Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Once Upon a Time in the West (Paramount, 1968)

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A stylized dance of death

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Admirers of this movie say that with it Sergio Leone rejuvenated the dying Western. Bernardo Bertolucci said, “It gave back to the directors from the USA the confidence that a Western can be a great movie.” Detractors say it is just a cheap spaghetti western with a big budget and it is too long and too slow. “Tedium in the tumbleweed,” as Time magazine wrote.

 

You pays for your ticket and you takes your choice. Certainly it is a ‘big’ Western with loads of extras and scenes in Monument Valley and trains. And as Leone was a film buff who loved Westerns, as were Bertolucci and Dario Argento who created the story outline with him, it is chock-full of references to famous cowboy films, which fans will enjoy spotting.
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Inscrutable
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It has some nice photography too, by Tonino Delli Colli (who had worked on many spaghettis, including the last of the Dollars trilogy) although there are glaring differences between the Monument Valley and Almeria locations (taken to ridiculous lengths when a handful of bright red Arizona dust is thrown onto the olive-gray Spanish dirt of a grave).

 

The trouble is that if you give the director of cheap spaghetti westerns millions and millions of dollars, he does not necessarily make a great Western. Just even more spaghetti. And while spaghetti can be very tasty, pounds and pounds of it all at once can become indigestible, to say the least.

 

The Leone/Donati/Argento/Bertolucci plot is so complex that you need to see the film several times to understand it, which is inexcusable really, given the time they had to develop the story and make it clear. They wanted to do Johnny Guitar, The Iron Horse, The Last Sunset, you name it, all at the same time. Maybe they understood that no one was going to give them another blank check to make a mega-Western so they had to cram everything they could in while they had the chance.

 

There are all the spaghetti hallmarks (you can’t help mixing metaphors with spaghetti, I fear) that we expect, cut-price Techniscope widescreen, endless ultra-close-ups of actors’ eyes, cheap and jangly music, absurd echoing and ricocheting gunshots, bad dubbing.
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Rattlesnake
 
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The acting: well,
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*   Henry Fonda as the bad guy Frank was a masterly piece of casting. He is brilliant. He first turned the role down as the script was so bad but allowed himself to be persuaded by Eli Wallach.
*   Jason Robards is also excellent as the simpatico bandit Cheyenne.
*   Inscrutable Charles Bronson does his strong, silent bit throughout. He’s OK if you like Charles Bronson.
*   Claudia Cardinale looked terribly 1960s in her eye make-up and although pretty was not much of an actress. At least a woman had a proper part this time and played a central role.
*   Gabriele Ferzetti as Morton, the evil railroad baron, was a revered older Italian actor and that was a bit like casting Laurence Olivier as the Nazi.

 

There is a story that Leone wanted to ‘bury’ the Dollars films by having Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef as the heavies killed off at the station during the opening credits, which would have been a good joke, but they wouldn’t do it (spoilsports) and so Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock (who had been in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) stood in. ‘One-Reel Jack’ was used to being shot early in films but had perhaps hoped to get beyond the titles.
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The opening shoot-out
 
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The music is by Ennio Morricone, of course. Each character has a theme, like a (very) poor man’s Wagner opera. The trouble is that Cardinale’s theme is woo-woo Hollywood angels and over-lush strings, Fonda’s is a jarring jangle, Robards’s is an irritating faux-comic clippety-cloppety and Bronson’s is a grating harmonica. The soundtracks of Morricone, oddly much lauded, were always trite and banal and usually maddening by the end of the movie, as in this case.

 

Like all spaghetti westerns, the sound was dubbed on afterwards and is phony and overdone.
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Director and principals
 
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The pace is lethargic to the point of catalepsy. People move ponderously, there are aching pauses between their lines (perhaps Leone thought it made the lines more momentous) and they even speak slowly. 164 minutes of this (Paramount cut 25 minutes or so in 1968 but in 1984 the cuts were, sadly, restored) gives a new meaning to the word tedious. Now, you want to make something of a good final showdown. Not the five-second exchange of fire that these things really took. You want some tension and build-up. But Leone takes this ad absurdam. He doesn’t just want to wring the most out of a scene, he flogs the horse 15 minutes beyond its death. When you find yourself saying in the middle of a stand-up shoot-out in a Western ‘Oh come on, get on with it’, there’s something wrong with the director. OK, he wanted a stylized dance of death, but for quarter of an hour?

 

As so often, Fonda makes it. He is chilling as the cold-blooded killer. He’s like a rattlesnake.
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Robards as Cheyenne

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Cardinale, very sixties
 
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Christopher Frayling has a whole chapter on this movie in his Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (IB Tauris, 2006) so peruse that if you want more, though in my view auteuriste Euro cinephiles of this kind read far too much into these pictures: they’re cowboy films, for goodness’ sake.  The movie is certainly a landmark in the history of Westerns and interesting in many respects. It’s long and impressionistic, almost a fantasy Western or one remembered in a (very long) dream. Someone called it a Monument Valley of the Dolls, which was clever and apt. 

 

If only Leone hadn’t shot the whole thing in slow motion. I know slo-mo was fashionable in the 60s but the whole film?

 

It’s hyperbole. It’s grand (horse) opera with Morricone music, heaven preserve us. It didn’t really do well in the States but was huge in Europe and is probably still showing in Paris and Berlin somewhere in some art-house theater. Sorry, but when it comes on TV these days I skip it. I just haven’t got the stamina.

 

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18 Responses

  1. I haven’t made my mind up on Leone. I “read up” on him before watching my first – Good,Bad,Ugy – so I expected a hyperbolic take on the traditional Western formulae. While watching it, my attention started wandering early on and nearly fled during the desert wanderings scenes, but, oh man, what an ending. I found Once Upon a Time In the West much more watchable. Fonda is riveting. But the final duel is incredible, particularly as Harmonica’s past is interwoven with the (admittedly long) action scene. And the finale itself was poignant. There’s something epic, almost Biblical, about the finales which make up for the admittedly bloated and overlong screenplays that somehow makes the time invested worth it. Purely subjective, I guess. Couldn’t disagree with you more about the soundtracks, however. As a novice in seriously paying attention to the making (directing, editing, etc.) of any particular film, watching these films made me realize how much a soundtrack can add to a director’s vision of his themes. Ah well, to each his own. Thanks for your very entertaining analysis. I have to admit to the truth of a lot of it.

    1. I’m not particularly a fan of Italian Westerns, but I don’t hate all of them – like Jeff. I do enjoy Leone’s films and a few others. Most people consider Good, Bad Ugly to be the best and I won’t argue with them, but my favorite is Once Upon a Time. I love all of the leads including Fonda and like you think Morricone’s music and the final duel are stupendous. Another favorite scene is Cardinale’s arrival at the train station, with the crane shot accompanied by Morricone’s lush, beautiful, uplifting music. I consider this film to be a classic and the apex of Leone’s and all European Westerns

  2. I have greatly enjoyed this site, so well-written and insightful. And largely I’ve agreed with your assessments, which of course doesn’t hurt at all. It was with some trepidation, then, that I clicked on ONCE UPON A TIME. The almost uniformly rapturous reviews of this film found on other, often quite worthy review blogs, tended to INFURIATE me. How refreshing it is to find that you share my misgivings!

    Like you, I find this film ponderous, bloated, sometimes incoherent, and, worst of all, insufferably PRETENTIOUS. I believe warning signs were apparent throughout Leone’s successful THE GOOD, BAD, AND UGLY … it’s slack pace, extended length, a feeling of excess. Yet it was still, overall, very entertaining; crucially, Leone still had the charismatic Eastwood in the lead, and a raucously pleasing score by Morricone (as opposed to the treacly or annoying themes of ONCE UPON.)

    It’s my belief that ONCE UPON destroyed the commercial momentum of the Spaghetti western, at least in the US. The humor, the anarchic spirit of Leone’s FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, his best films, was long gone. Leone had apparently decided he was an artiste, a maker of great and important films. Or perhaps he had simply become addicted to tranquilizers.

    Eastwood and company were surely right to reject Leone’s offer to appear in ONCE UPON IN THE WEST.

    Thank you kindly for your no-holds barred review; I look forward to reading your published Westerns.

  3. I always hated to disagree with Jeff but this film is not only one of my favorite westerns but one of my favorite films of all time. That beginning! Fonda’s introduction, Bronson and Robards wonderful work, Morricone’s music, and yes Claudia Cardinale was one of the most beautiful women ever in this. Leone was on fire with this and that final duel. Pure bliss.

  4. All of us have weaknesses, obsessions or crazes. Like you, I did not always agree with Jeff (for instance on Vera Cruz – a kind if proto spaghetti in some ways as well as The Magnificent Seven…- or Heaven’s Gate).
    When I was young(er), I never liked spaghetti westerns. I considered them as a sacrilege… Slowly I learn to like them a little especially Good, Bad, Ugly and Once upon a time which I consider more like a western encyclopedia. But their unbearable and phenomenal slowness added to the typical Leone’s repetitive tics are still remaining as a major flaw.
    To le, spaghetti is for the western what barocco or even rococo are for classic style in art and architecture.
    But spaghetti western has had a tremendous and major influence on the western and more generally on action films.

    1. I liked ‘Vera Cruz’ too. A big influence on Leone. Fascinating Western especially in HD.

      1. Go and see what Jeff is saying about it after his 2nd post (sometimes he liked to come back again on the same subject polishing his art…)
        https://jeffarnoldswest.com/2019/02/vera-cruz-ua-1954/
        It makes me think that Jeff, according to his nephew James list, has not mentioned Ulzana’s Raid as one of his preferred westerns. He has always expressed his admiration for it though.

  5. I enjoy my occasional disagreements with Jeff. I think he was a bit (I stress, only a bit) too down on Italian Westerns in general and Leone in particular. (Despite his disdain for Italian Westerns, it was interesting to read from his nephew’s obituary how much he liked Renaissance Florentine art, somehow this didn’t come as a surprise.) However…. though I like the Dollars trilogy I can’t really enjoy Once Upon A Time in the West as much as I’d like to, and I’ve tried several times. It’s always seemed to me like a handful of rather brilliantly made short films (basically, the shoot-outs) strung together by a lot of, sometimes confusing, tedium in between – I don’t think the script, especially the dialogue, are good at all. But Fonda is sensational. When was he not?

    I don’t mind Vera Cruz at all, I think Jeff underrated that one a bit.

  6. Some of the dialogue I love to remember: ‘You brought two too many’, ‘Since you said my name’, ‘Never trust a man who wears suspenders and a belt’, ‘There weren’t dollars in them days,’But SOBs yeah’ ‘Only on the point of dyin’ and ‘Only a man’ ‘An ancient race’. I love the Western I really do and I love this film anyhow.

    1. I accept some of those lines are zingers but it’s the longer dialogue scenes between various characters that can become a bit tedious, and there are plot points and shifts in character motivations throughout the film that I find at times confusing and… boring. But that’s just me – each to his own, as Jeff would say! I certainly have no problem with you loving the film.

      1. Yes, I always find two distinct views on art fascinating. Peckinpah and Ford are favorites and they did things people can’t stand that I like. I believe you have strong feelings on ‘The Wild Bunch’ which is certainly understandable. Good that a film makes a person feel something.

        1. Well remembered, no I’m not a fan of The Wild Bunch – I’m completely unconvinced and slightly turned off by the way it tries to turn utterly unpleasant villains into noble heroes just because they’ve outlived their time and are willing to go down in a (slow motion) hail of bullets. On the other hand, and I think we corresponded on this some months ago, I find Peckinpah’s Major Dundee endlessly fascinating. Despite (or because) of its faults. And same for John Ford’s entire body of work…

          1. Yes, definitely. That Arrow release of ‘Dundee’ is incredible. Really covers the bases well. Sometimes I sit in wonder at these releases of favorite films on disc.

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