Saturday, 3 August 2013

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) - ★★★★

Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati (Screenplay), Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mickey Knox
Stars: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti

It took me a while to warm up to this film, but in the end I really liked Once Upon a Time in the West. It has a rating of 8.7/10 on the International Movie Data Base (IMDB), making it one of the highest rated movies of all time. I wouldn't give it that title, not until I at least watch it again. The first hour of the film was flat to me. My energy levels depleted slowly but surely until I actually turned off the movie (a sin against cinema, I know). I decided that I should finish it today. Let's just say that the last hour and a half slowly built up this film in my esteem, until it reached a stunning climax that had my excitement and film fanaticism going wild. There were a couple of other big problems I had with it, but the ending was so masterful that it almost redeemed any fault I found with the movie.

Brett McBain and his two children are murdered by a gang led by Frank (Henry Fonda). Frank frames another notorious gang leader, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who then goes on a mission to find out who framed him. A mysterious lone-rider (Charles Bronson) whose name we do not know, is also on a mission to find and kill Frank. The new wife of Brett, Jill (Claudie Cardinale), was to make her first visit to the house, but arrived to find out that her husband and new family had been murdered. The clincher to this whole kerfuffle of a situation is, "Why did Frank kill the McBain's?" It's a movie that leaves you guessing what happens next. Only one thing is certain: it will end with an epic duel.

Visually stunning, but unnecessarily tedious and slow.
There are many cinematic techniques to build tension. Sergio Leone tried to do this by taking his sweet ass time before letting anything happen. There are stunning shots of the desert, rickety windmills, close-ups of people, and old timey buildings. It all looks very beautiful. The cinematography is undoubtedly masterful, there's no denying that. My problem with the film is that it focused so much on establishing shots that it became boring before the story even started. I don't want to sound like a "You've seen one desert, you've seen them all," kind of guy, I just feel like there was too much camera mastery, and not enough storyline.

The dubbing is unforgivably bad in this film. I could look past it in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) because Sergio Leone managed to make it look half decent. In Once Upon a Time in the West, it just didn't look right at all. In one scene, we can hear Baron Morton speaking loudly as clear as day, but his lips didn't appear to be moving at all. I can't count how many times the bad dubbing made me cringe. It was very reductive to the story, because every time it happened I became aware that I was watching a movie, which sucked the atmosphere right out of the film. I think it's pretty silly that this film is rated as one of the greatest movies of all time, even though Leone didn't remotely match the voice-overs to the actors on screen.

Claudie Cardinale made fake lashes look sexy in the dirty desert.
I really liked the score that plays every time Jill comes on screen. It's absolutely gorgeous, providing some of the more touching and beautiful moments in the movie. I'm also a fan of the spine-chilling music that plays whenever Charles Bronson is on screen. At first I thought the harmonica tune he played was really cool, but after a while it became really annoying. His harmonic(ee) playing on-screen and the actual music didn't fully match, so it took me out of the moment (yet again). Overall, the soundtrack to the film is sensational. Ennio Morricone can do no wrong!

Jason Robards was the life of the movie.
I think Jason Robards is the MVP of the film. This is the first film I've ever seen him in, and I can already tell that he will become on of my all time favourite actors. Not only did he bring humour to an otherwise completely serious film, he also gave the most natural performance out of everyone. My second favourite would be Henry Fonda of course. He really surprised me with his versatility as an actor. He suits western cinema to a tee! Charles Bronson played the mysterious, gun slinging, harmonic(ee) playing loner. This also happens to be the first movie I've ever seen Bronson in (can you tell I'm a cinema novice yet?). He's fantastic in this role, but I'm not the biggest fan of his character. That's why he slips down to my third favourite. Claudie Cardinale was fantastic too as an intelligent and strong woman who clearly lived a rough and difficult life.

Whenever I see Charles Bronson, I think "This ain't over." 
There are some really surprising, gasp inducing scenes! My favourite in the whole film was when Robards lowered his boot to the window. I was so sure I knew what he was trying to do, then BAM! He surprised me by having an even better idea. The movie was thrilling for the last hour and a half because the action was consistent. The first hour of the film was nothing but scenic shot after scenic shot, with the occasional altercation. Then it became consistently entertaining, which I'll chalk up to the fact that the story, which was interesting, finally unfurled. The last half hour... was just breathtaking. It made me giddy in a way that a masterpiece of cinema should! I felt like a kid in a candy store, because Leone created a truly suspenseful and beautiful final duel. I call it The Battle of the Blue Eyed Bandits. 

Fonda's eyes were the most visually stunning sight in the whole movie!
Here's my final thought. The cinematography in Once Upon a Time in the West (OUTW) is stunning, but not as stunning as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (GBG). The characters and performances in OUTW is great, but not as memorable as those in GBG. The music in OUTW is gorgeous, but no where near as memorable as that of GBG. The story in OUTW is thrilling, but nowhere near as riveting as GBG. In every single way, I found this to be an inferior movie to Leone's most famous classic. I couldn't possibly call it one of the greatest movies of all time, because on top of the major problems I had with the film, it couldn't establish itself to be as special as its predecessor. That's just my opinion of course. I loved the last hour and a half of the film, but it wasn't enough to capture my adoration.



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