ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. (1968) DIRECTED BY SERGIO LEONE.
STORY BY DARIO ARGENTO, BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI AND SERGIO LEONE. STARRING CLAUDIA CARDINALE, HENRY FONDA, JASON ROBARDS, CHARLES BRONSON AND GABRIELE FORZETTI.
MUSIC BY ENNIO MORRICONE.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘He not only plays. He can shoot too.’
‘Gonna be a beautiful town, Sweetwater.’
‘People like that have something inside. Something to do with death.’
‘Nothing matters now. Not the land, not the money, not the woman.’
‘How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? Guy doesn’t even trust his own pants.’
‘He’s whittling on a piece of wood. I gotta feeling when he stops whittling, something’s gonna happen.’
Christ Almighty, I love cowboys. Hot sweaty cowboys in films like this one really do it for me. With their week’s growth of beard, tousled hair, cigarette-smoke-narrowed eyes and big fat holsters, they push all my buttons big-time.
I would not say no to being dragged by the hair into the nearest stable by a seasoned cowboy and shown the stuff that a real man is made of. Of course, they have a name for that type of thing nowadays (I believe it’s called being dragged by the hair into the nearest stable by a seasoned cowboy and shown the stuff that a real man is made of) but, oh wow, how glorious the Wild West must have been in some ways. You saw what you wanted and you just took it.
A woman, a homestead, a decent piece of horseflesh or a plate of beans. It was all the one to those dusty drifters, half-crazed with lust after many lonely nights on the trail of the lonesome pine, beating their meat in solitude to the music of the crickets.
Can this be the most magnificent Western, spaghetti or otherwise, ever made? God, yes. Set in the dying days of the old Wild West as we know it, it’s an epic battle between, not good and evil exactly but, shall we say, more a battle between bad-with-more-than-a-hint-of-good-thrown-in and evil, if you get me. Although of course everything seemed so black or white in the old days with not much in-between. No room for half-measures.
Claudia Cardinale, an absolute bombshell of a woman cast in the mould of Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch and Brigitte Bardot, plays Jill, a young woman who travels alone to the railroad town of Flagstone. Jill has hope in her heart. Jill is going to be looked after by a man from now on. No more nasty fending for herself in the cold cruel world. Nice work if you can get it, huh?
She’s expecting to be met off the train by Brett McBain, an older man with property whom she’s married the month before. After a lifetime of whoring in New Orleans, Jill is finally ready to settle down and embrace respectability.
But the entire McBain family, the father and his three children Maureen, Patrick and Timmy have been brutally slaughtered by the hired killer known locally as Frank. Frank works for crippled railroad mogul Mr. Morton.
Mr. Morton wants Brett McBain’s land, which is rich in water, a valuable commodity in such a dry, dusty desert town, but not only that. The railroad is expanding at a rate of knots and the McBain land is the ideal situation for a new station.
Mr. Morton wants Frank to scare the McBains’ away, but Frank is something of a hothead. No half-measures with Frank, see? A few well-placed gunshots and Jill’s lovely dream of married bliss goes up in smoke. Aw well, maybe respectability ain’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway, lol. Maybe Jill’s better off without it.
Henry Fonda is superb as the baddie Frank. Dressed in black, chewing tobacco constantly- a disgusting habit!- and always looking to increase his own cut of every pie, he’s probably the most evil character Mister Goody Two-Shoes Nice Guy Henry Fonda (TWELVE ANGRY MEN, THE WRONG MAN) has ever played.
Frank’s cold, calculating and cruel. He talks about killing Jill, the rightful heir now to the entire McBain fortune and therefore an obstacle to Mr. Morton’s acquisition of the precious land, even while he’s making love to her in a scene that always makes me hold my breath.
Such is his personal magnetism that Jill doesn’t even care about what he’s threatening her with. All the women love a bad boy, and hired gun Frank is as bad as they come.
Jill’s so weak at the knees she can’t even stand up straight and take umbrage when he says, while expertly caressing her naked body: ‘You like to feel a man’s hands all over you. Even if they’re the hands of the man who killed your husband.’ Swoon, Jill, swoon, what else is there to do?
Jason Robards plays Cheyenne, a local bandit whom Frank attempts to frame for the wholesale slaughter of the McBain family. Cheyenne fancies Jill too and she likes him but I think that this is more of a friendship thing in that he never tries to force himself on her. When he barges in on her at the McBain homestead, however, she naturally assumes that that’s just what he’ll do. Check out what she says to him:
‘You can throw me across the table and amuse yourself with me, and you can even bring in your men. No woman ever died from that.’ (I don’t think that’s strictly true, is it?) ‘And afterwards all it’ll take is a jug of boiling water and I’ll be exactly the same as I was before. Just with another filthy memory.’ Feisty little thing, ain’t she?
I love it when Cheyenne tells Jill as he’s leaving her kitchen, having partaken of her hot, strong coffee: ‘You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman who ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or for a month, he must have been a happy man.’
In his own way there, he considers that he’s paying her a compliment. However, the #me too and #time’s up people would have a fit at some of Cheyenne’s later words to the buxom Jill. Referring to the railway workers and station builders working away right outside her door:
‘You don’t know how good it makes a man feel to see a woman like you. Just to look at her. And if one of them should pat your behind, just make believe it’s nothing. They earned it…!’ You know what, for once, I ain’t sayin’ nuthin’…
I’ve left Charles Bronson till last because he’s the coolest character in the film by miles. He plays a Mysterious Stranger who comes into town on the train with a view to finding Frank and wreaking revenge on him for unknown crimes Frank has committed in the past.
The Man says very little, but what he says counts. ‘Inside the coats were three men. Inside the men were three bullets.’ He’s the f**king coolest cowboy to ever wear shoe leather and have a leathery complexion to match. (Although in that red undershirt, I thought he bore an uncanny resemblance to Ralph Waite who played Pa Walton in THE WALTONS…!)
The Man plays his silver harmonica with an eerie expertise and before long, without his lifting a finger really because that’s how freakin’ cool he is, Jill is head-over-heels in love with him, Cheyenne the bandit is his friend for life and the normally confident Frank is running scared. He doesn’t know who the Mysterious Stranger is but he knows that he’s frightened of him.
The showdown between Frank and The Man is one of the greatest in cinema. They just don’t make ’em like that no more. The first ten minutes of the film too, by the way, is fantastic beyond words.
It’s like a complete short film in itself, the three dirty sweaty cowboys in the long coats known as ‘dusters’ waiting for the train and the one person they’re waiting for is revealed to be suddenly on the other side of the tracks, eerily playing his harmonica…
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a fabulous film. With a knockout score by Ennio Morricone (I saw him perform live here in Dublin in 2015, by the way!) and the constant close-ups of craggy, unsmiling unshaven faces, it’s something that leaves a powerful impression behind it, unlike some other films which you may well forget the minute they’re over. This is one film you won’t forget in a hurry. This one, you’ll remember. It’s a killer of a film.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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