Saturday, February 17, 2007

Do the Contrarian: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

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.)


Peter Nellhaus said...

I can't wait to be reunited with my DVD collection, currently in storage in Fort Lauderdale, so I can see Once Upon a Time . . . in the West again, now that you've brought up a completely different view of the film.

Ginger Mayerson said...

I've never liked this Western either, so I really enjoyed your post. My idea of great Westerns are the original "Stagecoach" and "My Darling Clementine." I did like "A Fist Full of Dollars" until I saw "Yojimbo," which I promptly bought and watch far too much. Mmmmmm, Toshiro Mifume. Anyway, thank you, Siren, I love your blog even more now.

Uncle Gustav said...

Excellent piece, Siren. Leone specialized in guilty pleasures, realized his limitations (hence the brief filmography and a thirteen year void before his last picture), and was regarded as "camp" in the 1960s, before the academics pumped him up as something as large and hollow as a dirigible.

A Fistful of Dollars is small change next to the Kurosawa original (itself a rather weak entry into Akira's oeuvre), but For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly play well as mindless entertainments. As you say, there's very little humanity in them other than the basic observations on greed and scruples.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is probably Leone's best film -- but only in a peripheral sense. Would it be as engaging without Morricone's marvelous music or Tonino Delli Colli's understanding of light and landscape? I think not.

Once Upon a Time in the West has always seemed a bit of a lox to me...not very fulfilling, odorous, ultimately useless. The actors were attracted to easy money: I doubt Fonda saw it as little else than a way to squeeze a European vacation from a role he could've played in his sleep.

Leone never exhibited signs of admiration or understanding for American history, but used the Western genre for convenience. He may plagiarize or pay homage to Peckinpah and Ford in his films, but one doubts it was a gesture from the heart. His was a vacuous talent that relied heavily on input from his cast and crew.

His misogyny was genuine but not measured. He possessed that "old school" mentality, further hampered by his archaic European sensibilities.

If you want Western misogyny, may I direct you to Waterhole #3 (1968), in which James Coburn describes rape as "assault with a friendly weapon."

The Siren said...

Peter, that was such a gentlemanly way to disagree. :)

Ginger, welcome! I saw the Kurosawa first and realized Leone's wasn't a patch on the original. But I have such a weakness for (relatively) young, gorgeous Eastwood that I was still entertained.

Flickhead, your tour of Leone's Westerns summarizes my own thoughts perfectly. I enjoyed "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," and parts of the other two entries in the trilogy, but ultimately I find Leone to be a self-consciously artsy imitation of better Western directors. And don't even get me started on Once Upon A Time in America.

That quote from Waterhole #3, a film I had previously never heard of, almost made me choke on my coffee. I can't decide if I must seek it out or avoid it now at all costs.

The 'Stache said...

Hmm..hmm...I'll be even more of a contrarian: It's Kurosawa that has always sort of bored me. Except for his crime films, like Stray Dog and High and Low. The samurai films just wander the countryside bearing banners a bit too much for my taste. As far as Leone having a short resume, though, I'd just point out that so did Preston Sturges.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Thanks for the compliment, Siren. As has been mentioned by others, Leone's film is something of a homage to previous westerns. I always think that with this film, one should mention two of the films writers, lovers of classic films, and respected filmmakers as well: Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. To a certain extent one might look at Once Upon a Time . . . as also in part being their "dream" of Monument Valley.

Tuwa said...

I'll admit to a fondness for the film, but mostly for its hypnotic delivery (I like Koyaanisqatsi for the same reason). I'd agree with you, though, that Claudia Cardinale's acting is subpar and her role and her character's treatmeant are all troublesome. I can't think of any Westerns offhand which would start to serve as an antidote: maybe Johnny Guitar?

The Siren said...

TLRHB: One of the most fascinating aspects of film criticism is the up-and-down nature of certain reputations, and (this is strictly an anecdotal observation of mine) right now Kurosawa seems to be in a down cycle. He has some distinguished company, in that John Ford is also getting dissed quite a lot these days. Richard Schickel could do a list of the greatest films of the past 100 years and include not a single Ford. Maybe we need some "critical reputation" posts; who's in, who's out, who's going up and who's going down?

Leaving aside the fact that I love Sturges, and he probably would have hated Leone (or parodied him), your comparison works for me, in a weird way. Sturges is another filmmaker with a problematic approach to certain people, in his case blacks.

Peter, Bertolucci and Argento aren't directors I am overly familiar with, something I should remedy. It is possible I could read more into OUTITW if I were more familiar with their work, but I doubt I would like the film much better.

Tuwa, there is some suggestion in reviews I read that Jill is based in part on Vienna in Johnny Guitar, and there are definitely plot similarities, but to my mind somebody missed a lot of what is enjoyable about the Ray film.

Tim K. said...

I object to the use of the word "misogyny," which is thrown around far too casually. Misogyny means "hatred and distrust of women." Can you honestly say Leone's portrayal of Jill conveys hatred towards women? Problematic, yes; hateful, no.

She's not completely reactive, either. She decides to stay in Flagstone when she learns her husband and family have been murdered, even though everyone thinks she should go. She puts Cheyenne in his place when she feels threatened a short time later. She's also able to manipulate Frank enough to stay alive -- the "love" scene between them is disturbing at first because it looks like Jill is enjoying it, but it's all part of her plan to get out of there. Frank's underestimating Jill is one of his undoings. Lastly, Jill is the only one of the four major characters to have a spot in the new West -- she is poised to become a wealthy, independent businesswoman. I'll agree that Leone has mixed feelings about this, but they don't include hatred.

Gloria said...

Well, I'm no great fan of Spaguetti Westerns, So Leone is not among my fave directors... However, if compared with some other directing "myths" of the cult scene like Jess Franco (Lord, I'm still unable to understand the buzz about him! here in Spain we always thought he was plain godawful!) Leone seems Orson Welles.

Maybe one thing why I don't like them is the fact that the cowboys were so dirty (not only in thoughts)... I know real cowboys most probably weren't as daintily dressed and well shaved as Randolph Scott or Alan Ladd, but in Spaguetti westerns people looked so badly in need of a bath that one could almost smell them (without the need of Odorama).

Incidentally, most of Leone's movies (and those of his imitators)could be more appropiately called Gazpacho-Westerns as many were shot in the sunny wastelands of Almeria (not Monument Valley), and some were shot as well in my home-town, where a Western set was built by Estudios Balcazar, dubbed as "Esplugues City" (the set is no longer extant, but its old nickname still sticks to my town, he)

TLRHB, personally I'm not with the "downing" of Kurosawa: While I love his noir films (as the ones you point), I find plenty in his filmography to enjoy... Most people tend to see his Samurai movies as too serious, but in films like "Yojimbo" or "The Hidden Fortress" there is a lot of fun.

Tuwa said...

to my mind somebody missed a lot of what is enjoyable about the Ray film.

Hm. It's quite possible that person is me. What is most enjoyable about the Ray film?

Tuwa said...

Ah, that sounds combative but that's not the way I meant it. I'm genuinely curious.

The Siren said...

Tim, welcome! I do mean misogyny, and not sexism, though you explain the positive take on Jill very well. To me the clincher is the dress-ripping scene with Bronson; he is letting her know he can have her any time he wants her, and she likes that. Certainly the fact that she alone will carry on can be interpreted optimistically, as you do. Or you can read it as I do, as one last calculated insult: The new West is a painted-up prostitute, off to give meager comfort to the workers.

Gloria: "Gazpacho Westerns." I love it. I absolutely love it.

Tuwa: I think Leone and his screenwriters removed one of the things that made Johnny Guitar most interesting, the women as the primary antagonists, good and bad. Johnny Guitar (as far as I remember; this one is on my "refresh my memory" list) also fleshes out the characters with more ambiguity than OUTITW. McCambridge is, to me, a more interesting villain than Frank. Plus, what with the Technicolor and Joan Crawford's lips and the fire and McC.'s dominatrix ensemble, to me it is also visually more interesting.

Ginger Mayerson said...


Thanks for the welcome.

There are more interesting things in "Yojimbo" than "FFOD" but the blunt truth is I like both of those films for Mifune and Eastwood mainly. And, frankly, I'm a bigger Takashi Shimura fan these days.

As far as seriousness goes, I'd rather be stranded on a desert island with the complete Kurosawa than almost anything else. Though I loved "Stray Dog" I can only watch "Ikiru" so many times a week before my chest hurts too much.

Oh well, so much Kurosawa, so little time.

What were we talking about? "Rashamon"?

goatdog said...

I'm going to jump on the Sturges tangent: I was just thinking about his problematic (to use the nicest possible word) attitude toward blacks. I just showed The Palm Beach Story and was shocked at the Snowflake scenes; loving old movies as I do, I see a lot of racist stereotypes of black people, and I've come to accept most of them with gritted teeth, but that film was more mean-spirited than most.

I remember really liking OUATITW, but that was a long time ago. This post makes me want to rent it.

The Siren said...

Ginger, Rashomon was a formative experience for me. It was the first Japanese film I ever saw and I was blown away by its beauty and thematic depth. I will always love Kurosawa, whether he is In or Out.

Goatdog - As the late Molly Ivins used to say, the law of unintended consequences often bites us in the ass; and here I seem to have sparked a micro-surge in re-viewing OUTITW. I am almost thinking I should watch it again myself.

As for Sturges - I want to chalk it up to the era but there is no denying that some movies are much worse than others, and his are so consistently cringe-making. I read Spoto's bio of him but to my shame I do not remember anything Spoto may have said about PS's personal racial attitudes. But I am afraid they are kind of obvious from the movies.

When I was posting about Remember the Night I tried to track down more info on Snowflake. Like several other black actors of the period, his birth date seems uncertain as does his ultimate fate, though he seems to have lived into the 60s, well into the Civil Rights era. It would be most interesting for a gumshoe critic to track down what became of him and see if there is any record of his thoughts on his own career.

andyhorbal said...

Interesting post and interesting conversation!

Campaspe, like Peter I quite like Once Upon a Time, but that doesn't mean I don't value your dissenting take on it.

For starters, you're quite right about the film's misogyny. And as Flickhead notes, this isn't an example of a "boring art film." The film is meant to be exciting and entertaining, so if you bored that's a legitimate grievance.

But I was not bored, and the misogny, while certainly a problem, doesn't complicate my affection for the film, in the same way that racism is a problem with Sturges' films that doesn't complicate my affection for them. To speak to this one small point, I don't expect perfection from myself, so how can I expect it from my favorite films? In the same way that my vices are as interesting as my virtues, so too do these problems make the films in question more interesting to me. There are racist issues in Capra's oeuvre as well, and I think they're fascinating: how can men otherwise so empathetic be guilty of such close-mindedness?

But all of that has little to do with your thoughts on the film. So far as that goes, the highest compliment I can pay is that you've described a film I've never seen, which is why, like Peter, I can't wait to watch it again and try to see it through your eyes!

I also think that Peter's mention of Argento and Bertolucci is spot on. That these filmmakers have such different reputations probably tells us more about the people writing about them than it does about their work...

Casey said...

I've always felt that Leoene's Westerns improved with each one he made - reaching its apex in The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly.

It seemed to me that he was constantly experimenting with how long he could hold a shot/moment/etc. until it took the viewer out of the film because of it's overt stylishness. What OUATITW represents to me is the film where he went too far. Everything is so exaggerated that the exaggeration becomes an end in itself, and viewers are left wondering how long something can go on before something — anything — develops. Leone is more interested in making himself the star of the film, not the characters or the story.

Speaking of stars, something I find lacking in all the performances (well, maybe not Jason Robards) is any kind of wit. Fonda, Bronson and Cardinale are so serious, so humourless, they drag everything down with them. Holding OUATITW up alongside TGTB&TU is as much a textbook example of the power of stars and charisma as much as it is a lesson in the pitfalls of directorial overindulgence.

Alex said...

One very big problem with the movie is how shallow Leone's Marxism is here, at a precise moment in Italian film history when he should have known a lot better.

For Americans, Leone's Marxism as applied to the Western is initially what appeals to many viewers. You don't see that sort of thing so obviously in American Westerns. But Leone here doesn't actually say very much beyond some cliches. Capitalism is negative and it's founding moments are particularly brutal and nasty. OK, but Leone doesn't go beyond that.

So, Leone's childish Marxism here draws lots of viewers that don't poke beneath the obvious layer and see that, in fact, Leone's Marxism doesn't tell us things we don't already know.

The Siren said...

Andy, it is always good to see you here. Great question: "how can men otherwise so empathetic be guilty of such close-mindedness?" I do not think it is always close-mindedness. Racism (or indeed sexism) in the work of some directors is sometimes a kind of laziness, the lack of initiative to look or probe beyond received wisdom. But as Goatdog points out, when you love old movies you must confront this sort of thing all the time, and often what you find particularly objectionable, as opposed to something you can overlook, is a function of what just personally gets up your nose. I freely admit that Once Upon a Time in America so appalled me with its two rape scenes that I was particularly sensitive to OUTITW. But I am also quite sincere when I say that I think Leone is being deliberately insulting (and a bit of a schoolboy) when he makes a hooker the emblem of what will survive in the Old West.

To move on to Casey's point, which I loved -- I think he (she? do let me know!) gets at a big part of why OUTITW is boring for me. Leone really did seem to take all of his techniques a bridge too far in this movie; if it was mesmerizing to hold a take for X beats in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, why it must be twice as good to hold it for 2X beats in this one. Style, as Casey says, becomes an end in itself. Mind you, that can work on occasion, but here I think it does not.

Alex, it has been a while since I saw you here and I am glad to have written something to lure you back out. :) I spent a lot of time reading reviews of this all over the web - user reviews on IMDB, blog reviews, all kinds. And so I have learned that it is entirely possible for a lot of people to watch the movie and not twig to the Marxism at all, or at least not find it worth mentioning. But I agree that the political critique isn't particularly sophisticated either, so this movie is really neither fish nor fowl -- not engrossing enough as an actioner and not deep enough as a statement on the winners and losers in the Old West.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Whew! Campaspe, thanks for the name check. I cannot wait to read your digging into OUATITW, because, frankly, with some movies-- and some favorite movies-- it gets a little old hearing the conventional received wisdom being bandied back and forth endlessly between folks (like myself) who think the movie is purely amazing. And I am perfectly confident that your analysis will be smart and thoughtful and not a smear job-- that's why I can't wait to read it. I'm here right now just to check in and tell you that I'm am so swamped by life right now (last 72 hours = 6 hours sleep) that I haven't had a chance to read your piece, or any of the others on Jim's gigantic list of articles for this Contrarian Blog-a-Thon, and it's driving me crazy! I haven't had time to comment on anything either, including the series going on on my own site right now. But I promise I will, and in the spirit of there being so such thing as a dead thread-- no more so than there is ever a film too old or out-of-date or marginal to write or talk about-- I will comment profusely when I read your piece (later this week, I'm hoping). Sorry to have wasted comments space on what amounts to a non-comment, but I didn't have an e-mail address, so I did what I had to! Oh, and by the way, did you think it was at all pointed that Jim put us one right after the other on his blogroll of contributors? I did! And funny too! Thanks for being such a good writer, so good that I look forward to all the bad things you have to say about one of my favorite movies! :) Until then... ciao!

The Siren said...

Dennis, I am so glad you left this comment, because I was awfully afraid no one would play any reindeer games with me after I posted this! I will be interested in hearing what you have to say. It is ironic, since obviously I have no great affinity for Leone, that I love your blog and find myself agreeing with you quite frequently, even if you did beat up on poor old Mary Poppins. :D

And I do think the placement was entirely deliberate, and a pretty good joke at that. Jim dropped me a line and told me the post made him smile, but he loves the movie. Like I said, it is lonely disliking this flick, although I have more company than I expected.

Exiled in NJ said...

"Are we there yet?" is my remembrance of Once, yet if I had to watch either I would prefer it to Good, Bad because I don't have to put up with Eli Wallach hamming it up, calling upon his work in Magnificent Seven.

Eastwood's westerns are often 'slow' but each piece is part of a whole. Leone's dawdling is simply masturbation with a camera. If I want to look at art, I'll go to the museum.

The 'Stache said...

Sturges' racial stereotypes are actually much more overt than you see in a lot of movies of THAT time. I can't remember a major filmmaker of that time that we all admire using those kind of jokes repeatedly. Am I forgetting something that crops up again and again in the Marx Bros, Chaplin, Ford, Welles, Capra, Wyler, Hawks? I can only assume Sturges thought it was funny, and just had an unenlightened atttitude at the time, which wouldn't be so surprising except that I don't see it or don't recall it in any other major pics of the time, except for Gone With The Wind. Maybe he thought it fit the comic tone of the films. Fortunately, the scenes didn't last long.

By the way, Siren, since you've been so good as to boost the sale/rentals of Leone's flicks, would you be so kind as to trash His Girl Friday? I always want to encourage more people to watch my favorite movie. At least in that film, the stereotyped character is played by Ralph Bellamy.

Alex said...

"And so I have learned that it is entirely possible for a lot of people to watch the movie and not twig to the Marxism at all, or at least not find it worth mentioning"

It's certainly frequently praised and noted for being revisionist. Though some people might not be able to pinpoint exactly where the revision is coming from, this particular revision is coming from 1960s European Marxism, a perspective more alien than typical in American westerns, so the revision seems more radical.

You can see Leone's shallowness is to compare it to such movies as The Naked Spur, Dead Man, The Newton Boys or much of Boetticher.

The Siren said...

Exiled, I rather liked Wallach for the same reason I liked Robards; he livened things up for me. In general I have nothing against painterly compositions but we do call them "motion pictures," not "posing pictures."

TlRHB - Sturges is definitely not the only offender but I am drawing a blank at the moment. You get "comical" servants cropping up in a lot of movies, but now that you mention it I do not remember them much in the works of the directors you name.

I also love His Girl Friday, so I am afraid I can't help you there. :D

andyhorbal said...

I wonder if that isn't part of Sturges' appeal to me, TLRHB: Here's a director living and working in a racist America whose films lend themselves to the study of racism...

I'm gonna trot out a favorite J. Hoberman quote:

God's Stepchildren, the imitation Imitation of Life, which epitomizes Micheaux's complex, contradictory mixture of self-hatred and remorse, forms an essential triptych with The Birth of a Nation and The Searchers. They are the three richest, most harrowing delineations of American social psychology to be found on celluloid.

Part of what I value in Sturges and in Once Upon a Time... is the way they "harrowingly delineate" that American social psychology...

Casey said...

First things first: I'm a 'he.' (And to any Canadians reading this, no, I do not have a dog named Finnegan.)

I also want to back up Campaspe's point about Eli Wallach. In fact, I much prefer him to Robbards (that's no slight on Robbards skill, though). Tuco's definitely comic relief, but he's also a pretty brutal character (as when he kill's the prison guard). In the extended cut of the film, he's also a little more human. (Strangely, the longer TGTBATU never feels too long to me, even though it clocks in at almost 3 hours, now.)

I also need to comment on this, which I just saw, for some reason:

"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is probably Leone's best film -- but only in a peripheral sense. Would it be as engaging without Morricone's marvelous music or Tonino Delli Colli's understanding of light and landscape? I think not." - flickhead

What does this mean, exactly? Would Citizen Kane be as great without Greg Toland's deep focus work? Would 2001 be as interesting without Strauss?

Arguments like this aren't very helpful - you can make the same argument for almost any great film, and pulling that one strikes me as a convenience when other, more compelling arguments are harder to come by.

Finally, on the topic of Morricone, I find his music in OUATITW to also be a bit of a tipping point. Sometimes it seems like you can draw a straight line from this film to the over-sentimental music he's been churning out for the last three decades. Mission to Mars, Disclosure, or Wolf, anyone? (Yes, I know: half of the The Untouchables score is still cool.)

Cosmoetica said...

Leone's film is far superior to what came before as Westerns, esp. in comparison to the contemporaneous The Wild Bunch, which was not nearly as innovative, in so many ways.

The Siren said...

Casey - I actually understand Flickhead's post. Citizen Kane without Toland still has many elements of greatness; take away the Strauss from 2001 and you still have Kubrick's direction and the larger themes. Whereas, take away Morricone & the cinematography from TGTBATU and you have ... some good stuff, but a far less interesting movie. I think he is saying that the whole is, in that case, less than the sum of the parts.

Andy, I have been looking through Spoto's Sturges bio and so far find no discussion of the treatment of blacks.

Cosmoetica, I just strongly disagree. I think any of the other Westerns discussed in this thread, or in my prior post on Westerns, hold up much better than Leone in general and OUTITW in particular.

Casey said...

I don't know - I find it dangerous to start picking things out of already-completed films to make some sort of point about it's artistic value.

Saying, "Yeah it's great, but only because it's well shot and scored" doesn't changed the fact that the movie is what it is - you can't take away parts at random to reduce it. Leone gave Morricone his first chance at film-scoring. That should count almost as much as the music that he got from making that decision.

If I can arbitrarily remove any elements I want to from a film, just to further a point, that strikes me as a lazy way to win an argument.

What films get to be seen as wholes and which are merely a collection of separate elements independent of each other (surely, no one's arguing that Leone had nothing to do with the look of the film!).

Anyway, I'm not trying to pick on anyone - this is just a personal issue of mine, I guess.

The Siren said...

well, yes, except Flickhead & I weren't saying it was great ... we were saying it is a mediocre movie with a couple of great elements.

Pick away, though, this was a post calculated to start an argument! :)

Noel Vera said...

Aw, not Leone, not this film!

But it's hard to argue against his misogyny. One can point out that the two rapes are in the book, but Leone chose the camera angle for the second, in my opinion far more upsetting one (it echoes a similar angle in Dial M For Murder--probably inspired by the earlier film).

One can also argue that Jill is the most complex, grounded, resilient character in Once Upon a Time in The West--only that crack about the characters being flat rings too true. They don't really develop; they're cardboard cutouts in a magnificently shot landscape.

But but but but...if the camera and style is the star of this picture, what a style! The camera doesn't differentiate between landscape and giant closeup; it peers at both with a microscopic zeal. The real star here is Leone, the actors are perfectly cast mannequins (Cardinale is in the same situation as Novak in Vertigo--animal charisma, a complex role, and one's mind working hard with Hitchcock's style to desperately fill in the humungous in-between blanks).

Morricone is more than a collaborator; he writes the score, and Leone shoots and cuts accordingly. There's a point to singling out Morricone (though Morricone without Leone seems somehow overblown, syrupy--hated the effect his otherwise lovely score had on the sticky Cinema Paradiso. Leone is a perfect fit, I think, for better or worse).

And I disagree with regards to Zinneman. He's a highly competent director, but--too much good taste for me. I keep thinking of a more refined Clint Eastwood (or, conversely, that Eastwood has striven for and achieved a Zinneman tastefulness).

The Siren said...

Noel, I am sorry to have distressed you. :) I actually do agree with you that the real star is Leone, that is very astute. I guess it boils down to how much you enjoy his company. I just don't. Tasteful or no, I would far rather hang out with The Nun's Story. :)

Noel Vera said...

No, you didn't distress me; that's just my rhetoric bullshitting.

Nun's Story? Well...tomatoes, tomahtoes...

Valery said...

I'm also wondering whether false eyelashes were in 1880s?

M M M said...

A year after you post this (to the day, if I'd gotten to it two hours ago) and I stumble across it after watching the film. I've only got one thing to add.

You said this:
"To me the clincher is the dress-ripping scene with Bronson; he is letting her know he can have her any time he wants her, and she likes that."

I didn't see it like that at all. To me, Bronson's Harmonica seemed completely de-sexualized, a man concerned only with, as it's said in the film, death. When Claudia Cardinale is naked in the same room as him, how could he look out the window, at old Henry Fonda?

A saw it as another sort of gesture: notice that he only tore off the lace, the unnecessary parts of the dress. It's a rough gesture, but more an initiation rite than a threat. What good is such frippery in the West?

It's not as simple as that, of course. Yes, it allows us to see more of her cleavage. It does have an aggressive quality to it. But Bronson is toying with her in this scene (as he does with several characters, including men), intimidating her when he clearly means her no harm. Granted, I could be off-base here, but that's the way I took it.

Nigel said...

Yes. This. This film coulda been a contender. But it's not.