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): ****/****

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

the_man_who_shot_liberty_valanceAsk a western fan what John Ford movie is his favorite, and you’ll get any number of answers. Rightfully so too, Ford directing gem after gem. My personal favorite is 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford’s tone shifted later in his career though, portraying the American west in a more realistic, negative view. I’d say more honest. Movies like The Searchers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge, and of course, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all dug deeper, portraying a west unlike we’d seen in the director’s previous efforts.

A lawyer from the East, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is on a stagecoach heading to the town of Shinbone in a western territory when the coach is attacked by an infamous bandit, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his gang. Stoddard is savagely beaten but nursed back to health in Shinbone. It is turbulent times in the budding town and territory with a potential push for statehood on the line. Stoddard becomes a key person in the fight, all the way trying to figure out what life in the west is like. Valance constantly berates the lawyer, but a small rancher who’s fast with a gun, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), always seems to be in the right place at the right time. With so much on the line for so many people, Stoddard must decide how far he wants to push his luck.

By all accounts, ‘Liberty Valance’ is the anti-John Ford western. Shot in black and white on the Hollywood backlot, there are no sweeping vistas, no majestic shots of riders on the horizon. Instead, this is a story about the people, their relationships and the turbulent times they find themselves in. There’s little in the way of gunplay/gunfights. It’s just not your typical western, but it is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. A classic that deserves its reputation.

Never a bad thing when two Hollywood legends star together. They were in How the West Was Won together but had no scenes together. They were excellent together in several great scenes in The Shootist. What’s so cool here is the dynamic. Both Ransom and Tom believe in the same things, just different ways of accomplishing those things. I love Stewart’s Ransom and the character arc he goes through. It’s a fascinating character. He hates guns, hate violence and abhors bullies. He sees Tom’s ways of doing things and can’t get on-board with it…until he does. Not your typical western hero — by a long shot — but one that brings a great, unique edge to a familiar genre.

Ford and Wayne go together like peanut butter and jelly, albeit PB that’s abusive to the J. Wayne did some of his best work in Ford films — especially She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers — but Ford was infamous for railing on his star non-stop. So was the case here as Ford picked on Wayne mercilessly. Well…it worked. This is one of Wayne’s more underrated parts. His Tom Doniphon is a bit of a bully himself, constantly calling Ransom ‘Pilgrim,’ but he’s a small rancher who’s well-respected (even feared) and is lightning quick with a gun. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Doniphon is a tragic character here too, an arc that all comes together in a fitting, moving and at times, tough to watch conclusion. Kudos to the two Hollywood greats.

Easily one of Ford’s strongest casts from top to bottom. Vera Miles is Hallie, the uneducated waitress who’s drawn to both Tom and Ransom (oh no! A love triangle!), avoiding plenty of awkward pratfalls. Marvin is terrifyingly perfect as Liberty, an unhinged psycho capable of all sorts of violence. Edmond O’Brien hams it up and steals his scenes as alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody. Andy Devine is the cowardly sheriff because of course he is. Gotta mention Woody Strode who in subtle fashion steals his scenes (as he usually did) as Pompey, Tom’s “man,” almost a right-hand man kind of deal, not a slave but always at his side.

Also look for John Carradine, Denver Pyle, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen and plenty more familiar faces to round out the cast.

Earlier in his career, Ford’s films tended to have a broad, obvious sense of humor that bordered on too much (and sometimes was just way too much). His later films lost that innocence. Sure, Devine gets some laughs, but it’s far more subtle. There’s a darkness here that hangs in the air. It’s always building to that inevitable showdown, but even there, a twist is revealed in a lightning-quick noir-esque flashback that’s beyond perfect. There is an edge, a violence, a meanness (especially in Valance) that brings the movie up a notch. The black and white filming goes a long way toward aiding the cause in that department.

‘Valance’ is famous for one of the best lines in western history. Simpy put, it’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The story is held with a framing device that adds some additional layers to the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it works on basically all levels. Some great storytelling from beginning to end as we try to piece it all together as an audience.

I can’t say enough about this western. It’s not your typical Ford western, not even your typical western in general. It had been years since I watched it, and I loved catching back up with it. I came away very impressed with Stewart’s performance this time. There’s a moment late where he’s simply a man who’s had enough. He’s been pushed too far. If he has to die righting a wrong, his Ransom Stoddard — educated to the bone — is ready to pick up a gun and die for it. The end result propels the last 25 minutes of the movie to a highly memorable finale. Go watch this one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ****/****

 

The Deserter (1971)

the-deserterAs a freshman in college, I stumbled across the cast listing. That jumped to Amazon to see if the movie was available. Sure enough, a beat-up VHS tape was there and fairly cheap. Fast forward a couple weeks to Thanksgiving break — when I got home and a VHS player was available — and I got to sit down with a movie and cast that just sounded too good to be true. Verdict on 1971’s The Deserter? Brutally underrated, a ton of fun and deserves far more of a reputation.

After his wife is brutally murdered by Apaches, Captain Victor Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) shoots and wounds his commanding officer and deserts, going on a rampage killing Apaches. Two years later, the cavalry needs him and comes calling. An Apache chief is assembling a huge raiding party of Apache warriors below the border in Mexico with his attack looming, an assault that could wipe out hundreds. Kaleb’s mission is simple. He must recruit a small squad of men — specialists and troublemakers alike — and train them to fight like an Apache before leading them into Mexico to attack the Apache camp before it’s too late. Can Kaleb pull off the mission? Will anyone even get out alive?

For me, westerns with this formula don’t get much better than this. A western version of The Dirty Dozen, ‘Deserter’ is simply a hell of a lot of fun. The cast is crazy, especially when you assemble all those stars and recognizable faces for a men-on-a-mission flick. The formula is as straightforward as they get. Establish the mission, assemble a team, can the team pull off the suicidal mission and get out? Filmed in Spain and Italy (even Yugoslavia), ‘Deserter’ isn’t quite a spaghetti western, but it certainly has the feel of it. If you’re even a remote fan of the western genre, I guarantee you’ll get at least some entertainment value here. If not, I’ve got nothing for you…

A Yugoslavian actor who never quite made it big in the U.S., Fehmiu is an unlikely choice for the lead role as the vengeful anti-hero. Still, I come away impressed each time I watch the movie from director Burt Kennedy. Fehmiu is cold, harsh and brutally efficient at getting the job done. In undertaking the mission, he’s getting revenge hopefully. Nothing more, nothing less. Somewhat wooden at times, Fehmiu benefits from a script dripping with memorable one-liners, a script from western regular and always reliable Clair Huffaker. As for the rest of the cast….oh my. Just oh my.

What follows isn’t necessarily A-list stars, but instead, recognizable genre stars, character actors, and an all-around energy to fill out Kaleb’s death squad. There’s Richard Crenna as Brown, Kaleb’s former commander and rival, Chuck Connors as Reynolds, the bible-thumping Chaplain and dynamite expert, Ricardo Montalban as Natchai, the Indian scout, Slim Pickens as Tattinger, the wily veteran scout, Ian Bannen as Crawford, the British officer scouting the Southwest, Brandon de Wilde as Ferguson, the inexperienced young officer, Woody Strode as Jackson, the troublesome strongman, Patrick Wayne as Robinson, the Gatling Gun specialist, Albert Salmi as Schmidt, the vengeful sergeant, Fausto Tozzi as Orozco, the knife fighter, Doc Greaves as Scott, the sergeant, John Alderson as O’Toole, the fiesty Irishman, and Larry Stewart as the younger of the 2 Robinson brothers.

Other than some quick Kaleb exposition — he’s a dynamite man, a knife fighter, a Gatling gun specialist — we’re given little information about these men. We don’t need it though. It’s a specialist movie on an impossible mission. Who’s gonna make it? Who’s not? There’s some impressive star power so the guessing game will keep you guessing until the end. It did for me! Oh, and John Huston has a memorable turn as General Miles, the new cavalry commander who has to send Kaleb and his squad on the suicide mission. Under-utilized? Too much going on? Maybe, but it is F-U-N.

What are spaghetti westerns usually synonymous with? Their musical scores. No Ennio Morricone here, but composer Piero Piccioni brings his A-game in an often odd/bizarre score that resonates each time I check ‘Deserter’ out. Check out an extended sample HERE. The jazzy, playful theme is catchy as hell, but I love its quieter moments with an orchestra playing a soft, moving, mournful theme. Like I said, an odd combination but one that works.

So what else? The action isn’t overdone here with a couple little fights sprinkled here and there early. The extended training sequence has some fun surprises in store with the action — and mounting casualty report — kicking in over the last 30 minutes as the mission gets underway. Loud, chaotic and bullet-dynamite-knife-Gatling Gun riddled finale that does not disappoint. As I mentioned, the script is a gem of memorable one-liners (check some out HERE) in a story with dark undertones but some lighter, clever moments too along the way.

A hidden gem for me, and one of my favorites. I would love to see a widescreen print of the movie, having only seen pan-n-scan VHS copies and a public domain DVD that cut about 6 minutes off the finale run-time I saw on the VHS. If you can track a copy down, I highly recommend it. As far as entertainment value goes, this one is hard to beat.

The Deserter (1971): ***/****