Friday, November 06, 2009

Once Upon a Time in the West

If Sergio Leone hadn't already achieved greatness with the Dollars trilogy, then he does that with the grittiest Western I've ever seen: Once Upon a Time in the West (Italian: C'era una volta il West) . A film that refuses to balance its characters in only the color of blood with no taints no sainthoods, as the Dollars trilogy does, each man and woman is living a pulsing life and struggling in the days of the birth of a great, industrious nation; those days when America was yet discovering its potential, the railroad was slowly bringing civilization to the last fighters against it, and instead of kings and business magnates the world order would soon have the voice for every man. Ennio Morricone once again gives the life its breath: his music defies definition; probably the only thing that can be said it suits the film and its epic story to the hilt, and sweeps up every emotion in human breast in its wake. Constructed from several references to Westerns already made, the film turns out to be a greater whole than the sum of its parts: not least because of a stunning casting coup.

Henry Fonda, who you could never dream of with any kind of negative shade, plays the villain of the film with nothing in the name of a white shade attached to him. He looks ruthless, and not a step ahead of the game. He simply fits the murderer with icy blue eyes, who loves to kill, to maim, to rape, to finish spirits. The nemesis is Charles Bronson, the icy character who refuses to even once take advantage of the woman he protects during the course of his revenge, even if the woman herself so desires. He is also the nemesis of the Man with No Name of the Dollars trilogy, a man who has again no name except that given by the bandit Cheyenne, "Harmonica," but who does not indulge in bloody meaningless duels all over the desert to vanish into dust, but is only after one man, and whatever else it entails. An important difference with Lee Van Cleef's character in For a Few Dollars More is that Bronson, caring only for revenge, remains a good man, helping anyone else he can and remaining grateful to people who help him; while Cleef, again after only revenge, has become ruthless to the whole world after his personal experience. This is the same reason that while For a Few Dollars More relies primarily on the strength of its climax besides the focus on desolate American landscapes, Once Upon a Time in the West achieves greater heights through its redemptive theme, and faith in human goodness. Faith that lasts in spite of a land and times where blood was much more easier to get than water.

A masterpiece from Leone, it was not much surprising that the film was a flop in the United States: it's one long reality, with a music to elevate and almost a documented bit of history to make the things hard to understand for teenyboppers.