Monday, August 4, 2014

On the Big Screen: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (C'era una volta il West, 1968)

For some movie buffs, "Once upon a time" has come to denote a certain mode of cinematic narrative in which a scene is protracted through prosaic action and dialogue to maximize success by exploiting our expectation that something will or should happen in the scene. Yet for the original Italian audience for Sergio Leone's fourth western, C'era Una Volta would most likely have been a reminder of Francesco Rosi's unlikely fairy tale romance of that name, the Sophia Loren vehicle known in the U.S. as More Than a Miracle, that was released a year before C'era Una Volta il West. Call it that or Once Upon a Time, and audiences around the world would expect a kind of western fairy tale.

Appropriately, the film has a heroine. If not a princess, Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is the heir to an empire in the making. She is courted, so to speak, by three suitors. Of course, the film has no fairy tale ending; Jill may well live happily ever after as the matriarch of the Sweetwater station, but she has no consort. That's all for the best, since Leone's film could just as easily have been called Beauty and Three Beasts. None of the three becomes a prince because this is, after all, a western of the 1960s and the convergence of Leone's spaghetti style and the elegiac preoccupations of many American westerns. Not opening in the U.S. until 1969, it played against The Wild Bunch in some markets. Jill's suitors are of a doomed breed, the "ancient race" of men who live by force, by taking. These men objectify everything and everyone around them. That's true as much for the avenger "Harmonica" (Charles Bronson) as for his enemy Frank (Henry Fonda). They live by taking (even if Harmonica only takes revenge), not by buying, which is the way of the future that Frank flirts with and flinches from after getting burned when money turns his own men against him. More nearly human than the killer and the avenger is the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). While Frank prefers to forget his past until the point of dying, driven forward by ambition, and Harmonica's past can be collapsed into a single moment that motivates his whole life, Cheyenne is capable of nostalgia, of sentiment in general. This makes him seem childish sometimes compared to his peers, but it also makes him the nearest thing to an ideal mate for Jill, with circumstance alone, arguably, preventing that happy ending. Cheyenne seems more self-aware and simultaneously more conscious of others than his peers; he can say of himself that he's not the right man for Jill, even as he warns that Harmonica isn't that man, either. Cheyenne isn't as bright as his peers, though he may have more cunning; he has a hard time grasping that the land of Sweetwater is the treasure rather than some hidden stash of gold until Harmonica spells it out for him.Yet Cheyenne seems to see what's coming, what the future will be like and what it requires of people, in a way beyond the comprehension of fanatics like Frank and Harmonica, who seem to see their successors as inferior beings. Cheyenne's advice to Jill has been condemned since his words were first heard on screen, but if we generalize beyond the character's sexist rhetoric we may get to the real point. Don't begrudge working men the occasional pat of your rear, he says; "pretend that it's nothing. They've earned it." We can dispute whether they've earned that, exactly, but what Cheyenne may be saying, what Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento are trying to say alongside Leone, and through the vehicle of Sergio Donati (in Italian) and Mickey Knox (in English), is that while the mighty men of Cheyenne's doomed generation lived by taking, the world Jill inherits will flourish not through buying, but through giving.

Well, I had to come up with something for the occasion of seeing Leone's epic on the big screen at the Madison Theater in Albany. I still like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly better, but it's very close between these giant films, and it's arguably a competition between an apple and an orange. Once Upon a Time in the West is more self-consciously a work of art on every level, and it's also the climax of an epic decade in which Italy mounted an almost plausible challenge to America's global cinematic dominance. The Italians cracked the American market on all levels, from the arthouse to the drive-in, with everything from Antonioni, at one extreme of pretension, to Hercules movies. Leone and his peers escalated the campaign by appropriating America's defining cinematic genre, and filming in Monument Valley Leone dramatically planted the Italian flag at the heart of American cinema. West is more of an all-out Italian effort than Leone's Dollars films. Conceived by that mind-blasting trinity of Leone, Bertolucci and Argento, it's a masterpiece of Cinecitta production design and probably the most eloquently versatile use of wood ever in movies. You can't fully appreciate that aspect of it until you see it at the right size. Throw a star Italian actress into the mix and it seems even more like the national epic of Italy's battle for cinematic mastery. Maybe Americans recognized this and were repelled by it after embracing the Dollars films.

Why West bombed here remains a mystery; Paramount's fatal excision of more than twenty minutes was a decision of panic while the film was already failing. Did people miss Clint Eastwood? I don't think that was the problem, and I honestly can't see Eastwood as Harmonica -- the Man With No Name never seems that zealous about anything. Pace rather than length seems to have been the main problem, since West was always shorter than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, yet always seems longer. West is simply more complex; while GB&U has to converge only two tracks, Angel Eyes on one, Blondie and Tuco on the other, West opens with two enigmatic bursts of violence, introducing one major character apiece, and then takes its sweet time linking these events to the destinies of four (or five, counting Gabriele Ferzetti's train magnate) major characters. It makes sense once all the pieces are in place, but there are moments when it seems as if Leone is having (or teasing) difficulty fitting them together. Some scenes in "once upon a time" mode, most notably the first scene at Lionel Stander's trading post, seem unjustified by the potential for action; Jill is only a bystander as Cheyenne and Harmonica first meet one another, and neither notices her, each meeting her in Sweetwater later as if for the first time, and while the scene reveals how Frank has tried to frame Cheyenne for his recent crimes, the revelation has a throwaway quality -- and it seems odd in retrospect that Frank and Cheyenne never actually meet each other. While GB&U is a fast engine on a meandering track, there are moments in West where the first-time viewer may legitimately wonder not just when the train will get where it's going, but where it's going in the first place. It's more of a loose baggy monster than GB&U, but on a frame-by-frame basis it's more spectacular, and cumulatively, prodded forward by Ennio Morricone's beloved score, it's a more emotionally moving experience. In ways intended and unintended it marks the end of an epic era, and it is hard not to feel sad to see it end, even if what you feel is that good kind of moviegoing sadness tinged with wonder. It may have been a fairy tale, but some of the magic was real.

1 comment:

Stu said...

An amazing film, a true classic in every sense imo


btw - enjoy your site and reviews!

Thank you :)