Home > Uncategorized > Sunday Screening #38: Once Upon a Time in the West

Sunday Screening #38: Once Upon a Time in the West

Hi there Screeners. I figured it’s seemed like a while since we watched a Western, so why not rectify that. I’ve seen a few of Leone’s spaghetti westerns, but I’ve never seen this one. Many consider Once Upon a Time in the Westerns ever made, and I’d like to see if I agree with them. It’s going to be a hard battle as I’ve always had a soft spot for John Wayne films (thanks to my Grandad).

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  1. October 23, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    So, this movie seemed like a total mess to me. I don’t know if something was lost in translation, or if the movie just had no idea what story it was trying to tell. I guess it was sort of a revenge flick, but they didn’t really explain that until the end. It felt like a big mess of ‘we don’t know what the story is’ up until that point. Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the worst movie ever. Far from it. It featured Leone’s masterful use of camera, music, tension and mood. It just didn’t have very much in the way of plot or cohesiveness. Bronson was a bad ass. Fonda was bad. Wallach Robards was…well that’s part of the problem, what was he? Was he good, or Bad? It was easy to tell with Bronson and Fonda as they were wearing the requisite white/black hats to identify their allegiance to either good or bad. Since Wallach Robards is wearing a brown hat, does that mean he’s neutral?

    Overall it was a fairly decent film, but I would have like the story to be a bit better.

    What’d you guys think?

    • October 23, 2011 at 11:01 PM

      I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You sound like you watched the right movie citing Fonda and Bronson, But Eli Wallach is nowhere near this movie. Jason Robards plays the third male lead. Plus, it’s not The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, so you don’t need to classify anyone as such. And are you saying Fonda was bad as in a bad guy or bad as in he sucked at acting? I’ll address most of your questions in a post of my own, but you comment makes little sense.

  2. October 23, 2011 at 11:09 PM

    I could have sworn I read that Eli Wallach was in this…Guess not. It looked enough like him for me.

    I know it’s not the good the bad and the ugly (although you basically have all three characters in this). Just about every western has a good guy and a bad guy, as this movie seemed to (it even differentiated them by hat colour, as is customary). You wouldn’t agree that Fonda was the bad guy? Killing a father and his kids in an effort to take over their lucrative land deal seems like a bad-guy thing to do.

    • October 23, 2011 at 11:26 PM

      I never said he wasn’t the bad guy. I was asking you to clarify if you meant that he was bad as in acting or just the bad guy. This sentence confused me:

      “Bronson was a bad ass. Fonda was bad.”

      While there are three characters in this, I would argue that they are vastly different from those in GBU in character traits and motivation. There aren’t too many parallels between the two movies.

      • October 23, 2011 at 11:28 PM

        Doesn’t help that WordPress lost my first post, and I didn’t spend much time rewriting it.

  3. October 23, 2011 at 11:23 PM

    Unlike Paul, I find Once Upon a Time in the West to be mesmerizing. At a point about an hour in, I stopped taking notes on stuff to talk about just to soak in the movie. Just about everything in it is masterful. Can a movie look any better? Can the music get much better? Has there ever been a more patient director? Just the interplay between the sound design and the soundtrack is a wonder to behold. One bleeds into the other seamlessly and the sound effects have a rhythm of their own. There’s almost ten minutes of near silence to open the film. The only sounds are those of the environment. It’s natural, tense, and ballsy. You need to be pretty confident to trust an audience to stay on board for that long.

    I have no idea what Paul means by “we don’t what the story is.” There’s a very strong story running through the film. Harmonica wants to see Frank. It doesn’t matter why because it’s in his character not to give too much of himself away. It’s enough to know he has a reason. He gets tangled up with Cheyenne a bit in the early going. Two alpha males having a bit of a pissing contest. Mrs. McBain inherits her husbands property. Her husband has been killed by the Fonda (funded by the railroad man) who frames Cheyenne. All of their stories are connected and it makes total sense that Cheyenne and Harmonica would pick the same side as Frank has wronged them both. Everything moves in a logical way from there. The only question I had is how Cheyenne got away from the lawmen when Harmonica turned him in for the reward. Everything is set up in the first act. Maybe Paul’s issue is that it’s long, but that’s sort of Leone’s thing at this point (while I love the pacing in this and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I though Once Upon a Time in America was terrible).

    At this point in their relationship, Leone and Ennio Morricone were pretty much one-in-the-same, with Morricone scoring scenes before they are even shot. Many scenes were cut together to Morricone’s score instead of the other way around. Many have taken to calling this film “operatic” because of the way the music works (and the long takes and such). I particularly enjoy that each character has a specific theme (the earworm for me is split between Cheyenne’s theme and Harmonica’s).

    The casting is great. I love seeing Fonda as a pure villain. The smirk he gives while he says, “no that you’ve called me by name,” and shoots the kid is priceless. And the set piece that triggered Harmonica’s desire for revenge is brutal. The way all of these characters bounce off of each other is riveting to watch. You literally see them sizing up the competition. I always enjoy the rules of conduct observed in Westerns (or movies in general) when one is facing a worthy adversary. It’s never about being sneaky and getting the easy kills (as when Harmonica saved Frank’s life in town.

    Honestly, I can’t fathom what Paul was watching and can only assume he was distracted (knowing that he was never able to watch Lawrence of Arabia and fast-forwarded through Intolerance leads me to believe he doesn’t have much of a taste for long movies). Once Upon a Time in the West is a masterwork in my eyes.

    Observations:
    — How weird is it seeing that Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, and Sergio Leone collaborated on a script? They’re associated with such disparate worlds in film.
    — Do you think actors have a sense of how beautiful a movie will look or how amazing camera moves are when they’re shooting the scene? Or are they just as surprised as an audience when it’s all put together?
    — It’s really weird to see actors in their past roles. For a long time, my only association for Jason Robards was Little Big League. It’s strange to see him not as the benevolent grandfather, but as a western bad ass (this film, The Ballad of Cable Hogue).

    • October 23, 2011 at 11:44 PM

      “Harmonica wants to see Frank” is about all the story we get. It shouldn’t take nearly three hours to set that up and to resolve it. The characters never have any clear motivation throughout the film and seem to transition from being against each-other to helping each other out with never any explanation as to why (I guess you could claim that Bronson wanted to kill Fonda himself, so he didn’t let him be killed by others).

      And I really don’t have the tolerance for long movies that do very little in the way of moving forward a plot. I’m not saying everything has to be an MTV styled super-fast-cut-fest, but I’d like a little more in the way of plot with my movie then this one seemed to offer. I really did feel like maybe at one point there was a story being told, but when they translated it to English (and yes, I know the whole movie wasn’t shot in Italian (or another language)) that the story got lost. I’m OK with a slower pace, but I want a more cohesive story to go along with it.

      • October 24, 2011 at 12:09 PM

        And the whole aspect that Frank is working for a railroad man who wants the McBain’s property and since Cheyenne, Harmonica and Mrs. McBain have a common enemy, the align together. The only time Cheyenne and Harmonica really but heads is when they first meet. There is explanation for every character turn and there aren’t as many as you suggest. And it’s not a matter of claiming Harmonica wanted to kill Frank himself. That IS what he wants. That’s why he tells Mrs. McBain “I didn’t let them kill him. And that’s not the same thing [as saving his life].”

        And while you see the plot as stagnant, I see the story building. We’re introduced to each of the four main characters, we see how their lives get tangled up, and we see how things conclude. Sure, Leone takes his time doing this, but I feel every pause is necessary. There’s a lot of character in those silences. It’s all about control. It’s not like Tarkovsky where he lingers forever on something abstract. There is a very specific reason for everything going on related to the story and how the story, visuals, sound, and music play off of each other.

  4. October 24, 2011 at 6:46 PM

    Between insanity at work and my unrelenting self-imposed diet of horror films this month, I admit I probably won’t be able to check this out this week, but I definitely will sooner rather than later. I am woefully undernourished when it comes to Sergio Leone films, and I especially want to see this one.

    • October 24, 2011 at 7:18 PM

      And we need a third party opinion to break up this dead heat.

      • October 24, 2011 at 7:33 PM

        I think you’re interpreting more then what I’m saying though. I kind of enjoyed the film, and I agree with quite a few of your points, but overall I would say I didn’t really love the movie. It was better then Intolerance though…

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