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Once Upon a Time in the West
1968 - PG-13 - 165 Mins.
Director: Sergio Leone
Producer: Buno Cicogna, Fulvio Morsella
Written By: Sergio Leone (story by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento)
Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa
Review by: Jake Cremins
   

Behind that damp towel lies a will of steel: Claudia Cardinale gives the western genre one of its most fascinating female characters.
'Once Upon a Time in the West' is exactly the right title for this film: quiet, declarative, all-encompassing. This movie isn't so much a western as it is The Western, a wonderful summation of all that can be great in the genre, and somewhere along the road to tribute it finds a way to exist on a level all its own. I'm writing this in 2004, of course, and since the release of this film we've seen 'Unforgiven,' 'The Outlaw Josey Wales,' 'Dances With Wolves,' 'The Wild Bunch,' 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' 'Little Big Man,' and countless other westerns ranging from good to great. And yet...even now I watch this film and get this feeling at the end, like everything that could be done has just been done, and nobody will ever have to try to make a western again.

This movie has been written and directed by Sergio Leone, who made his career with westerns that followed the rich Italian movie tradition of turning characters and storylines into something like opera, full of thunderous revelations, lives dedicated to vengeance, great flourishes of Ennio Morricone music and shots where a character's determined eyes would fill the wide screen frame from one end to the other. They also usually followed another Italian tradition, in that their plots were just about impossible to coherently summarize in less than ten paragraphs. As far as 'Once Upon a Time in the West' goes, most of the story revolves around a town where a railroad is being built, and more specifically a piece of property on the outskirts that is about to become incredibly valuable when the railroad goes through it. A man named McBain was unlucky enough to see ahead and buy the property when it was worthless, and the story begins as he and his family are massacred by a gang led by a man known only as Frank, who wants to free up the property for public auction.

Frank is one of the most reptilian, remorseless villains I've ever seen in any movie, and he is introduced in a shot that now ranks among the most famous of Leone's career: the youngest McBain boy runs out of the house to see his family lying dead in the front yard, we see a gun pointed at him, the camera slowly tracks around, and we see that the man holding the gun is none other than Henry Fonda himself. The casting in this role of Fonda, who built his career on playing the most good-hearted, earnest men in the movies, is only one of the brilliant touches in a film that never steps wrong.

Other characters include Charles Bronson as a man who comes into town to see Frank, for reasons held tantalizingly out of reach for most of the film. (In another grand tradition regarding Leone characters seeking revenge, Bronson's character is never given a proper name; he's listed in the credits as 'Harmonica' by simple virtue of playing one often enough to make a trademark out of it.) There's also Jason Robards as Manuel, a local crook who quickly becomes the prime suspect in the murder of the McBain family, and Gabriele Ferzetti as the owner of the railroad, who is wealthy enough to live in a lavishly furnished train car but is too afraid of Frank to enjoy much of anything.

And then there is Claudia Cardinale as Jill, probably the first woman to get top billing in a serious western since Joan Crawford in 1954's 'Johnny Guitar.' She is a former prostitute who married the doomed McBain and has arrived in town to find herself a widow, and I guess you could call her a hooker with a heart of gold, but that wouldn't begin to describe her. Most of the male characters first regard her as though she arrived from an older movie and should be getting real helpless and scared any minute, but she's too wise and self-reliant for that. As she observes the human vultures circling around the land she now owns and analyzes the motives of the men surrounding her, she emerges as one of the most memorable women of the Old West since, well, Joan Crawford in 'Johnny Guitar.' She is fascinating in the way she simply doesn't care about the old grudges and greed baking under the desert sun, or even much about the fact that she could probably buy herself into a life of leisure with her considerable beauty; when she eventually begins to trust another character and has several sad and revealing conversations with him, there are few illusions that we are watching a blossoming romance. Cardinale is excellent here, finding a way to be a strong woman in this setting without seeming revisionist or anachronistic; with her as the main character of this film, we get the idea that at last we are seeing a story that was always there around the edges of other westerns.

And so all of these people circle around each other and various situations slowly begin to come to the boiling point, and there is never a moment when it's not clear that Leone is at his finest here. 'Once Upon a Time in the West' is a long film, running nearly three hours in its definitive version, but only rarely is it convoluted--even then it's in that wonderfully Italian way--and it is not ever boring. Even if westerns usually aren't the type of movie for you, here you will find suspense, excitement, sadness, wonderfully dry humor and moments of real beauty; this is a movie that transcends the trappings of genre.

I would be remiss not to mention that Sergio Leone remains one of the best directors to shoot in wide screen, and used the now-defunct Techniscope process to every advantage (its "flat" lenses allowed for his trademark closeups of faces and eyes without the distortion caused by more popular anamorphic processes, like Panavision). Here we get one glorious shot after another, accompanied by a fine Ennio Morricone score, and the result is scenes like a panoramic carriage ride through Monument Valley which is so breathtaking that even a tiny dorm room television can't diminish the sight (trust me on this).

Monument Valley, of course, was the site of innumerable classic American westerns, and seeing this eye-massaging footage of it, in a film that pays tribute to so many movies past in so many ways--I haven't even mentioned the roles given to Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Keenan Wynn--gives 'Once Upon a Time in the West' a sense of history that can only come from a filmmaker who loves his sources unabashedly. As I write this, 'Kill Bill Volume 2' is playing in theaters across the country, and in the way that Quentin Tarantino worships Sergio Leone westerns, so did Leone worship John Ford, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and all of the other greats who paved the way for him. This is one of the finest films ever made.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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