Moral Ambiguity, Greyness and Imperfection in the Classic, 'Once Upon a Time in the West'

Jason Robards in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

This is, literally and figuratively, a movie about the dirt under the fingernails of its characters, and how everyone has some of that dirt, no matter how they might appear on the outside or to those in society at large.

Once Upon a Time in the West

Director: Sergio Leone
Cast: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson
Length: 166 minutes
Studio: Paramount
Year: 1969
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: NR
Release date: 2011-05-31

There are at least four known edits of Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) in existence, with a fifth reputedly available as a bootleg. In the US, there have been home versions released on VHS, on DVD, as both a three-disc "Special Collector's Edition" and a film-only disc, and through iTunes. The subject of this review is last month's Blu-ray release of the film.

This accessibility, and proliferation of versions and formats, is at once a boon and a barrier for criticism. On the one hand, each reissue is a new opportunity to draw attention to a film's particular virtues, including movies originally seen decades ago and that may pre-date the critic.

On the other hand, that same opportunity, taken up by enough writers, produces a mass of repetitious reflection. The Movie Review Query Engine lists 62 reviews of Once Upon a Time in the West. Rotten Tomatoes has 49. And those lists are only a sampling of online criticism, a sampling that does not begin to approach offline sources, including archived reviews from the '60s and academic criticism in books and journals.

While every film, regardless of vintage, will always be new to somebody, when addressing a widely known and well-worn work, justifying one's own work seems to call for novel insight or an original angle of approach. Particularly where the movie in question is an acknowledged "classic", it's easy to fall back on simple celebration or well-rehearsed appreciations. This kind of writing does no harm, but it doesn't add to the understanding of a work, either.

Where viewers and consumers have access to a wealth of both films and writing about film, good, or at least interesting, criticism requires experimentation and innovation. One such experiment is Nicholas Rombes' 10/40/70 exercise. Rombes, an associate professor of English at Detroit Mercy, explains 10/40/70 at The Rumpus:

This column is an experiment in writing about film: what if, instead of freely choosing which parts of the film to address, I select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case and for future columns, the 10-minute, 40-minute, and 70-minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as a guide to writing about the film, keeping the commentary as close to possible to the frames themselves? No compromise: the film must be stopped at these time codes. Constraint as a form of freedom (see "10/40/70 #1: Star Ship Troopers", 31 March 2010).

As Rombes implies, what a critic typically selects to highlight, which shots, which characters, which themes, is driven by the writer's predilections, theoretical and aesthetic, and, in some cases, by the larger consensus that coalesces around a film. By starting from a series of essentially arbitrary images, the critic consents to being forced out of their preferred references and will often be compelled to address aspects and moments that they would otherwise ignore.

For this review, I decided to use Rombes' experiment as a way to engage with Once Upon a Time in the West in a new way. I have adapted the 10/40/70 exercise into an assignment for my college classes, and when I do that, I change the time codes to five, 45, and 85 minutes. I apply those indices here to the 166-minute "restored version" of the film featured on the Blu-ray, and, in a nod to the almost three-hour running time, I pull an additional frame from 125 minutes.

At five minutes is a close-up of Jack Elam's gunfighter, credited as "Snaky" and as a member of Frank's (Henry Fonda) gang of killers for hire, currently working for rail baron, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). In the background of the shot is another member of the gang and a vast expanse of sun-baked desert, transected by railroad tracks which run past the station where Snaky and two others are waiting to "greet" Charles Bronson's "Harmonica", the film's protagonist.

Snaky's reclined posture and casual demeanor signify his comfort with violence and killing, a comfort that is ultimately disrupted by Harmonica's utter lack of fear once he arrives. The film's narrative is structured around several such battles of will, each one of which is won by Harmonica, but even he cannot face down the closing of the Frontier by the industrial revolution and the coming of commerce, both of which are present in this image in the form of the railroad and the rail station.

This frame is pulled from the 12-minute opening credit sequence. Heard but not seen is the tapping of the telegraph, the creaking of hinges, the buzz of insects and the rustle of the wind. Once Upon a Time in the West employs a sound design that amplifies environmental noise for dramatic effect, almost making them part of the musical soundtrack. Leone and his sound department juxtapose mechanical and organic sounds throughout the film, underscoring the clash of wilderness and machine that also plays out in the natures of the human characters.

At 45-minutes is a medium close-up of Harmonica near the end of his first encounter with Cheyenne (Jason Robards), pictured in the foreground, and from whose position we view Harmonica. The scene takes place in a roadside bar and includes Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), on her way to her husband's home where, unknown to her, her new family lays dead at the hands of Frank and his gun thugs.

Both Cheyenne and Harmonica exude a cool confidence, seen here in Harmonica's easy smile, though the older man has a lighter affect. In contrast to the two outlaws, the bartender is tense, worried, like most in the bar, that the meeting of these two men will erupt in violence. In fact, this moment is the seed of a partnership, one that ultimately enfolds Jill. While neither Cheyenne nor Harmonica is a "good" man, in relation to Frank they are at least honorable, and both are personally wronged by Frank. This also provides their bond with Jill.

At 85-minutes is a medium long shot of Frank, ducking to enter the main car of Morton's traveling home/office. He has just captured Harmonica and is beginning to show himself to be a liability to Morton, attracting unwanted attention and complications to the conduct of business, as well as developing his own ambitions of becoming rich and settled.

The refined and elaborate design of the interior of the car makes the train an even more pronounced and visible symbol of civilization, and the end of the Frontier, than it already is without such detailing. That the gunfighter does not quite "fit" in the car entry is another reminder of the approaching social irrelevance of men like Frank, Cheyenne, and Harmonica.

Finally, at 125 minutes is an extreme close-up of Frank as he exits the hotel where the McBain family property has been auctioned off to Harmonica. Frank sent members of his gang to disrupt the auction and assure an outcome to his own benefit, but the ever implacable Harmonica, with the backing of Cheyenne, is not intimidated.

Frank offers Harmonica $5001.00, one dollar more than the winning bid, for the property. The value of the property lies in its water rights, which makes it a natural location for a train station. This was to be the McBain family's fortune.

Frank leaves the building having had his offer rejected by Harmonica. Unnerved by this loss and by his ongoing inability to place the other man in his memory, Frank here appears alert and wary as he looks out across the town of Flagstone from the hotel porch. Perhaps he also senses that something is wrong; Morton has contracted some of Frank's men to kill their leader, men who are at that moment positioning themselves to do that very deed. Frank escapes this ambush with Harmonica's help, but this is only a reprieve that sets up their final confrontation.

The extra features on the Blu-ray are carried over from the "Special Collector's Edition" DVD, and include: a commentary track from interviews with directors Alex Cox, John Carpenter, and John Milius, film historians Christopher Frayling and Sheldon Hall, and cast and crew, notably, Claudia Cardinale; a trio of short features on Leone and the making of the film, which incorporate contributions from the commentary cast; a short documentary on the railroad; two stills galleries, and a theatrical trailer.

The one difference in the features package between the earlier DVD set and the Blu-ray is the inclusion of two versions of the film, a "restored" cut and a "theatrical" edit, on the newer disc. The "theatrical" version is the one featured on the DVD. The "restoration" includes about a minute of previously excluded footage. The differences between the two versions are marginal.

In digital high definition, the picture reveals details, particularly in the weathered, ruddy, often grimy faces of the actors, that have likely not been seen with this kind of clarity before. This in no way detracts from the viewing of the film, if anything it highlights the care and craft that went into the production, but Once Upon a Time in the West is, literally and figuratively, a movie about the dirt under the fingernails of its characters, and how everyone has some of that dirt, no matter how they might appear on the outside or to those in society at large. Somehow that deliberate moral ambiguity, that greyness and imperfection, seems more at home in an analog context than in a digital one.






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