Once Upon a Time in the West – Review

22 Jan

I’m not a huge fan of the Western genre, especially American made westerns of the 1950s and the early 1960s. There are a few exceptions, like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and some modern films, but westerns in the 1950s and 1960s don’t really hold my attention. But let’s talk about Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre that can only be described as the graphic novel western. These are a different story altogether, and hold my attention way more than their American counterparts. When one thinks of this genre, the first name that should come to mind is Sergio Leone, and today I want to take a look at his hyper-stylized 1969 film, Once Upon a Time in the West.

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The story of this film follows different characters each with different goals which all intersect throughout the film. A man nicknamed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives in the town of Flagstone looking for another man named Frank (Henry Fonda). Harmonica’s intentions are mysterious and his gunslinging is vicious. Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is a former prostitute from New Orleans who’s come to Flagstone to be with her husband, who she doesn’t know has just been murdered by Frank, along with the rest of his family. Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is a bandit who’s been framed for the murders of Jill’s husband and his family. He soon meets Jill and begins helping her, along with Harmonica, to save the land that is rightfully hers and get revenge on Frank and his employer.

I said earlier that Spaghetti Westerns are the graphic novel equivalents of the John Wayne/John Ford type of Western. Right from the get go, it’s clear that Once Upon a Time in the West is all about style, style, style. The beginning of this movie can objectively go down as one of the best beginnings in the history of film. The only soundtrack is the sounds of a train station as three hired guns wait for a train to arrive so they can finish off their target. How long does this last? A few minutes? No, it lasts about 15 minutes and not one of those minutes is boring. It’s an auditory sensation of hyper realism and gets you in the mood to go into this twisted old west. The cool doesn’t stop there, either.

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There’s a great story that Henry Fonda told about Sergio Leone that I just have to include in this review. Apparently, the main reason that Leone wanted Fonda to play the villain was because he was always casted as the good guy in movies, and Leone wanted people to lose it when Fonda’s character is first revealed murdering a family. Well that’s ridiculous, but it works great because Henry Fonda plays it cool and deadly as the hired gunman Frank. Still, the rest of the cast is awesome. Jason Robards has excellent chemistry with Italian actress, Claudia Cardinale who light up the screen whenever she’s onscreen. Also, Charles Bronson. Need I say more? Seeing Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson square up in duel is just fantastic.

I guess what I’m really trying to say about Once Upon a Time in the West is that it’s just so immersive. The colors that Leone uses combined with Ennio Morricone’s sweeping (as usual) score is just fantastic, and there were times where I really just wanted to listen to the music. The editing is also absolutely extraordinary. For example, there’s a great scene where Henry Fonda fires his gun, but the scene jump cuts to the underside of a train. It’s the kind of jarring juxtaposition that reminds me of the jump cut in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music, the cinematography, and the editing are some of the finest examples of immersive film making which makes what I’m about to say hopefully seem justified.

I’ve heard it from professors, critics, and movie buffs alike so I’m going to add myself to the long list of people who have said this. Despite being super cool and highly stylistic, Once Upon a Time in the West is honestly, and almost objectively, one of the greatest films ever made. Like Peckinpah did with The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone breathed some fresh air into a dying genre with this film. He made a name for himself with the Dollars Trilogy, and this film started a thematic trilogy all its own, but as a stand alone film, it succeeds as a revisionist western, an artistic achievement, and just a really cool movie.

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