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Once Upon a Time in the West  rating

Review: written 2020

Masterpiece of the Western genre

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly had finally brought Sergio Leone on to the world stage, and Hollywood was paying attention. Leone decided the time was ripe to ‘retire’ from Westerns, and move on to a project he had been planning for years – ‘Once Upon A Time in America’, based on the early gangster era in New York. However Paramount were offering him the chance to do that movie only if he would do another Western. So Leone got on board, and decided to make his best yet. What’s more, this would be the first in a trilogy of sorts – three movies showing three periods in history ‘that made America toughen up’. (The other two are ‘Once upon a time… the revolution’, which was inexplicably renamed in the US as ‘Duck, You Sucker’ and in UK as ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’, even though it had nothing in common with the ‘fistful’ movies, and then ‘Once Upon A Time In America’, Leone’s gangster movie based on ‘The Hoods’) As always, his research was thorough and exhaustive – but this time, with the opportunity to film in the US (notably in Monument Valley), his research was not just history but the movies themselves. It’s said there are literally hundreds of references to classic American Westerns in the movie.. ranging from the shotgun being used by Woody Strode being the same model as used by Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, to the scenes of Monument valley echoing the classic Ford Westerns, to the three men waiting at the station at the start, echoing High Noon. Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento wrote the plot premise, with Leone Sergio Donati working on the screenplay itself.

Clint Eastwood declined the starring role, which ultimately went to Charles Bronson – who had once declined the role Clint Eastwood made famous in A Fistful of Dollars. Rounding out the cast were Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards (who despite getting blazing drunk every night would still turn up professionally and on time every day on set) and a very specifically cast Henry Fonda.

Once Upon a Time in the West

Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain

Once Upon a Time in the West

Henry Fonda as Frank

Henry Fonda was no random casting – Leone did not want to just do another Western, he wanted to deliberately subvert the American Western. He hired Fonda for his association with the clean cut and clever talking roles he had made famous in Hollywood Westerns, and turn that on its head and make him the villain. Fonda turned down the role originally, but after talking to his friend Eli Wallach, joined up, having been told ‘you’ll have the time of your life’. Fonda famously turned up on set having acquired brown contact lenses. He had gone and researched spaghetti Westerns and seen all the bad guys looked a certain way, so got the lenses made. Leone was furious – no, no, I want them to SEE your blue eyes, to KNOW it is Henry Fonda even as you are gunning women and children down in cold blood! He had planned the first scene when we meet Fonda accordingly – after a cold blooded killing, to some of Morricone’s most dramatic music, the camera takes its time panning around to see the faceless killers – only to ultimately rest on Fonda’s blue-eyed visage.

This subversion of the genre continued (SPOILER ALERT) by having famous character actors of the time (Woody Strode, Jack Elam) gunned down in the first scene, by using Monument Valley and by including all the hallmarks of Hollywood Westerns, but showing them In a context of minimal words, anti-heroes, and a blurring of the white hat and black hat characters seen in US productions. In addition, Morricone developed his signature touches to their ultimate conclusion – startling close ups on faces (watch the extraordinary close up on Bronson’s face near the end), outbursts of sound calculated to co-incide with death or violent moments, and a classic Morricone score, with 4 main themes, one for each of the characters, arguably one of, if not the best Morricone score. As before, he would write the themes in advance, and Leone would play them on set and in the editing room, planning the scenes around the music, rather than the other way round. And most of all, he challenged the idea that things had to happen quick. This is a movie that demands patience, that asks you to revel in the images (and sounds). In gunfights for example, he much preferred drawing out and exploring the rituals before the gunfight, and the act of violence itself is quick and over with in a moment. The opening scene alone is a masterpiece in drawing a moment out.. adding nothing to the plot, but everything to the mood. Originally music was planned to the lengthy word-free scene, but when it did not work well, ultimately stylised sounds were used instead.

On its release in Europe in its full 166 minute long version, it was acclaimed immediately. However, American distributors thought American audiences would not have the patience, and whittled it down to 145 minutes, and this version was widely derided. The movie starts a new phase in Leone’s style – much more sombre and less celebratory than the dollars movies. For those expecting Good bad and Ugly II, they would be disappointed. In America as a result, it was a critical and box office flop, something Leone found it difficult to recover from for the rest of his career. And yet, in its full version, this is now widely hailed as a masterpiece, often cited as the best Western of all time in critics choices. In 2009, it was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and will be preserved for all time.”

So is it a classic? Or too long and boring? Directors including Tarantino, Scorcese, George Lucas and many others have all spoken about how the movie strongly influenced them – the opening of Inglourious Basterds is a good example. For me, it is one of my all time favourite movies – but I acknowledge it is an acquired taste. I love the style which can best be described as operatic or balletic, the contrast of realism with hyper stylisation.

Love it or be frustrated by it, this is an undisputed masterpiece – watch on the biggest screen possible.

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