Monday, October 19, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Once Upon A Time in the West"

Over the years, I have heard several people point to the moment near the beginning of "Once Upon a Time in the West" where Henry Fonda guns down a small boy as one of the watershed moments in their cinematic lives.

Here was an actor who had played presidents, generals, fathers, everyday decent men. If there was anything close to a movie star who personified everything that was good and true about American circa 1968, Fonda was it.

And then he shows up dressed all in black and blows away a kid -- and smiles leeringly while he's doing it, too.

Sergio Leone had wanted to make a movie with Fonda for years, and by '68 his "spaghetti Westerns" -- Italian in origin, shot largely in Spain -- had gained enough international respect and box office clout to finally interest Fonda. The actor was getting older (63), his star was fading, so it must have seemed like a good time to flip his career on its head by tackling a sinister, even vile character.

I've also read that Charles Bronson was Leone's first choice to play the "Man with No Name" role in his "Fistful" trilogy that made Clint Eastwood a star. Bronson and Eastwood have much the same onscreen persona in the Leone films -- taciturn, hard-hearted but basically good men who say very little, and let their six-shooters do most of the talking.

Ennio Morricone was, in my opinion, one of the greatest film composers of all time. (I say "was," incorrectly -- in his early 80s, he's still going strong with TV and film scores, including 2007's wonderful and underrated "The Weatherman.") He used all sorts of props and human voices in his scores in addition to orchestral instruments -- think of the signature "ayi-ayi-yah" singing that opens the iconic theme for "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

In "Once Upon a Time in the West," each of the four main characters has their own musical cue. For Cheyenne, the cagey bandit played by Jason Robards, it's a sad and sweet ditty with banjos and the sound of horse clops. The melody is done sometimes with a whistle, sometimes a banjo, and sometimes a banjo combined with a tinny piano. I just love how that sound captures the essence of the character. Cheyenne is a hard man who's very protective of his badass image -- mainly so people stay out of the way of his robbing and pillaging. But, as he says himself, even he wouldn't shoot a 6-year-old boy.

For Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), the New Orleans prostitute who arrives in the dusty town of Flagstone to join her new husband, only to find him and his three children shot dead, the music takes on a syrupy tone with lots of strings. Jill is acknowledged by all three of the men whose stories revolve around her to be an extraordinary woman -- in some ways, she's tougher than all of them. But still, as in many Westerns the female characters represent society, stability and comfort, and Jill's musical theme reflects that.

The last two characters' music overlaps to a certain extent, and the reason becomes apparent at the very end when their story arcs converge in their quickdraw showdown in the sun.

Bronson's character is called simply Harmonica, and I don't think I have to explain what instrument dominates his music cue. It's not really a melody, though, but a plaintive wail consisting of just a few repeated notes. They echo across the plains in the film's opening scene, where three assassins await his arrival at a train station. We hear Harmonica's theme before we see him, playing the tiny instrument that is his name, his signature expression, his history and his inevitable destiny.

Morricone's score uses mostly just a few chords underneath the harmonica notes to give it some depth and a haunting lingering aspect. But when combined with some harsh electric guitar chords, later dissolving into swelling strings, the harmonica becomes a part of Frank's (Fonda) theme.

Frank is perhaps the most black-hearted villain ever to appear in a Western. With him, there's no prevarication or facade of civilization. He is a killer, who does what he does not only because there's money to be made at it, but because he genuinely enjoys it. Frank is not bothered by his nature; from Fonda's steely-eyed performance, I doubt he even gives it much thought.

Frank despises weakness, which is why he never shows any himself, and immediately preys upon others who do. Frank has spent the last few years working for Morton, a train magnate who dreams of completing the great East-West railroad line, even as his body is crippled by disease.

Morton hobbles around with crutches and a back brace, and uses a special drop-down set of hand bars to navigate the custom train car that serves as his mobile home and office. Frank calls Morton's condition "dry rot," and says any reasonable man would've put a bullet in his own brain long ago. For now, Frank is content to rub out any homesteaders who get in the way of Morton's railroad -- such as the McBains -- but it's clear he has ambitions to push the boss aside.

The story is an interesting and convoluted mix of divergent motivations and alliances. Jill believes Cheyenne and his men were responsible for killing her husband, since the murderers wore the long dusters that are his gang's trademark. But it actually was Frank and his men, looking to throw suspicion off themselves.

Cheyenne visits Jill to try to convince her he had nothing to do with it. Harmonica, seeming to have no allies or motivation, shows up and inserts himself into this vortex, protecting Jill when some of Frank's men return to finish the job. Harmonica and Cheyenne end up helping each other out of convenience, and at one point Harmonica actually protects Frank from his own men, who have been bribed by Barton to turn traitor.

Frank, meanwhile, is irritated by Harmonica's repeated intrusions, and his refusal to give his real name -- only reeling off names of men Frank has killed.

One could write a whole treatise about the sexual politics of this movie. In this worldview, men are all rapacious opportunists who revel in using their physical power to subjugate women. Harmonica, despite being the ostensible hero of the film, holds Jill down and rips her dress. Frank takes her prisoner and forcibly has sex with her. She goes along with it, but Frank correctly surmises that she'd do anything to save her own skin, even accept on her body the hands of the man who killed her spouse. Only Cheyenne maintains something resembling a respectful difference.

"Once Upon a Time in the West" is a great and strange Western, the apex of Sergio Leone's spaghetti movies.

3.5 stars

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