Saturday, March 6, 2010

Something To Do With Death

Once Upon a Time in the West was received coolly by most film critics on its initial release in 1969*, but has since come to be regarded as one of the finest Westerns ever made. It pulls apart the narrative of your usual Western and digs down deep into the meaning of many things, most of which have to do with being a man in a time when such a concept was dying. "Just a man," says Frank about himself, to which Harmonica replies, "An ancient race." Their time is up; the world is changing. Men have their own concerns that fly in the face of progress; "Something to do with death," as Cheyenne says about the character of Harmonica.

*For fun, read a rather negative review from 1969 of OUATITW by some young kid named Roger Ebert.

Sergio Leone was about a half-step shy of being a full-blown Marxist, and you'll get the full effect of this movie if you keep it in mind. There are numerous references and homages to classic Westerns of Hollywood's past throughout the film; catnip for serious movie fans as well as a commentary on the genre itself.

This film is as emotionally devastating as Don Giovanni and Eugene Onegin rolled up into one. I said this film was operatic, and the importance of Ennio Morricone's score to the whole concept of the film cannot be overstated. Unusually for a movie, the score was recorded before filming began, and the film was shot and edited to fit the music. Listen to the main theme and tell me if that isn't the most beautiful film music ever written.

Hank Fonda once said this was his favorite film role, and how could it not be? For once, in a career filled with lots of characters who were nice guys, Fonda got to portray a villain of such unmitigated evil that he could eat Mr. Blond for breakfast, and hold his own against Heath Ledger's Joker.

There are, of course, several flaws in the movie, especially in some post-synch that could have come out of a badly dubbed Japanese monster movie. But overall, the searing emotional weight of OUATITW overwhelms such finely-detailed critique.

See this movie. It is utterly amazing.


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