Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once_upon_a_time_in_the_westWith his Dollars trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Italian director Sergio Leone cemented his status as one of the great western directors of all-time. He was far from done. His follow-up to the immensely popular spaghetti western trilogy was another western, but one I consider to be his best. A classic in every sense of the word, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In the budding town of Flagstone, Arizona, a beautiful young woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives via train expecting to meet her husband only to receive shocking news. Her husband and his children have been massacred by unknown gunmen. Getting far more than she bargained for, Jill finds herself at the center of a bloody battle for land rights that everyone wants, especially the railroad’s brutal hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill finds helps in odd places, including a mysterious gunman named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and an on the run bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Everything is up for grabs with so much on the line in a growing, changing wild west.

If there was ever a film that didn’t need a plot description, ‘OUATITW’ is it. With a running time of 165 minutes, Leone’s western revolves one of the western’s biggest archetypes, the railroad moving west and all those involved who get caught in the wake. It’s so much more though, using character archetypes that you’ve seen before but in ways you’ve never seen before. Leone flips his own personal style on its side, favoring a deliberate pace with long, quiet scenes that can best be described as slow burns. The patient viewer will most definitely be rewarded in the end. It isn’t just a great western, it is a great film, and one of the great movies of all-time.

Leone is clicking on all cylinders here from beginning to end. His story is perfectly straightforward, but it requires you to pay close attention. I’ve seen ‘West’ repeatedly, but I always pick up something new with each viewing. This is a story of the changing times and dying ways of the wild west. Civilization is arriving, chasing the cowboys and the gunmen out the door. What happens in the meantime though? Beautifully filmed in both Spain and Monument Valley, ‘West’ is beyond visually stunning. The variety of American and Spanish locations links the two disparate types of westerns in a simple, deftly handled way. Throw in a hauntingly beautiful score from composer Ennio Morricone (more on that later), and you have a leisurely-paced story that is nonetheless able to pull you in more with each passing scene. It’s almost 3 hours long and for lack of a better description — not a ton happens — but the running time flies by.

Cardinale. Fonda. Robards. Bronson. I’m hard-pressed to identify too many western casts better than this one. Working off a script from Leone and Sergio Donati, the quartet brings these familiar characters to life. Cardinale is an all-time beauty, and I don’t know if she ever looked more gorgeous than she did here. More than that though, her Jill is what so many westerns were lacking; a strong female character. She receives help at different points from Harmonica and Cheyenne, but she’s far from a damsel in distress. Her chameleon-like ability to survive and thrive makes her a more than worthy lead. No small task considering her co-stars.

Going against a career’s built-up reputation, Fonda plays the villainous Frank and steals his scenes. He’s terrifying, an intimidating presence who overpowers seemingly everyone around him. No spoilers, but his introduction early is one of the most truly shocking entrances ever. Bronson has never been better. His Harmonica is a steely-eyed gunman seeking revenge, not saying much, instead playing the harmonica he wears around his neck. The reasoning for his revenge is nicely handled, a slow-developing flashback sequence that works so eloquently because it’s so straightforward. Robards too is a gem as Cheyenne, the bandit with a horrific reputation who takes a protective liking to Jill, hanging around nearby like a guardian angel.

Gabrielle Ferzetti so often gets overlooked in the cast, but his railroad baron, Morton, is maybe the most tragic character in the movie. Dying of tuberculosis, Morton desperately wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. To do so, he’s entered a deal with the power-hungry Frank to clear any obstacles they may meet. Also look for Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Frank Wolff, and a long list of familiar faces rounding out both Frank and Cheyenne’s gangs, notably Aldo Sambrell and Benito Stefanelli.

Oh, one more important member of the cast…well, sort of. Morricone’s score is worthy of being considered an essential addition to the cast. His GBU score is phenomenal, but this is phenomenal plus-one. In a career of amazing scores, this is his strongest, most beautiful, most haunting and most memorable. Give it an extended listen HERE. Each main character gets their own individual theme — Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica — that often plays over their key scenes. Ferzetti’s Morton earns the most beautiful theme in one of the movie’s most truly haunting scenes. A good score can bring a movie up a notch or two. A great score can catapult the finished product into one perfect mix, the on-screen action blending seamlessly with the score. Morricone, the master at work.

No spoilers given away — go in with as little background/story knowledge as possible — but ‘West’ impressed me more than ever on my last viewing. Each scene is almost a stand-alone set piece, one memorable scene after another. The entire story takes place over 3 days (I think, maybe 2ish) but never feels rushed. The opening sequence is profoundly classic, a dialogue-free 10-minute intro as 3 gunfighters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) waiting for a train. Who are they waiting for? Bronson’s Harmonica of course, the scene fleshed out with natural noises and soundtrack until a blast from the train’s whistle breaks the silence. It’s the perfect way to kick things off.

It’s just the start. I’m rambling here, but it is the first of a long list of scenes that leave a lasting impression. A massacre at an isolated ranch, the ever-developing flashback we see in quick, foggy scenes, Jill’s entrance at the train station, Morton’s scenes imagining getting to the Pacific, and then there’s the last hour. It’s perfection, all leading up to a perfect ending. The scene between Frank and Harmonica before their showdown contains some of the best dialogue ever-written in a western. The showdown and the ultimate reveal of the flashback is just the capper, done in perfect Leone fashion, very theatrical with aggressive but patient camera work.

So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I love this movie. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to digest. Not everyone is going to like it. If you stick with it, know the payoff and the overall experience is one of the best the movie experience can provide. A classic and one of the best movies ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): ****/****


Welcome to Hard Times (1967)

welcomehardtimesSome westerns just defy genre conventions, whether intentionally or not. In America’s wild west in the late 1800’s, did everyone carry a gun? Was everyone a hard-boiled killer? It wasn’t all cowboys and Indians, gunfighters, sheriffs and bandits. It’s the rare western that tries to tell a story from the perspective of the normal people, like 1967’s Welcome to Hard Times.

In the isolated, one-street town of Hard Times, the population lives a quietly, lonely life, and then a murderous gunslinger (Aldo Ray) rides into town. Unchecked by anyone willing to stand up to him, he rapes and kills a saloon girl, kills a handful of people, burns several buildings and rides out. In the wreckage of the town, the mayor, Blue (Henry Fonda), decides to rebuild and put the incident in the past. Several survivors agree to stay on and help the rebuild, along with a variety of eclectic strangers who find their way to Hard Times. As they build the town back up though, Blue knows the potential the gunslinger comes back and ravages Hard Times again. Will someone be able to stand up to him this time?

Based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow (a good read), ‘Welcome’ asks an interesting question. Are guns the answer? Basically every western ever says….YES. Sure, characters question themselves, sometimes giving up their guns in the end as they settle down, but to stop bad, you need violence. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Welcome’ doesn’t seek to give you an answer about the question, but it certainly throws it out there? Sticking relatively close to the Doctorow novel, it is a very literary film, stock characters — the peaceful mayor, the murdering gunslinger, the drifter, the broken woman, and so on — that tries to take a different look at a very familiar genre.

Unfortunately…it’s mishandled. It tackles too much and doesn’t know what it wants to say or how in a 103-minute movie. The first 20 minutes as Ray’s Man from Bodie attacks Hard Times is amazingly uncomfortable, playing out almost like a horror movie. The middle section is like a family western, eclectic, eccentric strangers moving into town, a far lighter tone with some foreboding undertones. The finale? Well, it ain’t pleasant with some surprising twists. But then after all that, the movie ends on an odd note. The story itself is too broad, the tone going up and down like a rollercoaster. It’s not a bad movie, just a potentially good movie that never quite rises to the occasion.

It’s hard to ignore the movie though because of the strong cast. Even in bad-to-okay flicks, Fonda was worth watching, and here’s no exception. His Blue is a former gambler and cowboy, now living peacefully who questions what picking up a gun would accomplish. It’s a fascinating character, far from your typical western hero. Janice Rule is one of the most shrill characters ever as Molly, the saloon girl attacked by the Man from Bodie and holds Blue responsible for the attack and his lack of action. It’s just an awful character with no shred of likability. Ray is an incredible presence as the Man from Bodie, a remorseless killer with no qualms about raping, ravaging and killing.

Also look for the always welcome Keenan Wynn as Zar, a traveling saloon owner who with partner/wife, Adah (Janis Paige), travels with their 3 prostitutes wherever the money takes them. Warren Oates is Leo Jenks, an amiable drifter who’s good with a gun, John Anderson plays dual roles as shopkeeping brothers. Some impressive character actors show up, including Denver Pyle, Paul Fix, Royal Dano, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook, Lon Chaney Jr. and Alan Baxter.

As much of a mixed bag at this western is and the mediocre rating I’m giving it, I’m still recommending it for western fans. The cast is pretty cool, and even if it doesn’t deliver, there is potential galore on-hand. Go for the ride and brace for some of the twists and turns you’ll get as opposed to a more traditional western.

Welcome to Hard Times (1967): **/****

Stagecoach (1966)

poster_of_the_movie_stagecoachOh, no. Here we are again. The unnecessary….remake!!! Considered by most to be one of the best westerns ever made, 1939’s Stagecoach is a key film that helped lay out a foundation for a whole type of western, not to mention helping skyrocket John Wayne to stardom. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t really need to be remade, retouched, reboot and re-anything. There just isn’t much to improve on. That said, Hollywood seems to take that as a challenge. A TV remake was released in 1986, but that’s looking ahead too much. Today’s flick is 1966’s Stagecoach.

In the town of Dry Rock, several undesirables are being booted out of town for different reasons, including Dallas (Ann-Margret), a dance hall girl, and Doc Boone (Bing Crosby), an alcoholic doctor with some debts. Sioux warriors have been reported on the warpath — including a massacre of a small company of cavalry fixing the telegraph line — so travel isn’t encouraged, but Dallas, Doc Boone and several other passengers desperately need to get up the trail to Cheyenne. Hoping to thread the needle, eight desperate people board a stagecoach. They’re in for a surprise on the trail, meeting the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord), an escaped convict looking for revenge. Ringo has his reasons though, and another gun on-board couldn’t hurt. Can the coach make it through unscathed?

So let’s get this out of the way. There’s no need to remake the original Stagecoach. Can you tweak some things? Update story devices to be more current, more modern? Throw an interesting ensemble together? Sure to all three questions. But do you need to? No, not really. From director Gordon Douglas, this 1966 version is a pretty decent movie. The cast is solid, the filming locations gorgeous, and the story itself works. There’s a reason the basic premise worked so well in the original. We’re talking life and death in the wild west. It’s hard to mess that up. This remake is good because the script/story is good, and little else. It will feel familiar and comfortable but not necessary in the least.

The biggest changes? The story breathes a little bit more, clocking in at 115 minutes to the original’s 99 minutes. The additional 16 minutes doesn’t add much unfortunately. More talking, more repetitive scenes, but not much more character development. Dallas’ personal life is explored more and more obviously — she’s a GASP prostitute! — and we actually meet the evil Plummers here which is a positive. Filmed on location in Colorado, the visual appeal is evident with snow and tree-capped mountains filling in for the dusty desert and massive rock formations. As well, composer Jerry Goldsmith‘s score is good, a precursor to his score two years later with 1968’s Bandolero! Some positives, some negatives, a mixed bag of changes.

An ensemble cast with a story full of misfits and flawed characters is a gimme. The cast is what pulled me in here more than the story. Like I said, how much can you change? Some good star power though here for sure. Ann-Margret is a more mean-spirited, angry Dallas. Cord is okay but not flashy as Ringo. John Wayne’s original entrance is an all-timer, but here, it’s an afterthought. The chemistry feels a tad forced between Margret and Cord even though the love between two outsiders should have been a gimme. The high point is Crosby as the hard-drinking, fun-loving, accepting life as it is Doc Boone. Steals the show with a fun performance.

Who else to look for on our stagecoach? The always reliable Van Heflin plays Curly, the marshal riding shotgun on the coach while keeping an eye on Ringo. It’s not a flashy part but Heflin is a pro and fits in nicely. Slim Pickens plays Slim Pickens, um, Buck, the worrisome coach driver and has some good chemistry with Heflin. Also look for Stefanie Powers as Lucy Mallory, a young pregnant wife on the way to meeting her husband, Red Buttons as Peacock, a whiskey drummer, Mike Connors as Hatfield, a gentleman gambler looking out for Lucy, and Robert Cummings as Gatewood, a robbing banker. Also look for Keenan Wynn as Luke Plummer, a killer and an outlaw who crossed Ringo and his family in the past.

Things are pretty slow for the first hour as everyone is introduced and things are laid out. The highlight of the film though is the Sioux attack on the stagecoach in the last 45 minutes. It’s an underrated action gem. Some great stunt work, even cooler camera angles and shots (thinking some helicopters were used of some sort) and a whole lot of carnage. I think Ringo, Curly and Co. may have wiped out half the Sioux nation in the process. A final showdown between Ringo and the Plummers is also expanded where in the original, the entire gunfight happened off-screen. A little slow early, but the action late is worth it.

Flawed but entertaining in the end. Still stick with the John Ford original from 1939, but western fans will get a kick out of this 1966 remake. Also worth sticking around in the credits as famous American painter Norman Rockwell painted portraits of the 10 main cast members. They look great and are a cool, unique addition to the credit sequence.

Stagecoach (1966): ** 1/2 /****