' Cinema Romantico: Once Upon A Time In The West

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Once Upon A Time In The West

They just don't make epic movies anymore. Not like this. Not like "Once Upon A Time In The West."
This one's as epic as they come. If movies were lakes, "Once Upon A Time In The West" would be all The Great Lakes plus Lake Baikal and a few ounces from Crater Lake just for kicks.


Allow us to consider the opening sequence. Three fierce men show up at a train station. But not to buy tickets. They are there to wait. And they do...for five minutes of screen time...with no soundtrack, save for the squeak of a windmill. One man sits down and tries to catch a pesky fly in the barrel of his gun. Another man sits down and tries to catch a dollop of dripping water in the brim of his hat for a drink. Allow me to restate this goes on for five minutes. Seriously.

The train rolls in. The three men ready themselves for someone or something. The train stops. It sits there, gears churning, steam rolling. One package is dropped off. The train rolls on. The men see nothing and turn to leave. But they hear a harmonica. They turn around. On the other side of the platform, apparently having from materialized from nowhere, stands Charles Bronson. He lowers his harmonica. He calls out to the three men, "Did you bring a horse for me?" One of the men looks toward their horses. They have three. "Looks like we're shy one horse," says the man with a sneer and a laugh. "Nope," replies Bronson. "You brought two too many."

I think you know what happens next. That is, Bronson guns 'em down. And that's you're opening. Can you imagine pitching this intro to producers and studio execs? "So you want to have five minutes with no music of three guys waiting for a train? And then once the train gets there these three guys, the ones we've just started to get invested in, get shot dead?" No way a movie opens like that today. No frickin' way. (Maybe Tarantino did in "Jackie Brown" where he opens with nothing beyond Pam Grier riding an electronic walkway at the airport for two-and-a-half minutes but then 1.) Pam Grier was the film's star and 2.) He played a great old pop song, "Across 110th Street", over it.) Oh, and's that just the beginning in more ways than one. The Epic Factor is at Level 10 in every way.

A.) Locations. Filmed in the Monument Valley, that sumptuous, sprawling tract of land that is almost as colossal as Henry Fonda's entrance to the film. And now allow us to consider Claudia Cardinale's initial appearance, as she descends from the train, expecting her husband to greet her, except she doesn't see him. She walks this way, walks that way, then another way, back over that way, but can't find him, and then enters the train station, and then exits it, and as she does the camera rises up and over the train station as the music crescendoes and the setpiece of the bustling frontier town is revealed. This is a director reveling in moviemaking and, God help me, I do love it so. (Do you realize I get to see the scene I just described ON THE BIG SCREEN???? Oh...my...God. I'm being honest when I say I'm more excited for this than I was for "Chinatown", only because "Once Upon A Time In The West" was made for the big screen.)

B.) Music. If you were to open your dictionary and flip to the word bombastic (a word which I happen to love as much as I love the words hops, barley and Kylie) you will find the following sentence: "Bombastic: Of, or relating to, Ennico Morricone's score for the Sergio Leone film 'Once Upon A Time In The West.'" (Note: Not really.) Utilizing motifs for each of the main characters, Morricone's score could function as its very own symphony.

C.) Dialogue. If anyone - and I mean anyone - ever watches this film and whines that "no one talks like that in real life" I hereby decree said human being should be banned from every movie theater on the planet earth for the remainder of his or her existence (and any second, third, etc. lives, should they come into play). My sentiment is not because the dialogue does sound like real life. God, no. It is gloriously unrealistic, gloriously heightened, gloriously presposterous, and gloriously corny (as Dustin Hoffmann said in "Wag the Dog": "Corny? Of course, it's corny. We wouldn't have him say the flippin' thing if it wasn't corny.").

D.) Dialogue, Part 2. I remember reading a critic who complained about how long it took the actors in the "Kill Bill" movies (going back to Tarantino) to speak their lines. I remember this critic railing in particular about Michael Madsen when he's talking about how The Bride "deserves her revenge and we deserve to die". Those lines I just wrote you read in about .7 seconds, except onscreen it takes Madsen about 32 seconds to deliver them. I swear. And this critic was incensed beyond belief. Well, I can only hope and pray that critic never saw "Once Upon A Time In The West". He (or she) would probably slit his (or her) wrists. Consider the way Charles Bronson advises Jason Robards that he'd shot those three men dead. He doesn't say, "Hey, I shot three men dead." He says (and add ominous pauses as you read it): "I saw three dusters a short time ago. They were waiting for a train. Inside the dusters, there were three men. Inside the men, there were three bullets." Now picture everyone talking like that, talking like every word they say isn't just to blather and trade gossip but for effect. Don't like it? Go find that movie critic and hang out with him (or her). He (or she) is probably watching some re-runs of "The West Wing".

E.) Mythical. The Chicago Reader recently described the film by saying it "draw(s) its elements not from historical reality but from the mythic base made universal by the movies." I mean, that's why the name of the movie isn't "Based On A True Story In The West". Okay? It's "ONCE UPON A TIME In The West." A stoic hero on the prowl for some revenge. A beautiful woman fresh off the train from New Orleans. A brutal villain. A villain who isn't really a villain. A bunch of shotgun toting extras who won't make it past the final reel. A railroad and a prospective town with a hopeful name (Sweetwater) looking to cash in on the untamed riches of the west.

If Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" worked to de-mytholigize the western than "Once Upon A Time In The West" works to re-mythologize the everlasting holy hell out of it. And I, for one, happen to dig on myths. I'm all about that which is mythical. I believe in the Loch Ness Monster. I believe the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine over the Jersey state line.

I believe in "Once Upon A Time In The West".

2 comments:

Rory Larry said...

I hate you. I hate you so much.

"Harmonica: The reward for this man is 5000 dollars, is that right?
Cheyenne: Judas was content for 4970 dollars less.
Harmonica: There were no dollars in them days.
Cheyenne: But sons of bitches... yeah."

Ahh man, I want to go home and watch it right now!

And lest we forget

"Harmonica: So, you found out you're not a businessman after all.
Frank: Just a man.
Harmonica: An ancient race."

Damn you. Damn you to hell.

Nicholas Prigge said...

Oh, Rory, if you'd been there last night. That scene at the end when the music swells and she says "I hope you'll come back someday" and he pauses and says "Someday". My God, my body was just one gigantic goosebump.

It's why they invented movies.