The first time I saw Once Upon a Time in the West, opening Friday in a new 35 mm print at the Belcourt, I was a kid watching the WNGE "Award Movie" on Sunday afternoon, on the floor of my grandmother's house. For lots of reasons, it was the worst possible way to watch one of the most visually striking movies ever made. But I can still see this image, burned into my mind's eye: a gaunt bald gunslinger standing impassively, staring into the camera, as a drip from the ceiling fills the wide brim of his hat with a thup! thup! thup!
Over the years, I've found something more to appreciate every time I've seen Once Upon a Time in the West. But every time, it leaves me feeling like an awestruck 10-year-old. It has something to do with the scale of Sergio Leone's gloriously excessive 1968 Western. Every dusty street is a football field's width. Every grizzled face, shot in screen-filling close-up, looms like a head on Mount Rushmore. Every gunfight is a duel of the gods. A viewer becomes an HO-scale brakeman walking through a regular-sized trainyard. In this, the most elaborate and exhilarating of his grandiose pistol operas, Leone took the Western he envisioned as a childan Old West of quick-triggered warriors, enormous open spaces and superheroic deedsand transferred it to the screen with its mythic distortions intact.
Apart from the scale (and the title), there's nothing childlike about Once Upon a Time in the West. An inextricable mix of cynicism, violence and delicate lyricism, the movie was a critical and commercial failure when released here in 1969, as the genre's audience was either riding into the twilight with the Duke or grooving on the revisionist bloodbath of The Wild Bunch. It was not the time to be romanticizing manifest destiny, even if Leone's quasi-Marxist take equates business with bloodshed.
Over the years, though, a funny thing has happened. Leone's outsized rethink of the Western, an exaggerated pastiche of the John Ford films and gunfighter mythology he absorbed as a boy overseas, has gradually edged aside the John Wayne and Roy Rogers models in the popular imagination. You can see it when you close your eyes: the figures at opposite ends of a dust-blown street, the close-ups of "two beeg eyes" glaring edgily, the duster coats whirling like a bullfighter's cape. Thanks to Leone's invaluable collaborator, composer Ennio Morricone, you can hear it, too: the matadorial trumpets, the choirs, the trebly electric guitar that stabs and slashes.
Morricone's score clarifies a convoluted plot that concerns four main characters: a shadowy avenger (Charles Bronson); a prostitute, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), on her way to a blood-soaked wedding day; a scruffy outlaw named Cheyenne (Jason Robards); and a pale-eyed angel of death known only as Frank. He is played by Henry Fonda, who demolishes his decades of good-guy rectitude at the moment of his terrifying entrance.
Morricone composed the music before the movie even started shooting, and it is as much screenplay as score. Each character has a themeJill's motif is a soaring solo wail, Cheyenne's a pokey, halting clip-clopand the composer interweaves them, stating the connections between characters without a word of dialogue. No one needs to state that Frank and his pursuer are bound; Morricone's menacing theme uses an ever-present harmonica to link them. Bronson's harmonica is literally an instrument of vengeance. It's the totem he wears around his neck, for a reason he means to explain to Frank at the point of death.
Oh, there's so much more. There's the tremendous opening sequence, in which Western icons Woody Strode and Jack Elam converge on a railway depot to the John Cage-like accompaniment of various squeaks and clatters. There's the hangdog decency of Robards' Cheyenne, the outlaw doomed by the suits moving West. And above all, there's the almost inhuman perfection of Leone's widescreen images, with their rhythmic alternation of flyspeck long shots and bulbous close-ups. Each frame has a painterly precision and clarity, as if the director had somehow eliminated anything standing between the screen and the image he had in his head. Once Upon a Time in the West is the kind of movie whose total intoxication with moviemaking can lead to a lifetime's love.
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