It is a lonely thing, disliking Once Upon a Time in the West. Trawling through the vast store of critics' reviews compiled on IMDB yields approximately five thumbs down. The rest fall all over themselves to call this the greatest Western ever made. The Siren's own husband has already penciled in a date to see it with the kids when they're ready (in about ten years). One of my favorite film writers named his blog after Sergio Leone. (Dennis, please try not to hold it against me.) The film's reputation seems impregnable, and in questioning its greatness the Siren plays an exercise somewhat akin to lobbing a spitball at the Washington Monument. She is resigned to the idea that few, if any, will agree with her piece of contrarianism. She does hope, however, that for the time it takes to read this post, you will at least be able to see the movie through her eyes.
Instead of summarizing the plot, which is widely known and too murky anyway, the Siren will state why she dislikes this movie: It is overlong, badly acted, misogynistic and dull. Dear god is it dull. The movie is often compared to an opera, but the more apt comparison is oratorio--plenty of music, no scenery and no acting. The structure cycles through same, same, one minute of dialogue, gunfight, same.
Then again, Leone's camera doesn't seem to care if we ever get interested or not. Again and again we return to the basic pattern of long shot (flat, sun-bleached, not terribly interesting desert) to close-up (flat, sun-creased, not terribly expressive face), close-up to long shot. It has a sort of lulling rhythm to it, like walking through a gallery and turning your head from portrait to landscape and back again. But like the paintings in the gallery, it just hangs there. Leone is supposed to have choreographed OUTITW's performances to Morricone's pre-written, excellent score, but the tempo doesn't change much even when the music does. Certainly there are references to other filmmakers--better filmmakers--Fred Zinnemann with the opening train station sequence, John Ford with the build-up to the massacre, the funeral sequence borrowed from George Stevens. Some take that as a sign of the movie's greatness, but spotting those only irritates the Siren further, as it reminds her of other movies she could be watching. (She could, for example, watch High Noon AND 3:10 to Yuma in only slightly more than OUTITW's running time.)
Said it before, repeat it here--the grand unifying theme of Western movies is, "who's the man here?" OUTITW gives us two. The first is Charles Bronson. Actors do not usually become stars without some sort of star quality, and Bronson has presence, a great deal of it in fact. But Leone's preference for monumental performances, meaning the actors hold poses for beat after beat after beat while we are supposed to wonder what is happening behind those scrunched-up eyes, is catastrophic for Bronson. The Siren is not kidding when she tells you she prefers Bronson in Death Wish, where at least he gets to move. Here he seems preserved in amber, an actor who manages to overplay his lack of affect. That is its own form of odd accomplishment, but that doesn't make it moving.
The second man, more by dint of blowing Bronson off the screen than the script itself, is Henry Fonda. The Siren often wonders how much of OUTITW's impact, then and now, is due to the stunt casting of Fonda. Holy moly, Wyatt Earp just shot a kid! How could Tom Joad be so mean? But is it surprising that a serious, stage-trained actor with a 40-year career behind him at that point could play a villain? Frank is a figure of pure evil, as such his character arc is more like a straight line, and Fonda's chief virtue is in refraining from the sort of hamminess Anthony Hopkins brought to Hannibal Lecter. Fonda, as always, walks softly. The shock from the against-type casting lasts about 20 minutes, and the movie is, of course, 165 minutes long. You have plenty of time to notice that Frank's villainy is no more fleshed-out or believable than hundreds of others, from Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance to Jack Palance in Shane. The difference is that those villains don't overstay their welcome, mostly popping onstage to punch up the action and heighten the stakes. Here you have to spend a long, long time with Frank, and he never gets any less or any more evil, nor does he get more interesting.
If there is anything the Siren can enjoy about the movie, aside from the deservedly praised opening, it is Jason Robards as Cheyenne. He is so deliciously, cornball hammy he seems to have dropped in from another set. When he is on screen the movie does occasionally lurch to life, as when he pops up in a window, hanging upside-down from a railway car, wearing a marvelous expression somewhere between apprehension and glee. Unfortunately, many of his scenes are played with Claudia Cardinale.
Ah, Cardinale as Jill. Misogyny irritates the Siren, but even more than misogyny she is irritated by those who try to gloss or dismiss the problem, for problem it is. OUTITW puts a woman in the middle of the action, gives her character great thematic importance, and then shows her behaving in ways that simply beggar belief. She's the whore with a heart of gold (heaven help us, and in 1968 yet), but more than that she is all appetite and survival instinct, only minimal brain. Jill is an animal shorn of even the small dignity of an animal's initiative. She spends the movie merely reacting to events. Kidnapped? Guess she better sleep with Frank. Railroad workers need water? fine, and because Cheyenne says so she'll let them pat her backside (one of the most bizarre assertions of workers' rights the Siren has ever heard). Bronson rips her dress? She falls in love with him. Duck? Fine, she'll duck. And whether deliberately or inadvertently, Leone cast an actress who was unable at any point in her screen career to suggest much of an interior life for even a well-written character, as in The Leopard. In Visconti's masterpiece, this most beautiful of actresses can mime the charm of a young girl only by waggling her shoulders a great deal and biting her lower lip at strategic intervals. Here Cardinale mostly holds her head still (thank God for that small favor from Leone's techniques) but reverts again and again to the same lips-slightly-parted stare, as the audience wonders whether false eyelashes and Cleopatra liner were around in the 1880s.
Here the Siren returns to the mystery of talent, and why some actors can project things to the camera that others simply cannot. Garbo, whom Orson Welles flatly called "stupid," could stare into the distance and take the audience on a journey through all the ages of Woman, as we pondered what lay behind that beautiful face. Cardinale's beauty is no less stunning, and yet as she looks into the camera you suspect she is trying to recall whether she left the hot plate on in her trailer. Well, perhaps Garbo could have breathed substance into Jill. But the Siren doubts it.
In his better movies (though the Siren has reservations even about those), Leone choreographs the set-up for violence fully as much or more than the violence itself, such as the justly celebrated final shoot-out in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The Siren doesn't mind the lack of realism in this; as she has said before, realism is a style like any other, and an overrated one, at that. But here Leone just does not know when to stop. I will accept two men circling one another for a final confrontation, sizing one another up like dogs and spitting. I will accept them doing it for a longer time than any two armed men probably ever did in the history of the Colt 45. But when they do it for a quarter-hour--and stop for a flashback to boot--it becomes ludicrous. You might as well bring in Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris and let the characters dance it out. Furthermore, the impact of this, the final confrontation, is lost because this is how ALL the confrontations in the movie have played out. We have been watching menacing poses for two and a half damn hours. A few more just aren't that interesting.
The theme of OUTITW is the bloody track of the railroad, and how it brings the tough-hombre era to an end even as it brings more exploitation. Leone correctly grasps that the idea of space--that, like Huck Finn, you can always light out for the territories--is a big part of our fascination with the push westward. The director's other idea, here as in his Dollars trilogy, is to strip away the myth that out there was something good or noble, and show that greed and violence built the West. He was hardly the first to do that, but he was one of the most thorough. Trouble is, Leone takes every traditional aspect of the Western and, rather than building on it, either mocks it or replaces it with relentless, dour pessimism. So when the end credits roll at long-bloody-last, all you have is a funhouse reversal of Roy Rogers. Once Upon a Time in the West is, finally, as predictable in its darkness as Rogers was in his eternal goody-goodyness.
(This post is offered as part of the Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon sponsored by Jim Emerson at Scanners.)