At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Once Upon a Time in the West

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Western/ Stars: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa, Marco Zuanelli, Keenan Wynn, Frank Wolff, Lionel Stander, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Al Mulock/ Runtime: 166 minutes

I think it is quite easy to say that the epic western that is Once Upon a Time in the West is a fine case in point for just how a skilled and precise craftsman can really utilize his or her talents and make a film go from something that is “great” to something that is truly “just plain iconic”. Indeed with a riveting, though not exactly novel, narrative and a quartet of top-notch performances in its holster, it shouldn’t be that surprising to see that this is a great film. Yet when you add into the mix iconic film helmer Sergio Leone (Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in America), and celebrated cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli’s (Life is Beautiful) absolutely jaw-dropping skills with framing, sense of pace, and manipulation on both a pathos and thematic level throughout the film and all of a sudden this simply “great film” is magnificently transformed into a true masterpiece not only of the storied genre that is the Western, but in the land of movie magic period. Indeed this is a film which manages to be both one of quite a few great films, but one of the fewer iconic films when looking at the entirety of filmmaking. Be that as it may be, Leone’s film is neither a dictionary definition or a redefining of the Western genre since it is not in way naïve or artistic enough to pull either of those off, but rather is one of this storied section of filmmaking’s most complete and overall fulfilling films. Indeed here is a film that operates as a canvas on which a portrait of darkness contrasted by the horrendous sun really doing a number on both the landscape and the faces of those involved can be painted whilst also populating said landscape with a cast that goes up against each other, but who are neither purely good or evil and instead are a mix of both. Put another way dear reader: Once Upon a Time in the West is not even close to glorifying the frontier or showing “how the west was fun” as is so often the case. Instead this is a long and brutal analysis on the reality of life in the west and the ramifications of times changing on both the land itself and the people who lived there and gave it the name “home”.

The plot is as follows: Once Upon a Time in the West starts its riveting yard by introducing us to a new entry in the Widow Club by the name of Brett McBain and his children who both own and operate a chunk of land that has been christened “Sweetwater” yet is one which seems to really be anything but sweet. Yet despite his loss of spouse, Brett is not lost for ingenuity however especially when we learn that he sees the chance to start rolling in the money due to the fact that it would appear that the quickly encroaching from the west railroad would have to come through his land. Thus Mr. McBain plans to capitalize on this and build both a depot and small town on his land and live the rest of his days on the wealth that it generates. In the midst of all of this however, Brett also decides to move his personal life forward and thus is set to be betrothed to a young woman by the name of Jill who, when our story begins in proper, is on her way by train and by horse-drawn buggy to Sweetwater to meet up with Brett, marry him, and thus live happily ever after. Tragically Lady Fate has other plans, plans that soon make themselves apparent when Jill arrives and finds both Brett and his kids horrifically butchered by a ruthless and despicable gunslinger by the name of Frank who has also placed evidence at the scene to throw the scent over to a notorious outlaw by the name of Cheyenne for the slaughter. Yet not long thereafter, another gunslinger known simply as “Harmonica” due to the instrument he plays before gunning people down with lightning-quick precision arrives on the scene and presents himself as an ally to our beleaguered young heroine and thus decides to team up with Cheyenne to help Jill dispatch with Frank and his team before they can bump her off and take the land on behalf of a mysterious tycoon known simply as Morton….

Now as mentioned in the first paragraph, Once Upon a Time in the West owes a huge chunk of why it is so successful to the phenomenal contributions of both its helmer and its cinematographer.  Indeed the work done herein by both Leone and Delli Colli is so flawless and well done that they manage to change what could have been run-of-the-mill shots and scenes into literal pieces of art to the extent that few other helmer and cinematographer duos have ever showcased this much skill and talent together on a movie with one exception perhaps being John Carpenter and Dean Cundey’s work on both the original Halloween and The Thing from 1982. Indeed Leone’s work on the film can be seen right from the get-go when he takes a scene dealing with a trinity of men waiting on a train and, without the utilization of either dialogue or action that is more than a glance or sway at most, manages to conjure up one of the most riveting moments in the film. From there the rest of the film follows by example and manages to serve as a riveting showcase for potent work in the subtlety department through and through. Yes in all fairness this film is one which could easily be classified as “slow-moving”, but in all fairness this is a film where the relaxed, moving along at its own leisurely pace is a positive as it not only allows the audience more time to absorb not only the narrative and the phenomenal turns by the cast in this, but also the horrendous sun beating down on this vast landscape, but to also take a moment from the narrative if even for a minute to just appreciate Leone and Delli Colli’s contributions to the film. Indeed Leone constructs his movie through both actions and inactions in equal measure. Thus it is safe to say that Once Upon a Time in the West is a riveting masterpiece that is perhaps one of the defining examples for how movies functioning as works of art can be more potent than movies that function as sheer entertainment and no more, no less.

Now the phenomenal work behind the camera aside, it should also be noted that Once Upon a Time in the West’s other attributes are also equally as worthy of praise. Indeed to name one easily discernable example, this movie manages to also utilize various sound effects to help set the tone just as well as the music does. Indeed both sound and music do a wonderful job of acting as representatives for the things in this film that are either coming or going and manage to function as necessary ingredients to the narrative that are just as crucial to the story as anything else the film offers. Also doing wonderful is the terrific cast put together for this because they might not be as critical as Leone was to the film succeeding, but it would impact the film if the quartet of powerhouse performances coming courtesy of Bronson, Robards, Fonda, and Cardinale was not present. Indeed each and every one of these incredibly talented performers all understand that in a movie like this it is both how a character looks and carries themselves as well as how they say the dialogue that is important above all else.  Yes the tale they are all engaged in telling is quite simple at its core, but it is also one that seems better-rounded due to all the phenomenal work done on the ingredients that are helping to support it. Indeed this is a film which has a narrative that talks about the mixing and mingling of the past and future, and what is known and what is unknown among other concepts whilst also being deeply-embedded in squabbles over money and power as much as it revolves around the men taking part in the deadliest game of them all whilst realizing that pulling the trigger doesn’t have nearly as much gravitas as why they are pulling it. Indeed Leone manages to strengthen this riveting set of concepts throughout the movie as we see that the sequences in this film seem to embody more of the incredibly complex and nuanced details of life rather than any action beats though when those do come they actually have meaning to them thanks to everything that comes before them and everything that comes after.

All in all Once Upon a Time in the West is an absolutely majestic and incredible film that is a genuine success not just because of its narrative or the raw and potent performances contained within said narrative, but also because of the extraordinary degree of craftsmanship behind the camera as well. Indeed Sergio Leone will always be seen as one the finest film helmers in the entire Western genre and this film will always be seen as one of this storied genre’s finest hours. Indeed this is because this film manages to be quite the rare accomplishment where every single ingredient both crucial and superficial manages to blend together and become a film is not only intriguing and enjoyable, but quite riveting in how pure and skilled the craftsmanship on both sides of the camera truly is. Indeed this is a movie that has to be watched by the viewer in order for it to be genuinely appreciated since it is Leone’s gift for being able to brilliantly manipulate both the movie and the audience that is engaged in watching it through the utilization of key behaviors, mannerisms, and in certain instances, even moments where characters don’t act at all that help to ensure this film is a truly special example of movie magic not just in the genre of film that is the Western, but in the case of filmmaking altogether. On a scale of 1-5 I give Once Upon a Time in the West a solid 4.5 out of 5.