Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Starring: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzeti

Directed by Sergio Leone



"Once Upon a Time in the West" is the kind of movie you fall in love with. It shows all the aspects that people have come to enjoy about the western genre, and through the eyes of complex characters as they struggle, fail, and prosper in a live-or-die environment.

It starts off with a group of robbers standing around at a train track. And that is it; they just stand there, drinking water and investigating the actions of a fly for about 5-10 minutes. And yet it is fascinating to watch. They are then confronted by Charles Bronson, who plays a role similar to the one played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's other "Spaghetti westerns": he does not have a real name, is generally a loner, and does not talk very much. Unlike Eastwood's character, however, his is motivated by personal reasons rather than money. He is also different in the fact that he frequently plays what has to be one of the creepiest harmonica ever (and he is consequently refereed to as "Harmonica" as the film progresses). Its haunting sound does not always spell doom...but sometimes it does.

In the following scene, a family by the surname of McBain is about to welcome their matriarch, who is arriving from New Orleans at a nearby train station. However, they are brutally murdered on their farm by a gang of outlaws lead by Frank, portrayed by the legendary Henry Fonda in a role where he plays against type. His calm demeanor and soft blue eyes that brought a sense of humility to his other characters make this role even more sinister. Although his action show that he posses a certain level of intelligence, he is too cold-blooded to be anything more than a killer.

When Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) first arrives, she observes the town around her in what is one of the best shots of the whole film. It shows everyone just going about their daily lives before entering the outskirts, revealing the beautiful mountains of Monument Valley in Utah where it was filmed. It is set to the brilliant score by Ennio Morricone, who is basically to Leone what John Williams is to Spielberg. On a side note, the whole soundtrack to this film is brilliant, from the aforementioned harmonica tune, the main theme which I just mentioned and even the humorous "trotting" music that is played later on. It just really sets the tone for the movie and this scene is the perfect example of it.

Before arriving home, she goes into a shop where she meets Harmonica, as well as Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a crude outlaw who nonetheless has a heart and ends up. When she finds that her family is dead, her mourning is brief and her tough personality makes her decide to remain where she is in order to make a new life for herself, becoming a symbol of self-reliance and individualism that helped propel the West into a established part of American culture.

It turns out that her family was killed because her husband had refused to hand over his land to a railroad baron named Morton (Gabriele Ferzeti) who is in collaboration with Frank. Morton is a surprisingly sympathetic villain because, although he does posses a sense of monetary greed, his real goal is to have is railroad reach the Pacific Ocean before he succumbs to tuberculosis, which is slowly crippling him. It is interesting to see him and Frank interact with each other because even though they are technically partners, they have different goals and ways of getting things accomplished...and they do not get along very well. Frank thinks that he is physically and emotionally weak, while he believes that Frank is a wild man who is too dangerous to be associated with. As a result, the uneasy relationship slowly but surely deteriorates.

On the other side of the conflict, Jill, Cheyenne, and Harmonica, despite not always being on the best of terms themselves, manage to form an alliance in order to defend the farm. Meanwhile, Jill discovers her late husband's (Frank Wolff) plans and decides to pursue them. I will not say what they are, but they continue the whole theme of a new beginning for the people who live in the West.

In short, this film is a masterpiece. The great acting, fantastic music, and wonderful story all come together into this wonderful work of art. Almost needless to say, It is one of my personal favorite movies of all time. I definitely recommend it.