What movie was that...?

26 August 2009

Once Upon a Time in the West

directed by Sergio Leone

And to think, this beautiful, sprawling, flourishing love letter to the American West almost never happened. Say it isn’t so. Leone did not want to make another western after completing his legendary Dollars Trilogy (In which Eastwood and Van Cleef squint their way into the history books), but Paramount insisted that he make just one more under their banner before he was free to pursue his own interests. Thank you, Paramount, for forcing your agenda on Leone, for forcing him to give the world a movie of such remarkable scope, feeling and savage beauty, the most elegant elegy the American West will ever know. The story revolves around nameless hero Harmonica (Charles Bronson in one of the coolest roles ever to be played by a human), bent on revenge against the evil Frank (watch how Leone reveals America’s favorite wholesome son to the audience). Frank has his own agenda in murdering the McBain family and framing Cheyenne (Jason Robards pulling off a wonderful, brazen embodiment of “the outlaw”). Frank needs the land to run a train line west toward the Pacific. Leone also needs the land to run his own train line like a giant coffin nail through John Ford’s Monument Valley, and western fans will feel the pang of seeing the most romantic of cowboy landscapes devoured by the 20th century. Ennio Morricone creates one of the best, most haunting soundtracks ever to be heard, and in its operatic, colossal entirety, it swells to heights only imagined by even some of the greatest modern composers. And is there anything lovelier that Claudia Cardinale stepping off that train? I could write an entire book on why this film is perfect, and that still wouldn’t be enough. Once Upon a Time in the West is a film that reaches out and takes hold of you, and when it’s over, it feels as though an era has ended. An interesting note: Leone wanted the three gunmen at the train station to be Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach from his Dollars Trilogy. Watch it again and imagine how that would have played out. Oh, what might have been…

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