50/50 Review #29: Once Upon A Time In The West.

Any long-time reader of this blog probably knows I'm not a huge fan of westerns. At this point in my life, I've seen roughly a dozen or so, and if you don't include Akira Kurosawa films (which are very similar to westerns, just with samurai instead of cowboys), I love very few. You can generally chalk this up to the slow, dragged-out pacing and long running times... neither of which am I a huge fan of. And this marks my second Leone, as I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly last year for the 60/60 List... that one I did like, though it was about 30 minutes too long in my opinion. So what about this one?

This film follows a man simply known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson), based on the fact he won't give his name and he's constantly playing the harmonica. He's on the trail of Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless assassin who has no qualms about killing women or children. In fact, Frank's latest target is Jill (Claudia Cardinale), the widow of a man he recently killed. In order to get closer to Frank, Harmonica teams up with a wanted outlaw named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) to protect Jill as they all figure out exactly why Frank wants her dead.

The very first thing you notice about this film is how drawn-out the scenes are. The opening credits sequence is long with very little music and barely any talking. And it goes on for at least 10 minutes, building up to the arrival of a train and the outlaws there waiting for it. It arrives... nothing seems to happen, the outlaws start to leave, and then the train pulls away to reveal Harmonica, playing his namesake instrument to the rhythm of the film's score. There's a brief dialogue, a very quick shoot-out... and that's it. And here's the kicker: by the time it was over, I wasn't thinking "dear God that took forever." Instead, I was thinking "That... was brilliant."

It's unfortunate, then, that I didn't exactly feel the same way about every other scene in the film. The rest of the movie is very similar. It's mainly a string of long, drawn-out scenes with random bits of violence to shake things up a bit before turning to the next long, drawn-out scene. Believe it or not, for the most part I was alright with this. Honestly, the film seemed to move at a nice pace overall. But there were parts throughout that dragged. It did get to a point, at times, when I just wanted it to move on already. At just shy of 3 hours, there's just so much I can take of 10-15 minutes of slow setup followed by 10 seconds of action (rinse/repeat).

What kept those long moments interesting, however, was a mix of dialogue, performance, and music. How can you not love lines like "How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants" or "You remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or for a month--he must have been a happy man." There's just some fantastic writing in this film throughout, and whether they were little one-liners like those are back-and-forth's between characters... the film was filled with great gems like these.

But you can't have great dialogue unless you have great actors to pull it off. Henry Fonda plays a fantastic and sadistic villain here, really going against type (which I believe was the idea). He's so menacing and cruel. Normally you might think I'd also go to the next big name next in Charles Bronson... but no. His character was cool, but he wasn't as interesting to me as Jason Robards' Cheyenne. That was just a fun character with a nice character arch and a great performance. From just talking to other characters to being crafty on the roof of a train... you just have to love him. Don't get me wrong, Charles Bronson was good and Harmonica is a fine character--particularly once you figure out his motivation at the end (a fantastic scene). But if you're going to compare famous mysterious characters with questionable motives... I might take Eastwood's Man With No Name over Harmonica (though, again, I did love Harmonica's eventual back story).

I just briefly wanted mention the music, which was really good here. I loved the main theme that played throughout (sometimes with the harmonica, sometimes without). A nice mix of a western feel with a more modern feel... which I guess plays to the themes of the film.

If there was one section of the movie that bugged me at all, it would be near the end of the second act. Leone decides to play with the narrative a bit here. Normally I love this kind of thing. But there was nothing like it in the rest of the film, and it comes in so late into the movie that it's jarring and just confused me. Scenes are played out of order. Some decisions happen without explanation. Entire scenes happen off-screen. All of this mixed together just made for a really jumbled, confusing part of the movie that I had trouble figuring out. I was constantly asking myself "OK, what's happening now?" and "Wait... how did...?"

On the whole, though, I enjoyed it. I looks great, has great music, performances, and dialogue. I think if I were a fan of westerns to begin with, or even a fan of slow pacing, I would probably even love this. I can see why a lot of people consider this a masterpiece of the genre. But I'm no expert, so I'm not really going to comment on that. Instead, I'll just leave it at the fact that I liked it... but I'm still not going to go out of my way to watch westerns.

A Keanu 'Whoa'

1 comment:

  1. I can see you finding it a bit overly-long in places. It does take its time to get going in some moments. Glad you ended up enjoying it in the end.


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