Blog Directory CineVerse: "People scare better when they're dyin'"

"People scare better when they're dyin'"

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Parsing meaning and merit from a masterwork as densely layered and important as Once Upon a Time in the West isn't easy to do within an hour. Nevertheless, Our CineVerse group tried its best to tap the key themes and points of resonance from this milestone western last night (click here to listen to a recording of that discussion). Here's a recap:

How did this film defy your expectations or differ from classic or conventional westerns you’ve seen?

  • It’s arguably more of an exercise in pure style than a western that traditionally satisfies with narrative, subplots, romance, or action. Consider that the main story could have been condensed to less than an hour, but the film’s runtime is closer to three hours. Director Sergio Leone and his team prolong sequences, milking them for every drop of emotional resonance by relying on close-ups and extreme close-ups of weathered, dirtied, and cruel faces and drawing out otherwise simple exchanges and character meetups.
  • The sound design of this film is exceptional. Consider the opening 12-minute wordless sequence, in which we have no music but hear the unnerving sounds of this barren western environment, like a rusty windmill, dripping water, and the rat-a-tat of a ticker tape machine. Leone uses silence punctuated by sudden noises and foreboding sounds to get under our skin.
  • Both Henry Fonda and Jason Robards are cast against type; the former plays one of the most despicable and memorable villains in movie history, deliberately cast by Leone to thwart our expectations of Fonda as a traditional hero type or righteous man from John Ford films; the latter portrays a grungy but likable antihero criminal.
  • Despite its length, the movie has some plot holes and jumps around, forcing you to wait for later explanations or deduce what happened (such as how Cheyenne escaped his recapture, or who gunned down Morton and the goons around him). Several key sequences that factor into the plot occur off-screen.
  • Interestingly, the film’s “most flawlessly executed moments involve acts of exposure or revelation. Each character’s face is initially revealed to the audience either through measured zooms or graceful, swirling pans around the character’s body, and Leone uses his elegantly dreamy pace to consistently tantalize us with hints of things to come,” wrote Slant Magazine reviewer Nick Schager. For example, consider how we don’t see the blurry identity of the man in Harmonica’s flashback vision revealed until the end of the movie.

Themes found within Once Upon a Time in the West

  • The death of the old west, which cannot survive the onward progress of manifest destiny. Leone crafted this film as an elegy of sorts for the classic western film, and it’s fitting that its archetypal characters, especially Harmonica, Frank, and Cheyenne, will either not survive by the end or not stick around to see civilization advance westward.
    • Schager wrote: “…with progress, the coal-devouring locomotives also bring death—death for the American West’s unspoiled beauty, death for an uncomplicated rugged individualism, and death to the cowboy, who has no place in the newfangled modern world of corporate villainy and commerce.”
    • Think about how Harmonica says to Frank: “You’ve learned some new ways, even if you haven’t given up the old ones.” The new ways don’t involve a gun; they require being a shrewd businessman. But because Frank relies on the way of the gun, he—and Harmonica—is doomed to the dust heap of history.
    • Consider what Frank tells Harmonica: “The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now - not the land, not the money, not the woman.” He and Harmonica are remnants of a dying way of life.
    • And ponder how Cheyenne refers to Harmonica as having “something to do with death.”
  • Water as a source of life. Jill is associated with water (the well on her property, the water she shares with the workers, the bath she takes, etc.), and we often see many crucial scenes play out near or involving water, including Morton remembering the sound of the Atlantic ocean he left and dying near a shallow pool of water.
  • You have to be willing to play dirty to survive and thrive in this environment. Recall how Cheyenne tells one man reaching for his gun: “You don’t know how to play.” He also remarks, about Harmonica: “He not only plays. He can shoot too.” The main characters each have to be willing to kill (Harmonica, Frank, Cheyenne, Morton), betray (Morton), pretend (Jill), and/or risk their best interests (Cheyenne, Harmonica, Jill) to outlast their enemies. Only the two who “play” the best survive: Jill and Harmonica.
  • Revenge. As in many Leone films and revisionist adult westerns, reprisal for a past crime survived is often the driving force of a character, including Harmonica.

Other movies that spring to mind after viewing this film

  • High Noon, which also features a showdown shootout at a train station
  • Johnny Guitar, another movie that spotlights a tough-skinned female protagonist
  • The Searchers, which also depicts the slaughter of a family on a remote home site
  • The many westerns of John Ford, including those starring a heroic Henry Fonda and those shot in Monument Valley
  • Vigilante and revenge films like Death Wish starring Charles Bronson
  • The Sword of Vengeance and other Japanese samurai features
  • Chinatown
  • Kill Bill I and II, two pictures that also rely strongly on style and exaggerated characters and archetypes

Other films directed by Sergio Leone

  • The “Man With No Name” trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  • Once Upon a Time in America

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