Friday, February 13, 2009

Target #259: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)

TSPDT placing: #73
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Dario Argento (story), Bernardo Bertolucci (story), Sergio Leone (story & screenplay), Sergio Donati (screenplay), Mickey Knox (dialogue: English version)

Sergio Leone may not have chosen the high-brow subject subject matter of his 1960s European contemporaries, but, boy, his films are pure cinema. Leone may have progressed beyond the charming but erratic editing style of his earliest Westerns – A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) – but his use of the camera is unlike any other filmmaker I've ever seen. The director's wide frame, captured in Techniscope, is like a freshly-painted canvas, its watercolours glistening under the intense Western sun, and style dripping from every shot. Mostly gone is the slightest hint of parody that I observed in his earlier films; Ennio Morricone's score, rather than being joyously overwhelming as in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), instead meditates gracefully on the passions and losses of its major characters. This added grace recognisable throughout the film emerges no doubt from a far greater budget, the film bankrolled by Paramount Pictures and shot largely in the United States {with Leone paying tribute to John Ford through the use of his favoured Monument Valley}.

Leone has stated that "the rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasps that a person takes just before dying." That most of his set-pieces end in a bloody shootout suggests the aptness of this analogy. However, like Leone says, the heart of his pictures is not to be found in the moment of death – however gratifying we may find it – but in the final gasps for air. Once Upon a Time in the West opens with an astonishing ten-minute prologue in which three armed outlaws (Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock) impatiently await the arrival of a train. The minutes pass by almost without dialogue. In the sweltering heat, the men lazily brush away flies; a windmill creaks as it spins idly in the breeze; a telegraph machine chatters inside the railway station. This simple act of waiting, in less talented hands, could easily have been tedious, but Leone rejects the standard perceptions of time by allowing the viewer to immerse themselves in the canvas that he has just painted.

As in the director's previous effort, the film's main characters blur the line between "good" and "bad" (and "ugly"), but the clear villain of the piece is, memorably, Henry Fonda as Frank. His against-type performance is wonderful, not because it's a far cry from his usual persona, but because it isn't. Close your eyes, and you'll hear that same righteous drawl that spoke with such rectitude in 12 Angry Men (1957). But Juror #8 he certainly isn't; Fonda adds a nasty, sadistic sneer, and Leone focuses most closely on the actor's hypnotic blue eyes. It's almost frightening how Fonda's squeaky-clean persona can be corrupted so readily. Claudia Cardinale plays Jill McBain, a stunning widower who refuses to bow down to those who murdered her husband and his family. Morricone's score only has good things to say about Jill, but Leone appears to admire her precisely because she, like her male cohorts, is not a hapless innocent. A former prostitute, this lady from New Orleans has absolutely no qualms about sleeping with the enemy. No pride, only objectives – that's how you survive in the West.

Currently my #2 film of 1968:
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
2) C’era una volta il West {Once Upon a Time in the West} (Sergio Leone)
3) Whistle and I’ll Come to You (Jonathan Miller) (TV)
4) The Odd Couple (Gene Saks)
5) Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)
6) Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
7) The Party (Blake Edwards)

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