Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
A bit of spaghetti western, courtesy of the NFT’s new reprint. Westerns are an achilles heel in my film knowledge- never got round to John Ford, &c. But they’re so ingrained in our cultural memory that all the stock western elements in this film were instantly familiar to me; swinging saloon doors, feisty whores, the sherriff’s badge, duels at high noon.
For all that and all the allusions to other westerns that I’m told scatter this film, I was actually reminded a few times of Antonioni. Enigmatic, estranged figures pitched into a bleak and inhospitable environment. Awed, panoramic views of arid desert littered by huge, curiously-shaped rocks. Slowness of pace and sparsity of dialogue. After a while the film does settle into a more conventional form of storytelling, but it was the opening sequences that I found really powerful.
It starts at a small station in the middle of the desert. The station master is an ancient, crazy-looking Italian peasant; maybe he just has one of those faces but I’m sure I’ve seen him in things before (to my irritation I can’t work out who he is from the list of uncredited parts on imdb). Three cowboys enter the makeshift wooden hut from three directions; each is introduced with the camera at their feet, then slowly moving up to disclose a pistol in the belt, and finish on the kind of face you wouldn’t like to encounter on a dark night. On the big screen, the close-up brings out the stubble and grease on their faces, the dirt and dust caked into their clothes. They look positively brobdignagian.
As they loom over the terrified official, he stammers and stutters. You can’t buy tickets here, you have to go round… but I suppose you can get them here. Three tickets for you? $7.50. Without a word, the ringleader lifts him by the throat. The tickets flutter to the ground. The station master is thrown into a broom cupboard as the ringleader lifts a finger to his lips.
In silence, they wait for the train. Water drips onto the hat of one. He waits motionless for a few minutes, then takes off his hat and drinks. Another is irritated by a buzzing fly that continually lands on his lip. It goes on forever. Eventually he traps the fly in the barrel of his gun, his finger over the end. Against all odds, it’s riveting to watch.
The train comes, leaves, and on the opposite platform we see Harmonica (Charles Bronson). Across the train tracks they exchange a few tentative words, before Bronson pulls out his gun and shoots the three dead. The next scene shows a patriarchal frontier family preparing a feast for the arrival of the father’s new wife, when yet more cowboys turn up and kill them all; the big chief Frank (Henry Fonda) saving a trembling little boy of 5 or 6 for last. We quickly learn that we shouldn’t get too attached to any of the dramatis personae.
Fonda is an archetypal Hollywood good guy (12 Angry Men et al) so it’s a fairly bold statement to introduce him in this way- as if it was Connie Fisher who had got the Antichrist gig. You get the sense that there’s a lot going on behind those big blue eyes and his innately kindly face lends a bit more complexity to this man-in-black bad guy than most might have managed.
Indeed, although the four main parts are all well-weathered western ‘types’ we get four impressive performances. Claudia Cardinale is the strong, independent woman who turns up in town to find her new husband and stepchildren killed- a crowd around the house parts to reveal the four corpses laid out on the four banquet tables, a macabre touch. She decides to stand her ground in the frontier town, carry on hubby’s work and stick up to all the vultures around her. There’s a cold pragmatism to her, which is what keeps her alive out there. The outlaws can rape her if they really wish to, she tells them, but “a tub of hot water and I’ll be exactly what I was before”. The lady’s not for turning or breaking.
Jason Robards is Cheyenne, the bandit that Frank frames for the killing of the family and who later teams up with Bronson. Another hard-man part but he is droll, detached and sparkles in a slightly more peripheral role; particularly good in his scenes with Cardinale. “You remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived”.
Then there’s Charlie Bronson and his harmonica. I recently saw Bronson in the astonishing Death Wish. I suspect he would be wooden in anything other than a silent, vengeful assassin role, but his sad, simian face and his tiny pine nut eyes have an inscrutability that’s just right. His mission is to kill Fonda in a particular way, and he’ll pass up any amount of chances to eliminate him until everything is just so. What’s eating Bronson is not revealed until the very end, but it proves that his character is straight out of a Jacobean revenge tragedy.
Before watching this film I’d never quite appreciated the fuss about Ennio Morricone, but I do now. His tunes stick in your head. There’s the epic motif, with strings and female cooing, that perfectly complements the widescreen panoramic views of the wild west. There’s the ‘Horse With No Name’-ish main theme. The sentimental theme for Cardinale, Bronson’s stark harmonica tune, and the twanging steel guitars when a showdown is brewing. But even when there’s no music, Leone shows a great appreciation of the importance of sounds to create an atmosphere. The opening scene is a case in point. In addition howling wind, murmuring crickets and amplified footsteps are deployed, then withdrawn, to great effect throughout.
The camera is put at the service of this yarn, making places and people seem larger-than-life. Memorable moments include the camera rising and rising above the station platform to reveal the bustling new town of Flagstone in the background. When Frank meets the train of Morton, his invalid mogul boss, and finds that everyone has been killed in a shootout with Cheyenne’s gang, the camera crawls along the length of the train at floor level, showing the bullet-ridden corpses strewn across the ground in various poses. When Cardinale saves her skin by submitting to a tryst with Fonda, the camera discloses them face to face. Then it zooms back rapidly, rotating 90 degrees- they are horizontal on the bed together.
As Bronson and Fonda prepare for their duel the viewpoint changes several times, the camera rotating round each figure, as they are in turn shifted from the edge of the frame to the centre. Bronson has his flashback to boyhood- Fonda has put his brother in a noose and his feet on young CB’s shoulders. He shoves the harmonica into the lad’s mouth and his henchmen look on laughing. Quick jump cuts through a series of sadistic, chuckling faces. One of the men is biting into a tomato- a brilliant touch.
The story is that Cardinale’s man was punished for his enterprise and initative. The steam railroad is working its way through the desert, and he had bought the land with the only water wells 50 miles west of Flagstone; there will have to be a station, and a town, in this spot. Monroe and Frank want that land by hook or by crook, but Cardinale realises what she’s sitting on and isn’t going to be bullied.
It’s a changing world we see and the film serves as an elegy for the wild west. Where the railroad stretches to, civilisation follows in its wake- with houses, markets, hotels, theatres. Making wilderness comfortably habitable makes it soar in value. Robards speculates that Cardinale’s new town could bring in “hundreds of thousands… thousands of thousands”. “They’re called millions,” Bronson informs him. Robards rolls this new word around his tongue. He likes the sound of it.
This aspect of the film reminded me of Losey’s Stanley Baker vehicle The Criminal– lone mavericks get taken out of the game by organisations with their sights trained on monopoly. Frank sits behind Morton’s desk as they plan their next move, and is asked how it feels. “Like holding a gun. Only much more powerful”. When Morton and Frank quarrel, a wad of banknotes is enough to turn Frank’s posse against him.
At the end of the film, with Bronson disappearing into the horizon, the building of the new town is in full swing. The land is filled with hundreds of frenetic labourers, all of them working like ants to lay foundations, put down rail tracks and put up the new buildings. The last words are spoken by Cheyenne, who lies down in a ditch to die unnoticed. We feel that the wild west is certain to die with him.
Leone already had spaghetti westerns under his belt, and this is an all-encompassing film in the genre that throws in all the stock elements, mythical-sized characters, and an explanation of why the west was lost. At a whopping three hours, it felt like they were trying to create something major which would be regarded as the last word in westerns and the last word on the wild west. It’s such an accomplished piece of cinema that I’ll gladly buy it as such.