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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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12 Angry Men – Review

2 Feb

When you’re watching a movie, it’s pretty fair to expect a lot of different things to happen in the course of the running time, and for the events to play out in a number of different places. Well what if I were to tell you that one of the most widely praised films ever made, 12 Angry Men, takes place in one room and you never even know the names of the characters. Sounds like it would be hard to really get sucked into a movie like that, but if it weren’t possible, would this be said to be one of the objectively greatest films ever to be made?

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On the hottest day of the year, 12 New York City jurors are left with the task of deciding the fate of an 18 year old boy who allegedly stabbed his father to death. At first, the case seems pretty open and close and most of the jury, who want to get out of there as soon as possible, seem convinced that he is guilty. All but Juror #8 (Henry Fonda). While he doesn’t know for sure if the boy is guilty or innocent, he doesn’t believe that there shouldn’t be a discussion and that some of the evidence isn’t as concrete as everyone believes. As the afternoon progresses, and the discussions get more personal and heated, it becomes clear that this boy’s life is in the hands of flawed human beings who may let their prejudices take precedence over their judgement.

The relationship between the actor and the screenplay are very tight and important to strengthen. The actors really depend on the screenplay to be well made and structured in order to give a believable performance, and vice versa for the screenplay. In my opinion, never has this relationship been more important to a movie’s success. Like I said before, save for a few brief scenes, this movie takes place all in one room with the main driving force of the story being the dialogue. There is no flashback to the murder or any other action to speak of. What really makes this work is the writing by Reginald Rose and the acting. Henry Fonda, Jack Warden, and Lee J. Cobb give especially good performances in roles that may seem a bit ahead of their time.

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Seeing that there are 12 men in the room, and since they are the only important characters in the film, it is important that nothing is shirked when it comes to sculpting their characters. Luckily, each and every one is molded perfectly and uniquely. Even though we just meet these people in the beginning of the movie where they’ve already lived their lives up until this point, I got the sense that I knew exactly who each man was. Again, there’s no flashbacks or elaborate stories explaining who they are. We learn about them gradually as the film goes on through small side conversations and their opinions on the case, especially concerning the boy’s innocence.

12 Angry Men is a thematic powerhouse, and is one that I could really discuss for hours on end. Everything from the flaws in the judicial system, social class, and prejudice are explored over the course of the movie. What’s also smart is that there isn’t a definite answer the questions and themes that this movie is bringing up. It wants the viewer to watch and analyze it for themselves, and then their opinions can be made. It doesn’t waste time spoon feeding you.

12 Angry Men truly is a remarkable movie. One thing I didn’t mention before is how the movie starts out in wide angle shots with plenty of room, and as it goes on, the shots get closer and more claustrophobic. Even the little details like that are important to the movie. The characters, acting, and writing are the true successes to this film and it has some pretty heavy questions that will make you think about yourself and your own beliefs. This film is a classic, and even if old movies aren’t your style, you should watch and be thrilled by 12 Angry Men.