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.

On its final level, Once Upon a Time in the West is about not only the end of the West but the end of the Western. Written by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento, master cineastes all, it is a film about film, a loving encapsulation of--and eulogy for--the American Western. Christopher Frayling, author of the Leone biography Something To Do With Death, cites innumerable allusions to classic Westerns, including High Noon, Shane, The Searchers, The Iron Horse, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Johnny Guitar, and The Magnificent Seven. But Leone, Bertolucci, and Argento don't merely appropriate the elements of classic Westerns, they subvert them. Frayling notes "the series of often ironic reversals of famous moments from the Hollywood Western." As in High Noon, three gunmen working for a villain named Frank wait at the train station; but in this case they are waiting not for Frank but for his nemesis. As in Shane, a young boy goes hunting with his father, pantomiming shots at the birds overheard; but instead of encountering their champion they find only death. As in The Searchers, the cicadas' sudden silence and the birds taking wing portend an attack on the ranch; but it is not Commanches who lurk in the brush. Leone's subversion of the Western extends to his casting: Two of the three gunmen waiting for Bronson at the train station are recognizable veterans of American Westerns: Woody Strode, who appeared as a hero in several John Ford movies, and Jack Elam, who played a villain in countless films. The director kills both by the end of the first scene. Indeed, it's rumored that Leone tried to reunite Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef to play the roles of the gunmen. By killing them off in the first 15 minutes, Leone would have made explicit not only his break with the "Dollar" films, but his burial of the Western altogether.

Such a dense interplay of themes and references could easily render a film dull and academic, but Leone is so technically gifted that Once Upon a Time in the West never feels like a seminar in cultural studies. "[Sergio's] movies are good directly at the surface level," co-storywriter Bertolucci explained in 1989. "There are other levels, but I think Sergio was stronger as a pure talent for mise en scene--the relationship between the camera, the bodies of the people in front of it, and the landscape--than as a philosopher." Leone's usual effects are all on display in the film, if anything more pronounced than before: The close-ups are closer, the silences are longer, the compositions--with characters in foreground, background, and sometimes midground--are more striking. The score, again by Morricone, is less giddy (there are no wails or cracking whips), but more varied and evocative, from Cardinale's tender, wistful leitmotif to the nerve-jangling electric guitar that accompanies the revelation of Bronson's identity.

But the fundamental reason that Once Upon a Time in the West succeeds as a movie as well as a treatise is Leone's undisguised affection for his subject. The director's work has always held in brilliant and precarious balance the opposite tendencies to debunk the Western and to romanticize it, to simultaneously de-mythologize and re-mythologize. His heroes may not be true heroes, but they always triumph over the true villains. The Good is always a little bit better than the Bad or the Ugly. This combination of cynicism and sincerity is especially pronounced in Once Upon a Time in the West, in which Leone mourns the death of the Western even as he himself is trying to kill it off. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in his decision to briefly move production of the film to the States, so that he could film a few short scenes in Monument Valley, in front of the sandstone buttes that John Ford made famous. (The rest of the film, like his previous ones, was shot in Spain and Italy.) The move feels simultaneously ironic and earnest, knowing and heartfelt. But as always in Leone's films, it is the latter sentiment that ultimately prevails. For all its mannerism and its cleverness, Once Upon a Time in the West is a work of love.

The Home Movies List:
Genre movies about genre movies

Miller's Crossing. The Coen brothers' third movie and arguably their best. Adapted loosely from Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key and Red Harvest, it is a meta-gangster-movie that opens with hints of The Godfather and closes with a nod to The Third Man. The cinematography, by Barry Sonnenfeld, is gorgeous.

Kill Bill, Volume I. An onslaught of references to Japanese exploitation flicks doesn't conceal the fact that this is a crude, senseless little film. (Actually, given its positive reception from critics, I guess it did.) You've now been warned twice.

Austin Powers. Two sequels later, it's easy to forget that the first movie didn't really take off until it was released on video. My own theory: Many of the films it was spoofing (Our Man Flint, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the Matt Helm series) were so unfamiliar to its target audience that at first they didn't fully "get" it. As the character gradually sunk into public consciousness it became its own, self-sufficient cultural archetype.

Scream. An improbable balance of parody and sheer horror, and not for the squeamish. The first sequel was disappointing but the second was so dada--Parker Posey playing Courtney Cox playing "Gail Weathers" was a small touch of genius--that it recaptured some of the energy of the original. (Come to think of it, the same is true of the Austin Powers movies.)

Down with Love. A silly pink confection spun from the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies of the early sixties. Almost worth the price of a rental just for Renee Zellweger's outfits and Ewan McGregor's man-about-town strut. But given that we know both leads can sing (from Chicago and Moulin Rouge, respectively), why on earth wasn't this a musical?