Monday, April 18, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—O is For

Once Upon a Time in the West

      As a Scorsese loyalist, much like any made man, I can never pay respect to a film that robbed a Best Director Oscar (1980 Academy Awards) from Marty for his tremendous work on Raging Bull. The criminality of the Academy's heinous decision wreaks of the sordid criminality present in Henry Hill's breach of omertá in Goodfellas. The mafia doesn't look too kindly on Ordinary People. I'm sorry Robert Redford. As much as I love your work, especially in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I can't grant you my "O" spot. Kurt Russell's performance in Overboard is priceless, but the film is far from flawless. For the record, I'm a big fan of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's films (especially the first), but they don't garner placement either. So that leaves us with a double whammy of Once Upon a Times from Sergio Leone—Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America—the irreverent One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman), and the amazing, award-winning film that bequeathed future generations, with an eternal nugget of wisdom, about almost bein' a contenda, Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront. Oh, and Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) is terrific, but I'm a sucker for spaghetti westerns. 
      Therefore, without harboring any doubt, my selection is Sergio Leone's epic spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West. It wasn't an easy decision. But I had to stick to my Italian roots. As much as I don't want to wind up mistaking Joe Pesci for being funny, I also don't want to exclude Leone from my Alphabetic canyon of cinematic champions. His influence and talent remain unquestioned. 
      Once Upon a Time in the West is a nostalgic, methodical examination of Western culture; its heroes and its varied cultural undercurrents. Leone weaves his fable together in exquisite fashion, from a two-conflict narrative design, which operates quite plainly as a picturesque revenge story. In a deliberate effort to acquire prime railroad land in Sweetwater, a handicap railroad conglomerate named Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) hires a gang of mercenary assassins, led by blue-eyed ruffian, Frank (Henry Fonda). Under the ill-defined plans of the railroad Baron, the infamous gunslinger and his wretched band of outlaws annihilate the innocent, Sweetwater property owners, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his family. To the utter consternation of Morton, McBain's newly arrived bride Jill (Claudia Cardinale), inherits the plum property. Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a modest outlaw and the unrelenting, notoriously enigmatic Harmonica (Charles Bronson), strike an informal pledge to protect Jill, and consequently, circumvent Frank's plans to seize her land. As alliances and betrayals mutate with increasing intensity, it becomes clear that Harmonica's obsessive fascination with Frank derives from another place of motivation entirely. 

      Much like his Dollars trilogy, Leone revamps the hackneyed, western blueprint by wielding his trademark arsenal of visual gusto—intense close-up and painterly long shots. This careful remodeling leads to a genuine, cinematic merger defined by sprawling railways, beautiful, widescreen landscapes, and a splendid, motley crew of characters. Once Upon a Time in the West is eclectic in dramatic detail, embracing the plots of at least a half-dozen Westerns. Among those who are credited with the story and screenplay is Leone himself and Bernardo Bertolucci, one of the most original Italian moviemakers of his time. Consequently, their dual craftsmanship bleeds a vigorous originality while cherishing movie styles and attitudes from the past. The end result leads to some of the purest movie exchanges to ever grace the big screen, especially when Henry Fonda confronts one of his men for betraying a confidence. "You can trust me," says the man. Fonda's reply: "How can I trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? He don't even trust his own pants."
      An ode to the fading American frontier, Leone's epic is set against the backdrop of the fast, encroaching railroad, which signals the dominant emergence of Industrialization. And with progress, these capitalistic locomotives carry death—death for the American West's unpolluted beauty, death for the harsh individualism of yesteryear, and death to the Old West cowboy. Leone, in his truest form, is a cinematic stylist, who has forged a tremendous career out of transforming melodramatic genre pictures into feral, fierce, and destructive statements about the country that had inspired his cinematic dreams. West's starling epic dramatizes that fateful instant when the Old West of gunslingers and shootouts mutated into the New West of manifest destiny-inspired avarice and exploitation. 

      Leone's grand fairy-tale is an amalgam of history and myth. He deposits this watershed moment of American expansionism, as a parable about the death of the Western itself. His devotion to classic Western iconography and archetypes is a stark departure from his earlier, revisionist westerns, which were famous for subverting the traditional western tropes (such as the noble, unadulterated cowboy). There are similarities between the characters in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, such as Charles Bronson's stoic harmonica-playing loner whose reminiscent of Eastwood's "Good " Man with No Name. But unlike his previous work—much like Henry Fonda's  standard good guy reversal, instead, playing a crude villain complete with his virtuous blue eyes—Leone eschews the pervasive immorality that gave his earlier films their avant-garde audacity, choosing not to restore western clichés, but to assimilate them into material components of his marvelous mise-en-scène. 
      This architecture is validated from the film's gripping opening sequence, in which a trio of rugged killers quietly awaits the arrival of a train at a derelict local station. The men, with the soaked swashbuckle and drenched villainy of desperados, are stock characters from a million other westerns. The way Leone orchestrates their waiting game, however, is something analogous to Mozart's arrangement of Messiah—awe-inspiring perfection. Using a mixture of intense close-ups, (Leone's signature styling touch) and artisanal long shots, and by casting the scene in unbroken silence (heightening the effect of the natural environment's sounds), Leone instills this perfunctory setup with unchecked grandiosity.
      When the train finally arrives with Bronson aboard, Leone marries Ennio Morricone's hauntingly powerful guitar riffs—an extraordinary usage of leitmotif resulting in one of my favorite, all-time scores—to a magnifient deep-focus shot angled upward from the ground near the trio's boots, with Bronson a miniscule but nonetheless imposing speck in the distance. The effect is a transcendent moment that encapsulates the quintessential, distressing instance in all westerns that occurs right before all hell breaks loose. 
      Claudia Cardinale, the feisty and gorgeous widow of McBain, matches the subtleties of Leone's dexterous direction. He uses his magnetic, mythical pacing to routinely tantalize us with whispers of things to come—and Cardinale's intricate performance embellishes this tone, and more powerfully, so does Bronson's. For instance, the identity of the man present in Harmonica's visions remains shrouded in an unfocused fog, so that Leone may manipulate his audience without revealing too much information too soon.
      Leon's epic eulogy to Western cinema is also an enthralling tribute to the dissolution of the mythical Wild West. The script's solemn style and tragic romanticism is an enchanting interplay between appearance and sound—marked by the dominant tone of forlorn resignation over the industrialist's arrival. Morton, who doesn't entirely agree with Frank's mechanisms, isn't vile. Instead, he is pathetic. His quest to trample through the West is portrayed, not as reprehensible, but merely inevitable—the first in a long line of capitalists plundering the land, in which Frank embodies the hideousness, corruption, and immorality of the Old World. 
      Frank's inability to blend Old World (shoot first, ask questions later) and New World (money is your weapon) developments, ultimately, leads to his demise: "You've learned some new ways," Harmonica tells Frank before their climactic showdown, "even if you haven't given up the old ways." Harmonica and Cheyenne, like Frank, are relics of an extinct species that cannot exist in the prospering modern world. In their weather-beaten dust jackets, gaudy leather boots, and signature Stetson hats, these wandering, mythic gladiators accept their fateful destinies and, with a mixture of anguish and adamancy, ride off into legend—the legend of Leone's final masterpiece to the antiquated Western. In its totality, Once Upon a Time in the West is a melodic masterwork, deserving of its legend-making title. 

*The epic trailer for Once Upon a Time in the West

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  1. Oh, how we love that movie. It was one of our earliest introductions to Sergio Leone's films. (My son's tarantula was named Sergio Bustamante.)
    Excellent choice for 'O'.

  2. I love the logline for the movie: There were three men in her life. One to take to love her - and one to kill her.

    I thought I had seen all these old westerns, but I don't know this one. Good cast.

  3. And with O, we reach the first movie on your list I haven't seen. (Note: This wouldn't have happened if you'd gone with One Flew, On the Waterfront, or Oldboy.) And thus, you're now dead to me.

    Wait, no, that's not right. And it probably is time I saw this flick. Okay, you're alive again. Congratulations!

  4. personally would've chosen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest...but I was happily surprised to see Overboard in the honorable mentions.
    Happy O Day!

  5. yep, the tag line is quite brutal :)

    I must admit I've always loved Sophia Loren much much better than Cardinale.

    The music in the film was off course epic.

  6. To my shame, I've never seen it.

  7. Another disagreement. I prefer The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly to this one. I liked this movie, but it didn't mesmerize me. I thought it was too over-the-top. Leone was very heavy-handed in pounding his themes into your head and aside from Fonda, the cast was pretty mediocre. Cardinale and Bronson were meh.

    I would have gone with Once Upon A Time In America or One Flew.

  8. Man alive, you know cinema. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece on "O". Thank You.

  9. @ Susan

    That's an awesome revelation. Any big time Leone fan earns my respect. Thanks!

    @ L.G.

    The Tagline is a memorable one. You's the perfect swan song to the Old Westerns!

    @ Nate

    Phew! I thought your filmgoing habits were just as obsessive as mine, lol. Thanks for the God work!

    I think you'll really like this film. And I'm not just saying that because you have the power to resurrect me, though much like in Wayne's World, [I'm] not worthy.

  10. @ Tara

    Fair enough. Overboard is one of those nostalgic, purely sentimental films of my childhood that I enjoy solely for that reason.

    @ Dezmond

    Sophia Loren would have been my most lustful contemporary celebrity crush had I lived during her heyday. She's amazingly beautiful.

    And right you are. This score is one of my all-time faves. I love the use of leitmotif.

    @ Ricky

    No need to be ashamed. You can always rectify that. Hopefully, my post has lit a fire under you to see it. You'll be thanking me later. Leone is that good!

  11. @ Melissa

    I appreciate your thoughts and insights, but I disagree entirely. Instead of instigating a firestorm of back-and-forth’s though, I’ll just share a few thoughts. First, Leone’s visual aggrandizement is not meant to be coercive. It’s meant to embellish his thematic dimensions, which I greatly admire. Too often, directors forgo proselytizing or just downright fail to elicit any message of consequence. This occurs because they either do not care enough about the power of the medium or they’re just not capable of invoking meaningful commentaries. Leone, on the contrary, rises high above this stigma. His mastery of the camera, his admiration for those titans before him (a mélange of sentimental nods and innovative touches), and his splendid execution speaks to a high caliber of skill.

    While West might not be your favorite Leone film or your choice for "O" (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an exceptional film also), I don’t think it’s fair to undermine, even slightly, his thematic orchestration. But that’s just me because I absolutely adore this film and Leone.
    I also thought Bronson and Cardinale were better than mediocre, but that’s because I love Bronson’s steely coolness and Cardinale’s breathtaking beauty. Leone calls him the greatest actor he ever worked with. Again, judging acting performances can be a bit of a muddled exercise based on preferences/tastes, so I’m fine with your rather tepid appraisal.

    I’m glad that you, at least liked the film and sorry for the rant!

    @ Anthony

    Thanks! Bringing back the old school expression. I like it!

  12. Fantastic choice, sitting on top of a mound of good choices! I first saw this on VHS 25+ years ago, and it was well-nigh incomprehensible in pan-n-scan. I only just saw it wide on DVD in the last six months - and loved it so much I just picked up a DVD bargain on a special edition with special features. Bronson is fantastic, matched by everyone in the cast. And of course, I need only say one word. Frank. Once Upon a Time in the East - I really enjoyed this post! Cheers!

  13. No worries on the rant. Great minds don't always think alike. :) I will, however, re-watch this with your insights and see what I think then.

  14. @ Craig

    Thanks! Pan and scan, huh. That's brutal since there is way too much cropping, and this film, specifically, needs a full widescreen, proportional set-up. It's good to know you caught it in its preferred format, and I'm glad you picked it up on DVD. I'll have to grab one my self, as I'd love to check out the special features.

    @ Melissa

    Thanks! And yes we do. There's inevitably going to be disagreements with regards to film, so I'm totally fine with your preferences. I'm happy you're going to re-watch it though. Hopefully, your appreciation grows fonder.

  15. This is the film that turned an 11 year old boy into a man who loves film. Leone directed only 7 films yet, his influence on other directors has been IMMENSE and he made every film count. I will argue that if one were to count up the number of great moments in his films, he would be unmatched by anyone. The tragedy is that he never lived to direct his 900 Hundred Days: The invasion of Leningrad.

  16. Awesome. Leone has helped foster my appreciation for film, and his breadth of influence is indeed "immense."

    That is a tragedy. As Leone fans, we know it would be epic, thrilling, and a wonderful vehicle to exploit his stylistic approach. He made spaghetti westerns classic cinema. I have no doubts about what he could have accomplished with a military epic.