Saturday, June 5, 2010

Canon Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in the West

After watching the horror that is Red Zone Cuba, I decided to cleanse my cinematic palette and watch a movie I had wanted to see for quite a while, but for some reason I never got around to it. That movie is Sergio Leone's 1968 classic Once Upon a Time in the West. Once Upon a Time in the West stars Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson, and is considered to be one of, if not the greatest western movie of all time. Well, I can't claim that for sure, but I will say that Once Upon a Time in the West definitely should be in the conversation for best western ever, as well as for the best movie of the 1960s. A few notes from the film.

- The movie stars Henry Fonda as Frank, an old-style gunfighter whose trying to become more of a businessman, but his penchant for violence always comes out in the end. Frank, to be frank, is a sadistic killer, not caring who he kills or hurts, no matter how young or old they may be. At the beginning of the movie, Frank wipes out an entire family, including a 10-year old boy, without any regard towards his victims. This is such a shocking role for Henry Fonda, whom before this movie had never played a villain in a movie before. Fonda himself almost didn't take the role due to having to play the bad guy, but he did, and quite frankly, Fonda was the perfect choice for this role.
- Charles Bronson plays the hero in this movie, a man simply known as Harmonica. Why is he known as Harmonica, you ask? Well because he's always playing one, for reasons unknown to everyone he encounters. Harmonica is what young people would call a "bad-ass", a quick shot who often drops two or three foes before one of them can get a shot off. The introduction to Harmonica establishes his credibility right there, as he drops three of Frank's men on the deck of a train station.
- Jason Robards plays an outlaw named Cheyenne, who is framed for the murders Frank committed. Cheyenne meets Harmonica in a bar in one of the two best scenes in the movie. Even though not a lot is said in the scene, you can cut the tension with a knife, and Leone and the actors do a magnificent job of portraying the proper message and the level of emotion even though only a few lines were spoken. Just a great scene.
- Remarkably, the scene I just described was cut out of the original American release of the film, along with a couple of other essential scenes. The cutting of these scenes led the movie to feel a bit incomplete, and the theatrical release was actually a giant flop in America. Now it's regarded as a classic and essential viewing for movie lovers of all sorts, but in 1969, it was just a long, boring movie. Perhaps in 40 years time, people will look at Paul Blart: Mall Cop as a cinematic classic.
- It would be a mistake if I ignored Claudia Cardinale's performance as Jill McBain, a lady from New Orelans who had just come to town to settle with her new husband and his family, only to find out they have been brutally murdered by Frank, as it turns out. Cardinale does an excellent job in portraying McBain, a woman obviously saddened by her loss but also is a woman that will stoop to any low in order to save her own life. Unlike most westerns, which feature one-dimensional women characters, McBain is a person of many layers, a woman that tries to do the best with what she has been dealt with, even if it may not seem to be morally correct. As she puts it, she's "not a poor, defenseless widow".
- One of the most remarkable aspects of this film is the score, conducted by Italian composer Ennio Morricone. The music not only fit the movie, it lifted it to a whole other level, particularly the track "Man with a Harmonica", which plays whenever Bronson is on screen. It also is played during the climatic scene, and helps make that scene not only the best of the movie, but in my opinion, one of the best scenes of all time.

Overall, I would recommend that everyone see this movie at least one time in their lives. It is just awesome, and I can't see much that they could have improved on. I must warn you that the pace is a little slow, but to me it doesn't take away from the movie at all and serves to build up a huge level of suspense and intrigue. I'll give this movie a 9.425 out of 10.

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