BP’s Top 100 Movie Challenge #37: Once Upon a Time in the West, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
This is my first Sergio Leone western. I tend to love westerns, and while Once Upon a Time in the West won’t go down as one of my favorites, it is an excellent entry into the genre. The biggest challenge for me with the film was the pacing. While I appreciate that the film takes its time, it is often slow to the point of distraction. I am curious to see if this is a consistent element on Leone’s films or if it is a specific choice for this film.
Once Upon a Time in the West made me think a lot about pacing and why I struggled at times with the film. A great example is the opening scene. Three cowboys in dusters show up at a train station and take it over. They then sit and wait for the train. We see one cowboy stand under some dripping water, so he puts on his hat as opposed to moving a step to the left. Or another one who fights with a fly buzzing around his face. While I appreciate that the scene establishes the type of men we are watching, it was pretty dull and didn’t make me very excited to watch the rest of the film. Even a scene later in the film when Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Frank (Henry Fonda) confront each other for the first time and Harmonica helps Frank escape is slow and deliberately paced. As a result, the scene felt tedious when it could have been exciting. It was tough because I liked the core of that scene, you see two men who are very good at killing and getting out of sticky situations do just that, but it feels like it takes forever. Again, I am unfamiliar with Leone’s work, so I don’t know if that is just how he makes his films, but a little sharper editing could have really enhanced the film.
The performances in the film overall were quite good. I have always been a Henry Fonda fan and watching him as the bad guy was equally exciting and sad at the same time. Fonda almost always plays the hero or the good guy, and he was disturbingly convincing as the icy Frank who shoots women and children and is only out to save himself. His usually kind, ice blue eyes are cold and calculating, and I was very impressed by his performance. But I was most blown away by Jason Robards as Cheyenne. I am most familiar with Robards from All The Presidents Men, where he was a sharp newspaper man, and here he is such a menacing presence. When he first shows up at the McBain house, I was pretty sure it was going to get ugly between him and Jill (Claudia Cardinale), but fortunately it doesn’t. I caught myself thinking when that scene ended that Jill was lucky to have walked away from that exchange without getting raped. But by the end of the film they are flirting and he is giving her advice about her attraction to Harmonica. I have to admit I didn’t love Cardinale, though. I am most familiar with her for her role as the princess in The Pink Panther. Something about her nearly expressionless performance didn’t work for me here. I get that she is a tough woman who knows how handle herself, but she felt more disconnected than strong to me.
Another thing that I love about westerns is the aesthetic, from the landscapes to the costumes. There was some gorgeous landscape photography. When Jill is first being taken out to the homestead, you see the vast emptiness of the land with the occasional impressive rock formation. The sets were also great; the weird butcher/barn/bar where Jill and her driver stop and first meet Harmonica and Cheyenne is atmospheric and feels very authentic. Also, the town near the McBain homestead feels real and lived in. Some buildings are under construction while others like the hotel feel shiny and new. The costumes were great as well. Jill McBain stands out from the crowd as a “city” girl when she first arrives – many of her dresses are elegant and beautiful – whereas someone like Cheyenne is always dusty and looks dirty and hot.
Once Upon a Time in the West wasn’t my favorite western but it did make me curious to watch more spaghetti westerns.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
Once Upon a Time in the West ranking: submarine