Wild Bunch then perhaps a more mature one.

From the fairy-tale title, you know Once Upon a Time won't be wallowing in gritty realism, though in many ways it is one of the most historically honest Westerns ever made. Paradoxically, it's also nearly a Western abstraction: the characters have specific names but could easily be The Woman, The Bad Guy, The Banker, The Drifter, while they're set loose in a stark plot about railroad versus ranchers. Leone isn't ignoring his characters or neglecting to tell a story but is just not focused primarily on getting to the next scene. Just look at the audacious opening sequence featuring three gunmen waiting for a train to arrive. It runs about eight minutes, has just a few sentences of dialogue and in a way nothing happens. One man is annoyed by a buzzing fly, another has water dripping on his head. A windmill creaks. The station attendant sputters a bit then disappears. A Western Waiting for Godot perhaps but it doesn't play that way. There is a pay-off, though like the rest of the film there's a sense of loss, almost as if Leone has recreated something that no longer exists and then can't bear to look away. In the rest of the film watch the long shots of meals being prepared, of a wagon making its way slowly to an outlying farm, of the railroad being built. Once Upon a Time isn't dull by any stretch, filled as it is with shoot-outs, massacres, attacks on trains, prisoner escapes, schemes, betrayals and such but these aren't the entire point as they might be in, say, a B-movie or TV Western.

The film's story was developed by the odd trio of Leone, arthouse director Bernardo Bertolucci and critic/future horror maestro Dario Argento, then scripted by Leone's regular collaborator Sergio Donati. All were fans of Westerns and consciously tried to shape the film into both a tribute and a critique. Thus not only the iconography and story draws from classic Westerns but their focus is reflected even in the casting of Henry Fonda and the filming in John Ford's stomping ground Monument Valley (which earlier had a major influence on American art by crucially shaping the look of George Herriman's Krazy Kat). But there was no way they could create a pure Western--whatever that might be--even if that had been their goal. American optimism and manifest destiny wasn't native to them while growing up in post-war Italy and then developing a left-leaning political consciousness didn't incline them to take the genre at face value. They were hardly alone in this since dozens of directors across the globe were rethinking everything from crime films to comedy to sex romps. Leone and company, though, weren't shouting at the audience. Whatever else you might find in it, Once Upon a Time really is just a Western. You don't need to share their politics any more than you do the conservatism of Howard Hawks and John Wayne to appreciate Rio Bravo.

There are a lot of stories about the casting of Once Upon a Time, about how the stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were approached for cameos in the opening, about alternates for this role or that. But it's difficult if not impossible to imagine topping who eventually appeared in it. Henry Fonda cast against type as a ruthless killer, Italian beauty queen Claudia Cardinale as the bride who finds herself an unexpected widow, B-movie tough guy Charles Bronson as a mysterious avenger, grand actor of Italian cinema Gabriele Ferzetti as a scheming millionaire and theatre crossover Jason Robards as maybe the hero. (Oddly enough both Fonda and Robards had previously played Abraham Lincoln.)

An additional key element was the music by Ennio Morricone, somewhere around his 70th score in seven years but hardly exhausting his creativity. Morricone continued the use of a theme for each character as he did in Leone's previous Westerns but expanded and underlined that until when, say, Jason Robards appears on screen it's almost as if to give an aria. In fact numerous commentors have noted that the music, unhurried pace, and even violence of the film make it resemble an opera (though that wouldn't be a first: Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West premiered in 1910).

The DVD release of Once Upon a Time is pretty much everything you could hope for. Of course the film is letterboxed and though it naturally loses something on a TV set (never ever pass up a chance to see this one in a theatre), Leone's use of close-ups come across well on the smaller screen. Though the Techniscope widescreen format had some problems it allowed for sharpness that Cinemascope frequently couldn't accomodate. The film's transfer to DVD captures the look very well. There's a fascinating commentary track which is mostly Leone biographer Christopher Frayling but has contributions from film historian Sheldon Hall, actress Claudia Cardinale and directors Alex Cox and John Carpenter. There's a second disc with three documentaries about the making of the film (really it's basically just one documentary broken into three parts), a look at railroads in the West, photos of locations then and now, along with the standard assortment of a trailer and mostly useless actor profiles. But then you don't need the disc for information on Charles Bronson's career. Having a real treasure like Once Upon a Time in the West should be enough.

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by Lang Thompson