Thursday, April 30, 2020

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

Anti-social distancing

(Warning: story and plot twists described in explicit detail)

Locked down and stewing in your home, it can be a relief to view the works of Sergio Leone, particularly the later titles. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the WestDuck, You Sucker; and Once Upon a Time in America all have the expansive feel of a tale told of long ago, set in a mythological West (or America) so vast it makes the real thing (glimpsed at in daguerreotypes) feel claustrophobic. A pipe dream, in effect, concocted by your favorite nutty uncle sitting at the fireside with other kids gathered round, listening raptly. 

America, about Jewish gangsters in Prohibition New York, may be Leone's most sprawling ambitious work and possibly his masterpiece but West is arguably perfection, impeccably cast and executed. Even the stunt of using Henry Fonda as villain pays off--as the young boy looks slowly about him Leone inserts shots of his decimated family; enter the killers to the blare of an electric guitar, emerging from the surrounding brush like wraiths. The killers approach, and at one point the camera following behind swings around to peer at one of the faces and it's Mr. Lincoln--sorry, Mr. Fonda, not so Young anymore, as hired gunslinger Frank. The lined face the pale blue eyes, so iconic in American films, are pitiless here, faintly contemptuous even.

It's not just the wide spaces, though West doesn't so much unreel along its storyline as it does unfurl in every direction; the characters keep their distance as if wary of what they may catch from each other (except for Lionel Stander's barman, who leans in to better appreciate Claudia Cardinale's Jill). The three gunmen who greet 'Harmonica' (Charles Bronson) at the train station don't even bother to talk to each other; instead they position themselves at different ends of a train station the size of a football field and develop their own independent routine: Stony (Woody Strode) allows water to drip into his hat till there's enough to sip; Knuckles (Al Mulock) dips his hand in a water trough and gazes into the distance; Snaky (Jack Elam) traps an annoying fly in the barrel of his gun--presses the barrel to his ear and listens contentedly to the agitated buzzing.

We meet other characters: Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who runs his own gang independent of Frank; Frank's putative boss Mr. Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti), who's crippled but chugs around in his private train car (Cheyenne nicknames him "Mr. Choo-Choo"); the previously mentioned Harmonica. No one slaps the other in the arm, or wraps them in a hug, or even offers a kiss; these are all strangers barely met who'd rather stay that way (helps that Leone builds his sets the size of the myths he wants to depict--that is, several times larger-than-life). Yes there's a plague, but not the viral kind: as a filmmaker (fictional) once put it: "He named the disease." "Yeah what?" "It's a social disease very common." "Like gonorrhea?" "You're close. It's spread the same way, by screwing your fellow man." Everyone maintains a distance of double arm's length or roughly six feet--which come to think of it may matter little (six feet or sixty) when staring down the business end of a gun.

Did I say arm's length? One notable exception, when Frank's in bed with Jill. Yes proximity even intimacy, but their minds couldn't be further apart: Frank is a racehorse owner admiring the smooth muscles of his captured prized filly; Jill is that filly desperately calculating the best way to stay alive, if not actually escape. 

The film has several themes: the passing of the gunslinger, the development of towns (mainly through the railroad), the domestication of the West. Said themes aren't dwelt on so much as exploited--the deed to a crucial parcel of land beside the railroad functions mainly as a McGuffin driving the plot; the means used to acquire the deed are melodramatically crude (at one point involving the massacre of aforementioned family) where more sensible entrepreneurs would employ subtler more respectable forms of pressure (money; lawyers; law enforcement officers). The domestication of the West is embodied in Jill, herself an unlikely combination of practical survivor (she willingly--even ardently--makes love to Frank) and reluctant dreamer (she has to have her husband's dream explained to her (by Harmonica); has to be prodded more than once (by Harmonica, by Cheyenne) to step up and fulfill that dream). 

Only the gunslinger theme feels anywhere near heartfelt. Bronson's Harmonica finds no satisfaction in his quest for vengeance, even seems regretful that he accomplishes his quest; Frank enjoys killing but aspires to reach Morton's level, become a respectable capitalist; when he faces Harmonica near film's end he, to his embarrassment, must admit to failure (Morton has outmaneuvered him). Harmonica sympathizes: "So you found out you're not a businessman after all." "Just a man," Frank admits.  "An ancient race," Harmonica observes.

An odd eerie moment: Bronson's face as he utters that last phrase takes on the look of a wizened sage, not so much serene as exhausted. His low voice suggests the stench of burnt corpses--possibly the only thing in the entire film that isn't calculated style, that seemingly speaks not from acquired knowledge but direct experience. 

Who came up with that phrase? Leone? Donati? Bertolucci? Argento? Wouldn't be surprised if any of them did but my money's on Argento--the phrase has a mystic ring to it with hints of Lovecraftian terror, of eons of human (and inhuman) suffering. Not a little out of place in a genre Western, but unforgettably so.  

That phrase aside the advent of civilization is used more here as an excuse to solve a series of intricate interlocking visual puzzles--the first, the train station gunfight, answers the immediate narrative question "Who are those three men waiting for?" and the more interesting (at least to the filmmaker) underlying visual question "How can ten minutes of screen time where nothing important happens pass entertainingly?" When Harmonica is captured and carried away on Morton's train with three gunmen guarding, Leone answers the following: "How will Cheyenne rescue Harmonica?" and, more importantly, "How will one gunman cleverly pick off three in a moving train car?"

Some of the visual puzzles don't involve guns. Jill walking around her husband's legacy--thousands of dollars of lumber, nails, tools--muses at what it's all for. "Maybe he wanted to enlarge the farmhouse." "Enlarge the farmhouse? He could have built at least eight of them." The contractor shows her a signboard her husband ordered, "only seems he forgot to tell me what he wanted printed on it."

Leone's camera zooms into Jill's face; Ennio Morricone's music tinkles gently from the screen and we go back to the image of a toy building her husband kept at their house, with Jill gently flicking at that exact shape signboard swinging from a tiny post. "Station," she whispers, almost to herself. "What's that again?" "I said print 'station!'"  

My favorite arguably most intricate puzzle-mystery involves a series of flashbacks (Harmonica's, it's suggested), of a man walking through desert haze. As the film progresses so does the man, closer and closer with every succeeding flashback. 

Frank finally confronts Harmonica, who flashes back one more time; the approaching man has stopped and we recognize a younger more brazen Frank, who pulls out of his shirt pocket a--what else?--harmonica. Reverse cut: Frank shoves the harmonica into a young boy's face, and from the broad nose and plump tearstained cheeks we recognize our hero's younger slighter self. The camera cranes up and away, and we see more details: boots heavy on the boy's shoulders (it's his older brother); a noose tight round the elder's neck, the other end tied to the clapper of a bell hanging from a stone archway. Harmonica struggles bravely but his brother is almost twice his size and weight; it's only a matter of time. Three of Frank's men flank the brothers, enjoying the spectacle. 

The sequence has the impact of an epiphany, answering a question that must have obsessed the filmmaker for years: "Can you make a film where an image answers everything?" With a single soaring shot--arguably one of the most lyrical in all of the director's work, perhaps in all of cinema--the whole film, pitched halfway between hallucination and fevered dream, snaps into focus. Harmonica's enigmatic character is explained even justified, the film itself laid completely bare. 

What else to say? One of the most enjoyable of Westerns, and an outsized exercise in musical and visual style--not much more than that, I suppose, but plenty enough for me.

First published in Businessworld 4.24.20

1 comment:

Azkaban Firarisi said...

That looks good. Thanks