Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #144 on the list, Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West. For a longer introduction and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll be posting that info later in the day.
Once upon a time, Italy’s greatest director of spaghetti westerns teamed up with one of the all-time greatest composers of music for film scores and an all-star cast in an effort to create the best movie ever in that genre.
I’m actually tempted to leave my comments on this film right there, because really Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West is one of those movies that is hard to write about without sounding like one is simply gushing superlatives. Still, I feel like I owe you guys a bit more than that, so let’s see what I can do.
There are times when I approach these movies in the top 250 wondering what it is about them that has put them on this list. Sometimes, as the film develops it becomes fairly obvious. Other times, for instance with The Conversation, it’s not until the very end that I understand the power of the movie or the skills on display. There are even even times when I simply make no connection with the movie at all or have a negative reaction that I’m still left wondering at the end just what it is that so many people love about a film.
That’s definitely not a problem that I had with this one. From the opening moments of the film it’s obvious that we are dealing with a director who is at the top of his game and is bringing everything that he has learned in his previous outings to the film, and thereby getting the most not only out of the performers we see onscreen, but from all of his behind the camera associates as well, especially cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, with whom he had also worked on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The beginning also serves to put the audience on notice that they are in for a different experience with this movie than with any of the director’s previous outings.
The film begins in media res, with no explanation of who the characters are that we are seeing, or why they are there, and it is only through later flashbacks and exposition that we really gain insight into what we are seeing, and the significance of the events that follow, and this is actually a technique that Leone uses to great effect throughout the movie as characters weave in and out of the film, some of them seemingly only tangentially relating to the ongoing narrative until later they become much more significant. Indeed, instead of using the opening to explain the characters or the setting, Leone instead uses a number of long (some would probably say slow) takes to create a sense of atmosphere, of dread and foreboding, that sets the entire mood of the film.
That’s not to say that this is a dark movie. Far from it. It’s actually quite a bright film with an incredibly saturated color palate. However even the brightness, especially when it’s coming from the outdoor sun, carries with it a sense of the ever-pervasive and inescapable heat that also at times seems to be a character in this film. It also, perhaps helps to explain why the title of the movie focuses the viewer’s attention on its setting in the “west”, rather than its characters as the previous film’s title did.
So does that mean that the characters get short shrift here? No, far from it. Again, it is to Leone’s credit that he not only gives his individual characters time to develop, time to breathe and become living beings that we care about, but also to develop their own individual quirks and moments that make them more than just performers hitting their marks and saying their lines, but real characters who you know have past lives (some of which we again become aware of as the film progresses, some of which are only hinted at) that inform each performance and which the actors for the most part use to enhance their interpretations of these people.
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Leone is working with a pretty incredible cast here. The choice to feature Henry Fonda, for instance as lead “bad guy” Frank not only provides immediate interest for the audience, bringing as it does all of the memories and expectations that we have from seeing Fonda in the exact opposite of this role, but also gives Fonda himself extra motivation to show that he can stretch, that he can actually be as vile and nasty as the character calls for him to be, and it is something that he pulls off very well. And the rest of the cast, from Charles Bronson‘s “Harmonica” on down all seem to realize that they are truly in something that is special, and they all bring, to use the cliche, their “A game” to elevate this film from what could have been a fairly typical outing to something that is truly spectacular.
And perhaps, in the end, that really is the key here. I tried to indicate at the beginning of this post that this movie really is a truly collaborative effort, one that really does live up to that probably overly used cliche about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, but really, when the parts are individually as great as these, and when they are being brought together by a master craftsman such as Leone, it’s probably inevitable that what is going to wind up on the screen is going to be one of the best films ever.
Plus, let’s face it: don’t all of the best stories begin with the phrase “Once upon a time…”?
So what are your thoughts on Once Upon a Time in the West? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Let me know below.