Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of making my own 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Eighty One: Once Upon a Time in the West
I decided to give this film a second try, mostly because of Bronson whose work I’m now obsessed with but also from all the praise I continue to hear about Leone’s supposed masterpiece. Did I miss much on the first watch? I certainly noticed more this time but did not change my overall opinion of the film, which I find to be a disappointment.
For this filmmaker, Duck You Sucker is the only film that truly succeeds in Leone’s body of work, with an honorable mention to Fistful of Dollars for being lean, mean, and not nearly as self-indulgent. The style of his Westerns is “epic” without true grandeur to back it up. It feels phony, forced. The one aspect of this film that I did appreciate this time are the sets, which is the only astonishing element of the picture. From the beginning rail station to the incredibly detailed interiors and the final station-in-progress are all breathtaking to look at. If only what happens in and around them wasn’t so damn contrived and honestly, just plain dull. The drawn out duels don’t do much for me, nor does the thin narrative which stretches out so long that it nearly breaks apart.
The dialog Leone gives to good actors is poorly written, all surface and no subtext like his visuals. When the camera pans to Robards after he sees Bronson kill a couple men for the first time, he says something to the effect of, “I knew he could play. I didn’t know he could shoot.” Really? That’s the best line you’ve got for that moment? It just states exactly what we just saw and there isn’t a millimeter of depth to it. When one of the characters dies at the end and asks to not be watched while he does, I thought of how Howard Hawks handled this exact moment in Only Angels Have Wings. That film brings me to tears every time. In this one, I didn’t even believe the man was dying. It has no weight, no sense of authenticity for these people and their feelings. The work lacks any sense of poignancy.
Lastly, and many will argue to the end of time with me about this, Fonda is not a good choice for the villain. I’m sorry but some actors just can’t play evil. Stewart, Fonda, and Grant have an inherent goodness on screen. When Fonda tries to play the dark side, I still here his natural honesty, his Mister Roberts, his Abe Lincoln. I admire the actor for trying and criticize the filmmaker for not understanding the basics of casting. Wayne could play bad like in The Searchers or Red River because he had something in him that lent to that direction. Even when playing good guys, he didn’t feel righteous like those others, hence the reason why reverse casting with him and Stewart in a film like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance could never work. Ultimately, I think the choice of Fonda in this role really cripples the film. I could see Richard Widmark or Lee Marvin but not Tom Joad.
I should probably stop watching Leone films or Spaghetti Westerns in general because they never connect. I’ve heard The Great Silence is one I need to see and perhaps I’ll still seek that one out but damn, I just don’t get what people see in these films.
Seen on Amazon Prime.