Thursday, 19 June 2014

Once Upon A Time in the West (1968)

When he was casting A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone's first choice for the lead role was Charles Bronson.  Bronson though the script was bad, and turned down the part: a decision for which Clint Eastwood is presumably very grateful.

After all three 'Dollars' films were hits, however, Leone finally got his wish, as Bronson signed on (along with Henry Fonda) for this film.

One Upon A Time in the West has all the hallmarks of a Leone film: it's wonderfully shot, with great use of light and shadow, and the use of music - or the lack thereof - is also wonderfully judged.  Few film-makers know how to use silence the way Leone did.

Despite that, however, I came away dissatisfied with this film.  A big part of that is probably generational: the way the supposed 'white hats' of the film act toward the female lead set my teeth on edge, but probably didn't even register with audiences at the time.  This is the first of Leone's films that's included a major female role, and I'm rather glad he neglected them before now, based on this one.

Another element may be over-exposure to Leone's film-making "tics".  I've watched four of his films in the past month, and there are certain patterns that tend to get repeated.  The final showdown between Bronson and Fonda would have a lot more impact, for instance, if I hadn't seen very similar scenes at the end of both A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

In fact, echoes of the third "Dollars" film are strong in this: most strikingly, it also features three gunslingers: one tarnished but arguably the hero, one out and out evil, and one rascal.  The 'turn in a wanted man only to bust him out again straight away' thing makes another appearance, too.

The basic plot is sound enough.  A railway baron and his hired gun try to seize some land they need, while the other two gunslingers try to stop them.  It takes too long to get there, though.  The film didn't need to be two and a half hours long.

If this was the first Leone film I'd seen, I'd probably be more enthusiastic about it (though the chauvinism stuff would irk me even then), but it's not, and I'd rate it overall as the least entertaining of the four.  Unless you're a particular fan of his work, you can skip it.

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