ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

(Italian title: C'era una volta il West)
(1968 - Italy, U.S.)
With Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale
Directed by Sergio Leone
Reviewed by JB
 

Don't It Make Your Blue Eyes Blue?     ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is Sergio Leone's crowning achievement, although you may miss the raucous fun of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY or the clear cut narratives of the DOLLARS films.  What you get instead is a stunning consciously artistic masterpiece in which the western McGuffin - the thing everybody is shooting each other over - is not even revealed until an hour and a half into the movie.  To compensate, Leone gives us mood, mood and more mood. I can't imagine any film today opening with 10 minutes of nothing but three men waiting for a train.  It sounds boring, it should be boring, and yet it is riveting. Leone doesn't allow theme music to spoil the mood set by the incidental sounds of a rickety windmill, dripping water and buzzing flies.  It is a complete mini-course on the Leone style - long periods of inaction, closeups of faces taking the place of dialogue, a climax of a single moment of swift and violent action.  It's hard to think of another director who would make us care, and care deeply, about the fate of a fly crawling on Jack Elam's face.

     And so it goes with the rest of the movie, with every sound, camera setup and extreme closeup having its own purpose in driving the film toward the inevitable final shootout. With no Clint Eastwood in the cast this time, Charles Bronson, as "Harmonica", is a worthy stand-in as yet another "Man with No Name" character.  Claudia Cardinale makes for a beautiful subject of those trademark Leone closeups, and Jason Robards is outstanding as Cheyenne, the leader of a local gang of thugs whose "good" name has been sullied by imposters.  In a brilliant twist of expectations, Henry Fonda is cast as the film's villain, Leone purposely playing off Fonda's usual salt of the earth good guy persona.  It is said that Fonda, who turned down Leone films several times before, considered the black-hatted Frank to be his favorite part.

     With the way movies are today, with everything laid out for us on a platter, the days of films like ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST may be over.  But who knows?  Maybe someday, using your brain will come back in style. - JB

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