#20: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

As I sat down to watch Once Upon a Time in the West, often called a ‘Spaghetti Western masterpiece’, I realised this was my first experience of this classic genre. Sure, I reviewed Unforgiven back in the day at #94, but that was a more modern, American treatment. Spaghetti means Italian Westerns, and that means Sergio Leone. Putative creator of this sub-genre, Leone had previously retired from making Westerns, but came back after Paramount offered him a desirable budget, and Henry Fonda.
Fonda plays against type as the cruel and callous criminal Frank, whose interest in the McBain family triggers an investigation into a mystery which brings together discrete forces, all bent on uncovering the truth, and bringing him down. First there is the new Mrs. McBain (Claudia Cardinale), who arrives at her new home to find everything is not quite as she expected. Then there is the enigmatic Harmonica (Charles Bronson), an unknown, unnamed entity, who not only knows how to play, but knows how to shoot - what are his motives? And finally there is the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who is rather taken with Mrs McBain, and keen to clear his name of Frank’s misdeeds. 
We follow their adventures, learning the truth of the McBain family and Frank’s nefarious plans over the 166 minutes of what is mainly waiting for violence to happen. The opening scene is 12 minutes of squeaking windmill, sandy gusts of desert wind, and the cracking of a hired goon’s knuckles, as we wait for a train to arrive. Whilst in many ways an intimidating way to start the film (I was wishing I’d chosen a larger mug for me tea), Leone captures the prevailing tone of the film expertly in just this one, first scene. Throughout, we walk through the plot at a snail’s pace, but if you’re fully committed to “getting”, and enjoying, this film, you’ll notice that these tense, unnerving face-offs have a lot to say about human nature, and the way of the world out in the west. It’s barren out here; life is tough, slow and often brutal. The frontier shows what man is really made of, and while he’s strong, it’s not exactly a pretty sight. This is brought home in Ennio Morricone’s score, the feeling of loneliness and despair outlined pretty thoroughly in just a few wailing bars; but there is also a crescendo of adventure in there too.

Fonda is a brilliant baddie, cold and calculating, while Robards somehow manages to make himself a loveable rogue (I think mainly due to the mustachios). Not much is required of Cardinale besides looking stunning, and as such she executes her role perfectly. Bronson, however, irritated the goodness gracious out of me - that damn harmonica. Plus his vacant, yet also slightly smug face infuriated me even more than it did his enemies. I suppose the point was to show the power of patience and tenacity, and even of passivity in certain situations. Still, I wanted him to get shot - right in the stomach for a slow, choking death. Damn harmonica.

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