Friday, July 16, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the West

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow is not only a dance rhythm, but also the rhythm of Once Upon a Time in the West. The film switches back and forth between slow sequences where nothing seems to happen and explosions of violence.

The opening scene, with its irritating noises (squeaky water pump, buzzing fly, etc) and lack of dialogue is one of cinema's best remembered opening sequences. It is also the first hint that Sergio Leone might be playing with us. The harmonica that seems to be part of the score until one of the characters notices it in a way that seems like he is breaking the fourth wall in an unusual way, is the confirmation that Sergio Leone is using all his skills to tell this story with as much flare as possible. In fact the story is secondary to the way it is told. The whole plot seems to be his MacGuffin. This is the Western as style rather than substance. The sun, heat, lack of water and women, the machismo, the ritual of the gunfights, the division of labour between the toiling (and cowardly) workers and the otherwise idle gunslingers, violence as a means of decision making, the lack of consequences for some actions and fatal consequences for others.

That said, the two plots are presented as mysteries. We know who is being killed and who is killing but the motives are only gradually revealed, one motive being kept secret until the final scenes.

The humour is laconic and dry.
Frank: How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants.

Or more famously:
Harmonica faces three gunmen at the railway station.
Harmonica: Did you bring a horse for me?
Snaky: Well... looks like we're...
Snaky: ...looks like we're shy one horse.
Harmonica: You brought two too many.

The largely imperturbable Jill (Claudia Cardinale), the lone female character around which all the gunfighters orbit like comets, has to put up with men who range from patronising, to non-PC, to misogynistic. Unfortunately she isn't given much acting to do. The orbiting men played by Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards are all menacing, ruthless dominating characters. In particular Charles Bronson's cool, quiet, unbelievably fast shooting harmonica player is the best I have seen him act.

I think Sergio Leone must have had a passion for blue eyes, given the number of lingering close ups of staring blue eyes (especially Henry Fonda's).

Ian's rating 4/5

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