Saturday, February 7, 2009

Once Upon a Time in the West

"You don't understand, Jill. People like that have something inside... something to do with death." Cheyenne, Jason Robards.

Sergio Leone, I think it's fair to say, is one of my favorite filmmakers. Having seen A Fistful of dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I absolutely love his sense of pace, his badass characters(well, character, that being the man with no name), the anarchic worlds he creates, and his beautiful, absolutely magnificent landscapes. and all this without seeing what is widely considered his masterpiece, which is, of course, Once Upon a Time in the West, pretty much considered the greatest western of all time. So, I love Leone, and this is considered his best, so my anticipations coming in were at an all time high. The question is, Was the master of westerns able to live up to the enormous hype I had coming into this?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This movie is a masterpiece. It is epic, yet intimate, slow, yet packed full with story. It is magnificent filmmaking. The plot is twisted but lets see if I can explain it. We start with the murder of a family. We follow cold hearted child killer Frank(Henry Fonda), who is the murderer of this family, as he tries to own their plot of land, Jill Mcbain(Claudia Cardinale) the wife of the family who was killed on the farm, Harmonica(Charles Bronson) Who has some unfinished business with Frank but it is not explained what, and Cheyenne(Jason Robards), who starts out as the fall guy for the killings of the Mcbain family and then gets caught up in the epic struggle between Harmonica and Frank.

I love the encounters that Leone portrays. Unlike most other directors, he understands pace, letting characters breathe for ten minutes on end(as an example) before building to a very short climax(something Tarantino understood when making Kill Bill Vol.1) Allowing us to take in the detail of the cinematography.
And then there's the beauty of the storytelling. Unlike a film I just saw tonight, The Usual Suspects, where characters and plotlines had to be convoluted for the plots sake, Leone's characters have a very defined motivation even if their motivation isn't told outright to you and the character is portrayed as distant and unemotional. Plus there's the fact that in a film such as The good, the bad, and the ugly, Clint Eastwood, Lee van Cleef, and Sergio Leone are all overshadowed by Eli Wallach as Tuco, a very fun, over the top performance.

But here, every one is bringing their A-game and none of them is letting their performance get in the way of anyone else's. While I don't know if I would take Charles Bronson over Clint Eastwood(I mean, who would?) He is definitely on par with Clint. Lee Van Cleef, however, is easily bettered by Henry Fonda. While Lee van cleef to me was just a regular villain, Henry Fonda is iconic. The blue eyes sparkling with his malicious, murderous intent, we get an easy impression of him when he murders the Mcbains, including killing a child without batting an eyelid. Of course, later on, we realise that he was told only to scare the Mcbains and not to massacre them, with which he gives the curt reply "People scare better we they're dying" He has such a calm tone, the same one he adopts when fighting for a boys life in 12 angry men. He seems to be such at ease with Frank, what his Frank is saying and doing that disturbs me to no end. And of course, Jason Robards is having as much fun as Eli Wallach but in service of the script, not to it's detriment. Claudia Cardinale is good as well as the head strong wife of Mr Mcbain, but she really didn't stand out for me as much as the other three actors did.
So can I just say it's an undisputed masterpiece already? Do you need me to go on about the stunning visuals, the impeccable storytelling, the fantastic acting, the perfect pacing? Or can I just stop? Because I think you get the point.

Verdict: The greatest western ever made. Maybe even the greatest movie ever made.

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