Once Upon a Time in the West

A spaghetti western courtesy of Sergio Leone, made in 1968, after he became known in the USA with his Fistful trilogy and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.  Wikipedia reports that Fonda was not sure he should take the job, but his friend Eli Wallach urged him to, saying “You’ll have the time of your life!”  It’s not hard to feel that Fonda and Jason Robards are enjoying themselves, maybe enjoying themselves a little bit too much, as if they’re playing!

I liked the film a lot, the rituals of the violence, the politics, the ‘realism’ of the grungy, beaten-up looking people (not common in westerns in 1968!) and the music too.  It’s like a grand epic opera, without the dramatic punch.  Too much fun, too stylized, too obviously an homage to the great westerns of the past.  It’s almost like a meta-western, the western you would make after studying and researching all the westerns ever made in the USA, which is something I believe Leone did.

Fonda is cast against type as Frank, the villain, a real cold sadist, and his blue eyes and clean-shaven face reflect his sociopathic nature instead of down-home folksiness.  This was radical for the time!  And the film takes a ‘revisionist’ view of the West, although I’m not sure if it was ahead of or just behind the scholarly curve on that.  Instead of a West peopled by self-reliant individualists, we have one developed by rapacious and murderous railroad tycoons.  In one scene, Frank, and his boss, Morton, have a chat in Morton’s opulent rail car.  He’s a cripple, slowly dying of tuberculosis of the bone, and his dream is to build his railroad to the Pacific so he can finally see that ocean.  He finds Frank sitting at his desk, and asks him, “How does it feel to be behind that desk, Frank?”  Frank, a rough character, but a quick study in the ways of capitalism, replies, “As good as holding a gun, but more powerful.

Frank is pursued by a man known only as Harmonica (he plays one), and the shot below is typical of those establishing tension in the ritualistic gunfights.

Eventually, “on the point of dying,” we learn the mystery of Harmonica, and what drives him on his revenge quest.

Claudia Cardinale is the beautiful widow who knows that a tub of hot water can wash away just about any bad feeling, not to mention the smell of filthy men she has had to sleep with.  Speaking to her, Cheyenne (Robards), delivers the improbable lines, “You remind me of my mother.  She was the biggest whore in Almeida.  Whoever my father was, for an hour, or a month, he must have been very happy.

Morton, the greedy railroader, had his own ideas of the saving qualities of water, but his dream of the Pacific was ended by his death in a muddy desert puddle after his violent plans to evict the widow from her land went awry.

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