I saw Once Upon A Time in the West
in the afternoon today. Many reviewers name it as the best Western ever made. Giving it close competition are usually other Sergio Leone classics.
I'm no expert on Westerns. It's not my favourite genre and I have watched only a few. I liked Unforgiven
(though a Western, it was made in the 1990s) and some parts of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
and of course, Sholay
. I have seen some films with Ennio Morricone's music and it's been fantastic at least twice - in The Good...
and my personal favourite Nuovo Cinema Paradiso
. Sergio Leone is an acknowledged master of Westerns and Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson good actors. All these factors would be wonderful in any other setting but all of them come together so beautifully in this movie that a work of true sublimity is created.
The movie is memorable almost from the first shot. Its opening is bold and brilliant - nearly 10 minutes of ambient sounds and a long wait by three silent gunmen. The mood and the setting is perfectly evoked. Finally, when the train arrives carrying the film’s hero (also with no name), the first of many great moments happens. A mysterious man plays the harmonica and Charles Bronson makes his entry worthy of the hero who’s never known uncertainty or fear.
Harmonica: “You brought a horse for me?”
Frank’s minion (looks back, there are three horses for the three minions): “He he, looks like we’re one horse short.”
Harmonica (shakes his head slightly): “You brought two too many.”
Frank, played by Henry Fonda, makes an even better entry in one of my favourite scenes. A family prepares a feast to welcome the father’s new wife. A shot rings out. The father looks up from the well at the birds flapping about – none of them seem to be dropping lifelessly from the sky. He turns around. In the far distance his daughter teeters and then falls to the ground, dead. He starts running towards her and gets shot mid-stride once, then again. The older boy gets up from his horse cart and is shot where he stands. The camera moves inside the dark home and follows the youngest boy running to the door where he stops, transfixed, petrified. We see his face and then Ennio Morricone’s magic begins. One note, and we see in the far distance one, then another figure in a dustcoat and hat coming out into view from the clump of bushes. Through the swirling dust we see five figures walk towards the boy clutching his jug of water for dear life. In a brilliant shot, made all the more memorable due to the music, all five converge to the boy. The camera comes around his shoulder to show Henry Fonda and his clear blue eyes and we know we’ve seen the man Harmonica has come in search of.
In the next two hours we see the two other characters of the drama - the outlaw with a soft core and a sense of humour who strikes an unlikely partnership with Harmonica, the widow who becomes the unwitting focus of three men, all of who “have something to do with death”. All of them act on motivations not immediately clear and slowly get involved in each other’s lives. In the middle of it all sits Harmonica, sharpening his piece of wood, shooting people when the occasion demands, playing the harmonica, staring out into space, waiting.
It’s precisely this quality of the movie – and the genre – that gives it its charm. The patient viewer gets drawn into the story that unspools through long shots of faces, silences that convey nothing and everything, eyes that contain behind them terrible secrets and immense capacity for evil and lingering shots of the dust and mountains of the Wild West. We share Frank’s curiosity to know what Harmonica is after. When he saves Frank from his assassins we share Frank’s confusion and slowly, like Frank, we begin to realize there is a deeper current running between them. Frank is hooked and so are we. He may be evil but he’s still a member of a rapidly dwindling “ancient race”. He cannot ride off knowing he has a mortal enemy who is driven by such hate that he has to save Frank for the showdown his secret deserves.
And what a showdown! The moment of dying is reached. We know now we will know. What makes Harmonica’s need for vengeance so great that he cuts down assassins who want to kill Fonda, explaining that “saving him from them
isn't the same as saving him?” It seems even Frank is dying to find out. The men start moving towards their battleground to take positions. Just then, the music begins again. The haunting tune breathes life into the final contest and invests it with all the weight of expectation associated with the revelation of Harmonica’s identity.
Frank wants to shoot down Harmonica. He knows if he doesn’t, he will be shot down. Yet, he knows nothing matters more than knowing why Harmonica saved his life only to bring him to this stage. He needs to know more than he wants to win. He keeps walking when Harmonica stops, looks to the side, looks up to the sky, blinks while Harmonica’s grey eyes follow him unblinking, unhurried, sure. They stop and take position and wait in silence. And then the music picks up again and we go back and see the full extent of Frank’s evil and understand what has been driving Harmonica to this inevitable showdown. Frank draws but Harmonica shoots just as well as he plays. His journey is over.Once Upon A Time…
has the actors, the director, the cinematographer and the music director Morricone at their very best. I wish I could watch it again for the first time.
Wrote this a couple of days back. I've been listening to the showdown tune almost in a loop since then. I also cannot count the number of times I've already watched the last showdown.
Paul Newman died yesterday. RIP Cool Hand Luke.