Filmmaker Firsts: Sergio Leone

#21: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – dir. Sergio Leone

While having my first Leone film experience, which was on DVD, I could immediately tell that this particular film would look infinitely better on the big screen. The telling thing about a truly exceptional movie, though, is that it should be impressive regardless of the format or the size of the viewing apparatus. That is certainly true of Once Upon a Time in the West, which held me in its thrall for every moment of its 165-minute running time.

I have to give special notice to Al Mulock, who appears uncredited as one of the three henchmen (along with Jack Elam and Woody Strode) who dominate the opening scene at the railway station. Mulock’s story is a bizarre and tragic bit of legend since he committed suicide on the set of the movie. While watching the opening credits sequence I was drawn to this strange man with eyes that glowed blue-green, wondering who he was until I could check the cast after the movie ended. When people discuss the opening scene, they probably only remember Elam, Strode and Charles Bronson, but Mulock is there too and I think it’s important to remember that. He wasn’t a star, but he had a presence.

It’s up to the viewer to decide who the primary “main character” is – it could be Charles Bronson and for sheer star power it could be Henry Fonda, although Fonda plays the film’s villain. Ultimately I consider Claudia Cardinale the protagonist of the film. Her character has the most depth, while the male characters are more flat and two-dimensional. It’s a nice twist on the usual Western tropes.

The cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli is innovative and beautiful. I especially love these two shots: the top, a low angle looking up at Cardinale burying her recently murdered husband; the bottom, a bird’s-eye view zooming in on Cardinale as she lies on her marriage bed, filmed through the lace canopy above her. I also appreciate the editing by Nino Baragli, most notably in the sequence toward the film’s end in which we see flashbacks to Charles Bronson’s character’s backstory.

Henry Fonda is chilling as Frank, a character totally unlike any other I can recall from his career prior to 1968. His bright, pretty blue eyes are terrifying in contrast with the character’s mercilessly violent actions. You won’t soon forget this cruel and remorseless figure who has no problem with shooting a young boy in the face.

As striking as the actors are against the Southwest landscape (yes, Jason Robards is as terrific in the film as you would hope) and as affecting as the camerawork is, it is Ennio Morricone’s score that defines the mood of the film. Listen to the film’s main theme, which is essentially the theme of Claudia Cardinale’s character, if you can do so without feeling as moved by it as you might be by Morricone’s scores for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). That is Morricone’s magic: to move his audience with stirring emotion. As in Days of Heaven, the score for Once Upon a Time in the West evokes memories not only of olden times but of the American Western and the American Dream. In a way I think Leone’s film is not meant to be an accurate representation of American history so much as a representation of the tropes present in the Western film genre. When you hear “Duello Finale,” which repeats the mournful harmonica song that Charles Bronson’s character plays throughout the film, you are hearing not only the desired revenge of his character but also the same burden of revenge that nearly every Western hero carries. Bronson by himself might not be a first-rate dramatic actor, but when directed by Sergio Leone and scored by Ennio Morricone, movie magic happens and that’s when you know you’re witnessing greatness.

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