by Sam Juliano
The following is the full content of a term paper handed in to a Professor Renaldo Ovest Spaghetti for a graduate course in Italian Cinema offered during the fall semester of 2007 at Montclair State University. Spaghetti asked all the students in his class to adhere to a rigid scholarship and demanded a formal presentation. He specifically asked that there be a minimum of five major references, all of which of course must be documented at the conclusion of the paper. He strongly encouraged quotes and passages. The veteran educator also made it clear that he was less interested in the gossipy aspects of Leone and his work with his actors and craftsmen, than he was with a probing analysis of the work, its themes and focus and the specifics as to why it has been held in such high regard since the time it was released 45 years ago. Spaghetti also made it clear that anyone hell bent on denigrating the film, or even slighting it in direct comparison to its celebrated American contemporaries, would risk a lower grade. The esteemed Professor asked that the word count for all papers fall between 4000 and 4300 words. He also made it clear that the paper would be weighted to represent 50% of the final grade. Class participation and a final exam would constitute the remainder of the criteria.
There are a good many of us who cannot get enough of Sergio Leone’s epic Western ‘Once Upon A Time in the West. We play the highly choreographed showpiece sequences in the film over and over again as though they were favorite musical recordings. We memorize the film’s concise, aphoristic dialogue. And we find that the film stands up quite well to repeated viewings because, with its solemn, majestic gestures and allusive script, it never quite yields its full meaning. -John Fawell
There is indeed a sense of mystery ingrained in the visuals of one of cinema’s crowning glories, a film that has both grown in stature, and has repeatedly attracted the full range of hyperbolic overload from the critical establishment and the audiences who embrace the genres of the western and the epic. Once Upon A Time in the West has furthermore maintained cross-over appeal to those who normally resist the western and its constricted trappings, and has long perceived the category as one with substantial limitations. Yet the film, says Robert Cumbow in his seminal study The Films of Sergio Leone is more about the “country” than it is about the “west.” As such we can confidently conclude that as a result of its employment of cinematic poetry and expressiveness it represents Leone’s most personal vision, and the film above all others in his canon that bears his personal stamp: it is rooted in the conventions of western melodrama and includes the implacable black-clad villain, the struggling landowner being menaced by the businessman out to gain for a lark, but yet defended to the death by the strong and silent type. In addition, the oldest revenge motive in the genre – “You killed my brother” is amplified in an epic that within the genre parameters can safely be posed as all-encompassing.
Leone’s personal vision is in tune with his life-long infatuation and adoration of the American western. In West he broadly and specifically makes references to some of the great adult films of the 1950’s. In High Noon it is more overt: three men at a train station wait on an appointment with a man named Frank. But his genre scholarship extends in varying manner to films such as Johnny Guitar, Shane, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, 3:10 to Yuma, Run of the Arrow, Last Train to Gun Hill among others. Of course it has long been known that John Ford above all others has made the most resonate influence on Leone and a few instances in West are clear homages. From The Searchers he conducts a veritable study of backlit doorways, and specifically makes reference to the raid on the homestead, citing the birds flying up from the brush and the child bravely, if apprehensively looking up at the adult intruder. From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Leone borrows the use of light and dark milieus to identify characters, including Frank, whose amoral power and the dominance his men have on Flagstone – persuasively seen during the action sequence that parallels the election in the Ford film – does recall the preeminence of Valance over the town of Shinbone. Still, Frank in West stands apart from Valance in that he is a child-killer, thus possessing his own code of conduct. The idea of family and the family’s expansion into community (Cumbow) is a Fordian motif that is encored in Once Upon A Time in the West, which for all intents and purposes in Leone’s most Fordian work, Leone portrays community arising from the dissolution of family and introduces the bond among strangers as the replacement for the natural family. The major disparity between the manner of the way family perseveres is that in Leone’s films the members are victims. In Ford’s they are survivors who move beyond their funerals and in fact are fortified by them. Leone forms surrogate families after a final ‘amen’ sends natural families to their graves. Hence none of the central characters in Once Upon A Time in the West has a family. After the massacre Jill is left homeless (and loveless) and the other characters make references to deceased kin or are loners. In any event Leone never misread Ford’s optimism for sentimentality. In his perception, Ford steered clear of cliche, but imbuing his films with a faith in goodness. Indeed in an interview Leone told the author Christopher Frayling in his volume “Once Upon A Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone”: Ford is a filmmaker whose work I admired enormously, more than any other director of Westerns. I could almost say that it was thanks to him that I even considered making westerns myself. I was very influenced by Ford’s honesty and his directness. Because he was an Irish immigrant, who was full of gratitude to the United States of America, Ford was also full of optimism. His main characters usually look forward to a rosy future. If he sometimes demythologizes the West, as I had tried to do in the ‘Dollars’ films, it is always with a certain romanticism, which is his greatness, but which also takes him a long way away from historical truth – although less so than most of his contemporary directors of westerns. Ford was full of optimism, whereas I, on the contrary, am full of pessimism. So there is a great difference in our conceptions of the world – but outside of that, if anyone influenced me, it was Ford.
Leone went further: There is a visual influence there as well, because he was the one who tried most carefully to find a true visual image to stand for “the West.” The dust, the wooden towns, the clothes, the desert. The Ford film I like most of all – because we are getting nearer to shared values – is also the least sentimental, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.’ We certainly watched that when we were preparing ‘Once Upon A Time in the West.’ Why? Because Ford, finally, at the age of almost sixty-five, finally understood what pessimism is all about.
In spite of the diverging world views of Ford and Leone, it should not be remotely concluded that Leone is anywhere near what Bogdonovich asserted in his bizarre dismissals of the latter’s work. Bogdonovich basically referred to Leone as a crass cynic who violated the Fordian values of family, home, tradition, and one who offered no hope for the future. Leone, contrary to what Bogdonovich posed, Leone did believe in the “dream” of the family, rather than the tangible incarnation visualized by Ford. Says Cumbow in comparing Leone with Ford: “For Leone family is equally important but distinctly less visible.” Hence, many of the characters in Once Upon A Time in the West evince a deep reverence for family. albeit a family that is lost. In this sense it must be strongly asserted that West is one of the most elegiac films ever made. Jill loses her family on the same day she connects with it, a fact that would seem to support the idea that what moves Leone most in exploring the institution is the nature of its fleetingness. Similarly, Cheyenne soliloquizes appreciably about his dead mother. Even Lionel Stander’s barman speaks of a “distant sister.” In conclusion, while it is easy to summon up all kind of references and examples to support the assertion that Leone was well into the Ford Honoring business, he was no blind worshiper. The McBain massacre would appear to be a send up of the legendary director. West can also be connected to the work of Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray, and some critics pose persuasive arguments for its kinship with Fellini’s 8 1/2. In yet another vein Leone could be seen as the “original” Quentin Tarantino, one who is a dedicated cinephile who made films which consciously referenced those that inspired him. In Hawks’s films as in Leone’s there is a special emphasis on male friendship This propensity enables us to discern some humanity in characters who might otherwise seem too cynical and cruel. Much like Hawks Leone steered clear of having characters state their affections implicitly, preferring to negotiate them though implication. Obviously Leone and Hawks stand apart from Ford in this regard. Leone it can be concluded was fond of the use of nicknames and the camaraderie that emanates from such characters. Hawks was the model who was followed on this aspect.
Epic in structure, yet intricate and detailed in narrative form, Once Upon A Time’s story can be related in short enough order: Three gunfighters wait at a lonely railroad station. ‘Frank’ (Henry Fonda) has sent them to meet a man with a harmonica. They attempt to shoot him down, but the gunfire is successfully returned. Meanwhile at a lonely farmhouse in the desert, the McBain family prepare for a wedding party, but are massacred by Frank and his gang. Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives by train at the Flagstone settlement and hires a driver to escort her to her husband’s ranch. In a posada en route, she meets the man with the harmonica and an escaped outlaw named Cheyenne. (Jason Robards) She arrives at the farmhouse to witness her family’s funeral. A scrap of clothing found at the farm convinces the sheriff and his men that Cheyenne is the killer, and a posse is promptly sent after him. Jill stays back trying to make sense of the massacre. The next morning Cheyenne visits Jill and swears his innocence. After he departs Harmonica (Charles Bronson) appears and trashes Jill’s dress, before killing two more of Frank’s men that invade the terrain. Back in town Jill insists that Wobbles (Marco Zuanelli), Frank’s henchman, relay a message to Frank. Harmonica pursues Wobbles to a private train, but is is taken prisoner by Frank, who kills Wobbles and rides off to deal with Jill. Harmonica is rescued by Cheyenne, who was in hiding on the train.
In Flagstone, Jill assumes delivery of some lumber and tools that were actually sent on to her late husband, who had planned to build a railroad station station on their property. Frank kidnaps Jill and humiliates Morton,his partner. Harmonica tells Cheyenne he has seen documents which will make Sweetwater (McBain’s property) hugely valuable if the station is built by the time the railroad arrives. The outlaws then set about building the station. Frank then convinces Jill to sell the property to him at auction. His men rig the bidding, only to be outbid by Harmonica, offering Cheyenne -for whom there is a $5,000 reward – as surety. Aboard the train, Morton bribes some of Frank’s men to kill him. They attempt to assassinate their boss on the streets of Flagstone; he’s saved by Harmonica’s intervention. Frank locates the remainder of his gang and Cheyanne’s all dead in and around the private train; they’ve shot each other in a chance to spring Cheyenne. Morton, who dreamed of seeing the Pacific Ocean, dies in a ditch beside the tracks. Frank returns to McBain’s to face Harmonica, and learn why he’s been pursuing him. He loses the gunfight, and in a final flashback remembers who Harmonica is: the younger brother of a man he murdered years ago. Cheyenne and Harmonica say goodbye to Jill and ride away. Cheyenne dies just out of sight of the McBain ranch, gut-shot by Morton during his escape. Harmonica carried his body into the hills.
One Upon A Time in the West is largely about vindication, just as A Fistful of Dollars is about greed, For A Few Dollars More about obsession and The Good the Bad and the Ugly is about betrayal. Cumbow opines: “By the end of the film, Cheyenne, circumstantially held responsible for the McBain killings, is vindicated; Harmonica’s own claim on Frank is vindicated; Jill’s abandonment of her old way of life and her embracing of a new world are vindicated by the confidence Harmonica and Cheyenne place in her; and McBain’s dream for Sweetwater is vindicated through Jill by Harmonica and Cheyenne. Most of all, the Western, an increasingly out-of-favor genre during the 60’s (particularly the Italian western, the target of simple-minded reviewers and critics), is vindicated” Leone as always more than willing to thematically translate his work and to offer possible clues to various ambiguities. In the extensive interview with Frayling he responded to the statement that he (Leone) has called the film “a dance of death.”: Yes, I wanted to do a film which was a dance of death, or a ballet of the dead. I wanted to take all the most stereotypical characters from the American Western – on loan! The finest whore from New Orleans; the romantic bandit; the killer who is half-businessman. half-killer and who wants to get on in the new world of business; the businessman who fancies himself as a gunfighter; the lone avenger. With these most stereotypical characters from the American Western, I wanted to present a homage to the Western at the same time as showing the mutations which American society was undergoing at that time. So the story was about a birth and a death. Before they even come onto the scene, these stereotypical characters know themselves to be dying – in every sense, physically and morally – victims of the new era which was advancing…I wanted in this way to tell the story of the birth of a nation which is America…In fact, Claudia Cardinale represents the water, the promise of the West; the plot revolves around her, and she’s the only one who survives. Charlie Bronson represents the last frontier. Henry Fonda is town between being a cowboy, a killer, and a businessman. Jason Robards represents the last romantic, the last romantic who is possible. Gabriele Ferzetti is the relentless force of capitalism, at whatever personal cost.
Leone sustained an infatuation for the American Dream and its ethos for a lengthy period dating back to his own childhood. He continued to express a child-like glee for westerns and purportedly would even dress up like a cowboy on the set, replete with hat and gun. It has even been suggested that some critics may make the mistake of underestimating Leone’s honest affection for Hollywood and the West. Once Upon A Time in the West is often seen as a final statement on the western, and an acknowledgement of its death. At the end of the day, Leone was far less enamored of the possibilities of script and performance than he was about the mythic qualities of his subject. Conversely it should not be laid aside that Leone was very critical of rampant capitalism and how it dictated the course of life in the states. He admired so much of the product but the manner in which financial success was achieved was a matter than repulsed him. Leone states his conflicting feelings quite succinctly when he opined: “America is really the property of the world, and not only of the Americans, who among other things, have the habit of diluting the wine of their mythical ideas with the water of the American life, Americans have only “rented the American Dream temporarily. If they don’t behave well, if the mythical level is lowered, if their movies don’t work anymore and history takes on an ordinary day-to-day quality, then we can always evict them.”
Leone’s visual scheme is endlessly discussed when his work is up for analysis. He contrasted extreme close-ups with expansive wide shots. His taste for the former was parting of company for the traditional Hollywood western, which for the most part use sparing use of this technique. Leone preferred the magnified detail and recognized the emotional power such framing would being to his narrative. The breathtaking clarity of the close-ups accentuated the effectiveness of what Robert Bresson referred to as “the ejaculatory force of the eyes.” Leone’s use of the close-up is justly celebrated in his climaxes but he moves in as well in the film’s more elegiac passages like the scene when Harmonica and Jill say farewell to each other, while Cheyenne looks on somberly. When discussing composition it must be noted that Leone had a distinct affinity for the surrealists, as can be seen by the dreamy timelessness of the opening scene, or the faded picture of a clock with no hands seen above Frank’s shoulder later on. The image of the handless clock dominates that scene in fact, as Leone is suggesting that time has stopped. Hence Leone, like the surrealists was fascinated by the aesthetics of the clock. His camera movement was unpredictable and diverse: he could be obtrusive, quietly elegant or classical. Cheyenne’s death for example is captured in a few lovely and quiet movements. The film’s great cinematographer Tonino delli Colli stated “a little movement that someone else might not find significant says something to Leone. These moments are rarely broached in most studies of the director, studies that largely focus on the operatic set pieces. Leone’s camera often waits in the very spot when a character meets his fate. An excellent comparative point was discussed by Fawell in his critical appreciation of the film: “one sees a kindred spirit of Leone in William Wellman as seen in his classic Public Enemy: “Jimmy Cagney marches across the street to the building where he intends to kill all those responsible for his friend’s death. Cagney walks right up to a waiting camera, positioned somewhere in the middle of the street, to the point of a tight close-up shot that registers his determination, then is filmed for the rest of his march from behind as he disappears into the building. These shots create the sense of characters both approaching, and descending into, their fates. Here the camera is not so much another partner in choreography, but an observer from a fixed position, conveying a much more fatalistic point of view. The camera is always placed just where destiny itself would observe its victims. The camera is already there on the ground at the spot where Frank will fall to his death, poised to register in close-up the blank expression of death. And it is there at the bottom of McBain’s grave starting up, in a point-of-view shot at the mourners scattering dirt on it.”
Leone was essentially a “set piece” director, who deliberately arranged his film as a series of extended sequences, each aiming for a specific rhythm, bringing in sights, sounds, music and dialogue. For the most part the director resisted cutting within a sequence, instead opting to remove the entire sequence if he was unhappy with the shoot. Much like his hero Charlie Chaplin, Leone always shot much more than what was actually needed, or what would eventually make it into the film. As Frayling has noted in his study (and this point is especially vital to those who have voiced difficulty with what seems to be a lack of continuity in Leone’s films or dismay for the seeming aversion to the editing process–wasn’t thing always brought up when people discuss Once Upon a Time in America?) “Leone’s tendency to conceive of films in large blocks of sequences, inseparable within themselves, contributes to a final product more easily prone to errors in continuity. Hence, when Leone was forced by producers to cut Once Upon a Time in the West, he had to take out fairly large sequences that leave gaps in the final product. The resulting ‘perceived errors in continuity are insignificant compared to those that existed after the producers got their hands on the film. In the end Leone exhibited a gift in the editing room that allowed him to make use of images and how to combine them to achieve the desired effect.
One of the film’s most justly venerated ingredients is the famous score by Ennio Morricone. In a prolific and celebrated career, the still active octogenarian wrote was surely his most operatic score, in that the characters are each assigned a theme or motif that accompanies them throughout the film and is as carefully varied and developed as the characters themselves. It is in fact comparable in its lyrical beauty with the score Giacomo Puccini wrote for La Fanciulla del West. John Fawell in his exceptional treatise on the film “The Art of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West” opines that “Jill gets the expansive main title theme voiced, wordlessly, by Edda dell’Orso, which seems to express such sympathy for her dashed hopes in arriving in Flagstone and to express Cheyenne’s and Harmonica’s sympathy for her plight.”
Furthermore, if the soundtrack sympathizes with Jill, it pities Morton with the gentle, impressionistic music that accompanies his scenes. Cheyanne gets the most Italian theme of the bunch, a banjo and saloon piano tune that deliberates an expresses Cheyenne’s warmth, comedic flavor and philosophical world weariness. Most unforgettable of all is the theme chosen for Frank and Harmonica. This haunting and dramatic dirge in the traditional of mournful Mexican marches is played in trumpet and steel guitar, and is introduced by the four notes of wailing harmonica with which Harmonica always enters a scene. Says Fawell: “That the theme is shared by Harmonica and Frank suggests that their fates are so conjoined that they cannot be separated into distinct musical themes.” The theme has several sections – introduced by the wailing of Harmonica’s notes, then to an idling horn section, finally amplified guitar chords that dramatically denote retribution and justice. The score may well be Morricone’s most intricate and complex in that it questions and complicates Leone’s visuals, rather than just comment on them. Most listeners can readily identify with the irresistibly catchy banjo theme that shows above all Morricone’s propensity for melody and the eternally hummable quotient. The bar room waltz is catchy too, but in the end it’s the deeper and more melancholic (that word elegiac again) orchestrations that give the film a deeper context – Morricone not only interpreted Leone, but in some ways translated him. In his long career it may well be the score he is best remembered by, even edging the incomparably beautiful music he wrote over a decade later for Once Upon A Time in America. The vindication, however, is not steeped in triumph but in sorrow, in keeping with the temper of Leone’s world view and the context of the film.
Even with deft and complex editing standards and the coordination of magnificent cinematography and a now legendary score, one could rightfully assert that a big part of the film’s effectiveness lies with the five principal actors, who must fuel a slow-moving picture. The celebrated film director and critic Alex Cox says “most of the spartan dialogue is about coffee, heroism or railroad land grants. Assessing the performances, Claudia Cardinale as Jill is most effective, even if she is asked to do little more than display strength and beauty. Henry Fonda as Frank, an actor, who played some of the most noble roles in film history makes a spectacular villain and pretty must overshadows the entire cast. As a child murderer, kidnapper and and rapist, he could not possibly plays a more reprehensible figure, but his calculated mannerisms and ferocious intensity carry the day. Gabrielle Ferzetti, a dynamic actor injects those qualities into Morton; Charles Bronson is perfect in looks and movements as the mysterious avenger, and Jason Robards (Cox says “he is good but doesn’t do very much) gives a full-bodied, vivid portrayal.
In the end one can conclude that Once Upon a Time in the West is talkier, and less plot-reliant than than the Eastwood-Leone films. This allows for the humanity and emotional depth that elevate it to the rightful position as the greatest of all the spaghetti westerns. It took some time, but like other masterpieces in various forms it gets better and better with age.
Christopher Frayling, Once Upon A Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone (Harry N. Abrams, 2005)
John Fawell, The Art of Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’: A Critical Appreciation (McFarland, 2005)
Alex Cox, 10,000 Ways To Die (Kamera, 2009)
John G. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (Popular Press, 1999)
Robert C. Cumbow, The Films of Sergio Leone (Scarecrow Press, 2008)