Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968
Written by Sergio Leone & Sergio Donati
Based on a story by Dario Argento, Bernando Bertolucci, and Sergio Leone
Directed by Sergio Leone
I admit that I didn't know a whole lot about this one when I stuck it in my Netflix queue. I saw a reference to it somewhere and stuck it towards the bottom of my nearly 500 movie-long list, and forgot about it. Then I was glancing through the ones towards the bottom, thought it looked like a decent flick, and shoved it towards the top. When it showed up and the DVD sleeve said it was nearly three hours long, I thought there had to be some mistake -- I was expecting something like 3:10 to Yuma, which was about ninety minutes long.
So, I shrugged, I'll give it a reel or so and see if it catches my interest. Glancing over the cast list, I figured it was a tale of some put-upon farmer who takes matters of the law into his own hands, yadda yadda, with Henry Fonda as the heroic everyman who has the eventually kill the bad guy.
And holy fuck, was I ever wrong.
(Conissieurs of great films are now shaking their heads in disappointment at my naivete -- fuck you, hippie; I'm 28, it's not like the Western has been a commercial genre in my lifetime or anything....)
The first sign that this is going to be much more interesting than it seems comes during the credit sequence, when the familiar names Dario Argento and Bernando Bertolucci show up with a "story by" credit. You mean the master of horror and the kind of New Wave sensuality? Why, yes, but back in '68 they were just movie critics trying to earn a living according to Wikipedia -- they both became Big Names sometime after this movie was made.
Let's cut to the chase here: Once Upon a Time in the West is more than just a classic, but a minor miracle of cinema, seemingly a perfect blend of character and story, of theme and mood, of performance and direction. The IMDB Top 250 list calls this the eighteenth best film ever made, which is more than a bit of a stretch, but I absolutely believe it deserves a place on that list, and it's probably one of the half-dozen or so best films I've seen in the last year or so. It's a film that feels very modern in its staging, direction, and themes, while nonetheless being very much a part of its time in the way it plays with and subverts audience expectations, especially with regard to gender roles. And actions scenes so well-staged that they seem to exist as minor masterpieces in and of themselves.
I've just written several paragraphs of plot description, only to delete them -- suffice to say that the film has the kind of enormously convoluted story that is only sort of integrated into a coherent plot -- while the motivations of the various characters in the film only become clear over time, those characters are themselves so well-drawn that we find ourselves drawn in almost despite ourselves. It is truly in these characters that the film soars -- this is most apparent in the primary villain Frank, played by the do-gooder among do-gooders Henry Fonda, but Charles Bronson gives enormous emotional heft to his harmonica-playing avenger, and Jason Robards plays the part of an outlaw with a code to a T. Of particular note, though, are the luminous Claudia Cardinale as a seemingly-innocent proto-feminist widow with a past, and Gabriele Ferzetti as Morton, a crippled railroad man who has made a deal with the devil to fulfill his dreams.
Also of particular note is the score by Ennio Morricone, which I recognized as being (ahem) "sampled heavily" in the Kill Bill series, but which here achieves perfection in the way it seamlessly blends with the images on-screen to create emotional resonance. (I learn from IMDB that the score was composed first, and sequences shot to the music, the reverse of the usual order.) Most movie scores are said to be successful if they recede so far into the background as to be unnoticeable, but here it seems more like the score and the film exist for one another, and that evocation of the one will automatically produce the other.
Some have argued that this film is too slow-paced, that the nearly three-hour runtime could have been trimmed. In a sense, that's true, as certain sequences have more relation to mood than to plot, and probably could have been judiciously cut. But trying to generate a half-hour actioner from this material is to do a great disservice, as it is in the themes and the structure that greatness is achieved. I found myself engaged from beginning to end, transfixed by the imagery, willing it never to end but knowing that it inevitably must.
I realize I've said almost nothing about the actual content of Once Upon a Time in the West. Well, what can I say? This is a film that defies summary, that defies description, that deserves to be approached knowing as little as possible beforehand. Even by those who are not generally a fan of Westerns. Maybe even especially by those who are not generally fans of Westerns. When those final credits rolled and the bodies lay in the dust, when the score reached its crescendo and that railroad car came pushing into frame, I was astonished and amazed at the level of achievement. This is a great film worthy of any movie-lover's attention.