Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, 1968)

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Leone’s meticulous cinematography, iconic photography, and brilliant sound design distinguish Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) not only as a masterpiece but as one of the most important western-genre gems of the 20th century. While some, including myself, might feel more fondly towards the somewhat more personable and culturally respected Good, Bad, and Ugly, the production of Once Upon a Time in the West is inarguably more sophisticated. To some degree this is due to panavision, technicolor, and a significantly raised budget, but there is also a noticeable development of Leone’s craft, to the point where one could rightly argue that the ‘man with no name’ trilogy was a workout—practice for the magnum opus to come.

In visually immersive yet highly textural 70mm, Leone is able to use wide-screen space to his advantage, and he does so masterfully. The opening medley wherein three of Frank’s (Henry Fonda) men await to meet with Harmonica/the man with no name (Charles Bronson) displays a unique visual and aural mastery unfamiliar outside of Leone’s ouevre. It is almost operatic and exceptionally detailed. There is almost no dialogue; instead, the camera glides around the location, giving a sense of the space and its openings without ever resorting to an establishing shot. It cuts between the three characters to further establish space, but dynamically shifts from images of their figures in open spaces to their figures in close up. All the while, the sound effects render atmosphere, as it does throughout the film, providing an organic sense of the inhabited space and the characters’ experience thereof. From the rhythmic squeal of the windmill to drops of water to the train’s engine, these accentuated sounds engage the viewer’s attention and summon a great deal of tension for what is to come.

Yet, in addition to a meticulous soundtrack of aptly dubbed effects, Leone’s cinematography is perhaps even more remarkable. Using 70mm, he is able to show a great deal of foreground and background activity, and by using a slowly mobile camera he is able to shift from sophisticated long shots into iconic close-ups. For example, when Harmonica is seen in the saloon, the camera tracks towards his profile which becomes a perfect silhouette amongst a blue sky; when Frank is first seen, the scene begins with a long shot of the young boy he is about to kill, but the camera slowly cranes from behind Frank, turns to his side thus obscuring the boy, and then closes in on his face. Both of these shots are highly powerful and truly cinematographic moments.

These powerful moments are made ever more impacting due to Ennio Morricone’s creative score which is used characteristically to enhance the emotional expressiveness of the images. But the soundtrack does not simply add on to the visual spectacle, it is an inextricable part of the experience. These impressive audio-visual moments make it difficult for one to listen to the music without imagining its associated image, and wherein it is difficult for one to see the image without hearing its associated score. This is the sign of a great soundtrack, when the music is not merely in the background or abstractly connected to the film but integral to the moment and experience of the film. The use of motifs/themes throughout the film add that much more since music provides a strongly resonant quality to one’s experience of film. Shifting from Harmonica’s theme to the riding theme to Frank’s theme to the Widow’s theme helps the film build through repetition and variation thus by the end offering an expansive, intricate, and most importantly personally resonant experience for the viewer.

On the downside, by far the greatest problem of the film is its absolutely terrible voice dubbing which is difficult to ignore and makes certain conversations appear awkward and certain dialogues appear disconnected. It is the one major failure of this otherwise brilliant film.

95/100 – Amazing.

5 Stars

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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