The Movie Review: 'Once Upon a Time in the West'

Last week MGM released a "special edition" extended version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti western from 1966. The concluding chapter of the "Dollars trilogy" (following on the heels of Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More), it involves the hunt by three ruthless men (Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef) for a hidden cache of gold coins in Civil War era Texas. But plot is distinctly secondary to Leone's trademark cinematic flourishes: the alternation between wide panoramas and tight close-ups, the long pauses preceding sudden violence, the minimal dialogue, and the deliriously inventive Ennio Morricone score.

The new two-disc release adds some 18 minutes of footage never before available in English. (Eastwood and Wallach returned to the studio last year to dub the voices; actor Simon Prescott subbed for the deceased Van Cleef.) The new footage is uneven--the dubbing is often jarring and the film quality varies--and consists mostly of short scenes that reinforce the story's Civil War backdrop, which fades from view for extended periods in the original release. But the widescreen anamorphic treatment and Dolby 5.1 audio are welcome, as are a few of the mini-documentaries contained on the second disc. (The nicest extra, for those willing to purchase the DVD, is five postcard-sized mattes of the original promotional posters from different countries.) In all, the new DVD release is pleasant but unnecessary. If you've already seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, there is no need to rush out for the new version.

Your time might be better spent taking a look at Leone's subsequent film, Once Upon A Time in the West, itself released on DVD for the first time late last year. Less well-known in the United States than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it is nonetheless the better film--more tightly constructed, more thoughtful, and more moving. For all its visual brilliance, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is essentially a picaresque tale about three vagabonds of varying nastiness competing for a MacGuffin (in this case it is gold, though it could as easily be secret plans or Marcellus Wallace's soul). The movie's structure is loose and episodic; its themes--the seduction of greed, the stupidity of war--are not particularly novel. Once Upon a Time in the West, by contrast, matches its predecessor's style but far outstrips its narrative and thematic ambition. Leone begins with three characters from his stock repertory: Harmonica (Charles Bronson) is not The Man With No Name, but he is a man with no name, a mysterious gunfighter on a quest for vengeance; Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is a bandit-clown reminiscent of Wallach's Tuco; Frank (Henry Fonda, in a remarkable success of casting against type) is an Angel Eyes-like killer-for-hire. But to this familiar trio Leone adds two fresh types: Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a dying robber baron living in a luxuriously appointed train; and Jill (an achingly beautiful Claudia Cardinale), a former New Orleans prostitute who has moved West to marry a widower.

This film unfolds on multiple levels. Most literally, it is the story of a woman thrust into the violent, mythic universe of Leone's West, a world made up of men with guns and their victims. Cardinale arrives by train in the fictional town of Flagstone (Flagstaff?), Arizona, but the new husband she expected to meet her at the station isn't there. (The crane shot that follows her from the platform into the station and then, lifting over the roof, out into town is a beautiful bit of camera-work.) She makes her way out to his hardscrabble ranch in the middle of nowhere, where she learns that he and his three children have been killed by landgrabbers led by Fonda and hired by Ferzetti. From this point, Leone's three gunfighters (Fonda, Bronson, and Robards) begin circling Cardinale and her land, each with his own motives and methods: Fonda imagines that by taking the land for himself he might stop working for Ferzetti and instead replace him; Robards, framed for the murders by Fonda, wants to know why; Bronson, seeking revenge for an unknown wrong, uses the land to lure Fonda to him. The three approach Cardinale alternately as predators and protectors (often it's difficult to tell which) until one by one, they take one another out of the picture. Cardinale is marvelous in the central role, her face a canvas on which Leone paints (in close up, of course, and with little dialogue) a subtler range of emotions than his male protagonists ever had to display: loss, disappointment, regret. Her scenes, many of which take place indoors at the ranch, serve to humanize Leone's work, to suggest that there might be an alternative to the wilderness and carnage outside the door.

Which bring us to the second dimension of the film: It is a meditation on the civilizing--and the consequent destruction--of the masculine West of Leone's previous films. The Italian title of the film is C'era Una Volta Il West, which translated literally means "Once upon a time there was the West." Leone is not telling a story set in the West, he is telling a story about the West, an explanatory fable about why it came to an end. That end is metaphorically brought about by Leone's two new characters, Ferzetti and Cardinale. Ferzetti, with his money and his train, personifies the twin engines of capitalism and technology. The former corrupts and weakens, the latter obviates the need for heroes. (It is no coincidence that the movie both begins and ends with the arrival of a train.) This theme is made explicit when Fonda recognizes that Ferzetti's methods--cash and surrogates--will never work for him, and decides to confront Bronson directly. "So you found out you're not a businessman after all," Bronson tells him. Fonda replies, "Just a man." "An ancient race," Bronson muses. "Other Mortons will be along and they'll kill it off." Cardinale's role in the passing of the West is never made quite so explicit but is equally central: She is the pioneer woman who brings stability and order, who domesticates the masculine chaos around her. As the railway workers arrive at the end of the film, bringing commerce and modernization, she is the only remaining character who does not flee back into the wilderness.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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