Review #1: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

2 05 2011

Once Upon a Time in the West tells the story of Mrs. McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a young woman who returns to her home on the frontier only to find that her family has been massacred. To stay safe she’ll need the help of two strangers: a unknown, harmonica-wielding gunslinger (Charles Bronson) and a gang-leader (Jason Robards) framed for death of her family. Once Upon a Time in the West is distinctly western; it has an obvious antagonist, several tense stand-offs, slick gun-work, and more expendable henchman than a James Bond film. Nevertheless, it plays out more like a mystery: Harmonica’s past and motives are unknown except that they have something to do with our antagonist Frank (Henry Fonda), and why the McBain family was killed to begin with is concealed from the viewer allowing Leone to slowly give us information to piece it all together, making a near-three hour movie never seem that long.

Leone Style 5+

Sergio Leone bring such a distinct style to his films that it is almost impossible for other directors to emulate it. Of course, the exception being Quentin Tarantino where one could see Leone’s films as a blueprint for his future success. The first Leone trademark that is noticeable in Once Upon a Time in the West is the music. Ennio Morricone’s outstanding original score ranges from tense to playful to powerfully dramatic, all of which set the appropriate mood of each scene within a single note. Simply, without Morricone’s excellent work this movie would be a shell of the classic we have today. Although the music is essential in Leone’s epic, his cinematography is equally effective. The way he and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli set up his scenes is nothing short of exquisite, regularly using extremely effective narrow and long set-up shots to help create atmosphere and introduce a scene perfectly. Every shot in Once Upon a Time in the West serves a purpose and it is evident Leone wants the viewer to see or feel something new as each scene evolves. The final touch Leone brings to this film is through his control, he never loses sight of where the movie is going and why. He crafts the mood so well that he is able to turn from tense to humorous on a dime without compromising the point of the scene, he is simply an experienced director in full control.


The Acting in Their Eyes

Among western actors, non-verbal acting seems to be a lost art. Christian Bale is fantastic at going to extremes, Leonardo DiCaprio can produce great emotional performances, and Russell Crowe can deliver lines with the perfect amount of gravitas yet providing a perfect performance does not always require these traits. Once Upon a Time in the West is a great example of excellent acting using only their eyes. With no great monologues or soul-aching emotional scenes in the movie, acting needs to come through in other ways and Leone has cast a group of actors who can portray themselves with no more than a look. Charles Bronson squints his eyes giving his character an air of mystery which he uses to never let the other characters or the audience in, Henry Fonda has piercing blue eyes which are striking and threatening, Jason Robards meanders around with a ruffled brow of carelessness as he is just going with the flow, and Claudia Cardinale’s big doe eyes presume innocence and occasionally strained conviction. Everything we need to know about each of our four main characters are told with a simple glance at their eyes, Sergio Leone knows this and frequently focuses on them.

Although Jill McBain is at the center of the movie, the film is driven by Harmonica and Frank as men of action, she and Cheyenne are just two characters swept up in the whirlwind and play nothing more than supporting character. My desire to see more out of them, as well as the occasionally poor voice-work can be my only two complaints in an otherwise excellent movie. It is stylish with the substance to keep up, creating a truly memorable cinematic experience.

Score: 98/100   

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