This month, in Allan Havey’s Film Vault: One of the best films ever made. It took close to forty years to gain the recognition it so richly deserves. It’s majestic, intimate and bloody. It moves slow and steady, like a train. When it reaches its destination, you will be transfixed. It single handedly redefined the western genre in film. It’s Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West.
This month’s pick is one of the best films ever made. It took close to forty years to gain the recognition it so richly deserves. It’s majestic, intimate and bloody. It moves slow and steady, like a train. When it reaches its destination, you will be transfixed. It single handedly redefined the western genre in film. It’s Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West.
I first saw this in the theater with my Dad. He had a hard day at work and wanted to relax and see a movie. My Mother wasn’t interested. “Not another bloody western!” Even though it was a school night, I went by default, and thank God I did. It’s one of the best memories of my childhood.
My Dad and I settled in our seats, thinking we were going to see a typical western. Even though it had the common elements, greed, revenge and a breathtaking whore, it was as uncommon and original as any film we had ever seen. Simple in plot with very little dialogue, it keeps you guessing, waiting and watching. The haunting score composed by Ennio Morricone is mesmerizing. It was the first time I became aware of the power of music on defining character and plot.
This was the first film Leone shot after the successful “Dollars” trilogy that reinvented Clint Eastwood’s career. And, as much as I loved those films (especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) This is my favorite Leone film. He naturally offered the leading role to Clint Eastwood. When he turned it down Charles Bronson stepped in. Moviegoers have been grateful ever since.
After the opening scene, you’ll easily see why. Bronson’s stoic and eerie portrayal as “Harmonica” is the anchor to the amazing supporting players in this hypnotic epic. Once Upon a Time in the West features Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Keenan Wynn and the brilliant Henry Fonda as Frank, the most evil bastard that ever graced the silver screen.
The restraint of Leone’s direction keeps it taut and tense. Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography dances gracefully with Morricone’s score creating a dream like atmosphere of beautiful desolation, violence and death.
If you think this is hyperbole, don’t take my word for it. Watch for it at a revival house. If you must see it on DVD, see the collector’s edition that came out several years ago. It deserves to be seen on a big ass television. Once you see Once Upon a Time in the West, you’ll understand where Quentin Tarantino picked up his “signature style”
Years ago in a dark theater my father and I couldn’t believe what we had just witnessed. We looked at each other, mouths agape. We knew this was something special. After multiple viewings it’s still as fresh as it was in 1969.
Once Upon a Time in the West airs on Turner Classic Movies. Thursday, April 22nd 7:30pm EST.