Once Upon a Time in the West -- St. Louis Int'l Film Festival

Post date: Nov 15, 2009 12:19:38 AM

Before a couple weeks ago, I didn't even realize St. Louis had its own film festival. Thanks to an article in the St. Louis Examiner, I learned it does. An international one, even, with an insane amount of new and classic movies. Evidently, one of the nations represented is Italy, which I know from having the pleasure of watching Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West today at Webster University. (I'm not exactly sure what's the occasion for screening it. I think I read somewhere that this is a new print.)The Winifred Moore Auditorium doesn't have a huge screen, but the sound is decent and each seat is kind of like a well-cushioned rocking chair. The volunteers were nice and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the event. Selling pretzels and drinks would have been nice, though.But enough about that. Let's talk about the 1968 Spaghetti Western considered by many to be Leone's magnum opus. If you've already seen it, good for you. See it again instead of reading this. If you haven't, I believe Walmart has two-disc special editions for like $6. Like the Fistful of Dollars trilogy (1964-66), this film has a Man with No Name figure protecting a battered woman (Claudia Cardinale), forging a shaky alliance with a cowboy of questionable character (Jason Robards), and facing off against a wicked assassin (Henry Fonda). This time the leather-skinned Charles Bronson assumes the role of "The Good," and does so with a crackled, coy grin instead of a permanent scowl -- more apt to stuff his mouth with a harmonica than one of Blondie's short cigars. I love Eastwood, but Bronson is a nice change of scenery. The cinematography here is absolutely amazing -- up there with all-time greats like Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I never tire of Leone's sweeping through mountain and desert landscapes, or his trademark extreme closeups. Case in point, the first scene. You have these three bad guys just waiting for "Harmonica" to show up at a train station. I couldn't tell you how many minutes pass just waiting for something to happen, but it's pretty long. And yet to me, it's not boring at all. We're immediately introduced to the striking juxtaposition of epic Western landscapes and small details: the fly buzzing on a man's face -- almost going inside his mouth, the water dripping on another man's head, the odd melody of a creaking windmill, the coarse, gray beard hairs of men who live in the sun.

The editing is also impressive. Leone lets scenes drag on and on, the suspense ever building . . . then a moment of violence finally arrives and jarring quick cuts bring us to a completely different time, place, and mood.

I would have to rank Frank as my favorite Henry Fonda role, just above Tom Joad in Grapes of Wrath. His eyes just glow with so much intensity, and when he delivers (arguably) this movie's best line -- "People scare better when they're dying" -- you laugh, but you also buy into his menace. Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Van Damme have hundreds of quotes like that. You laugh at those, too, but you can't take them seriously. It's hard to believe Frank is played by the same guy who starred in the unbearably corny Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).

As for the great debate of which is better between this and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly . . . I really couldn't say. They're both so beautiful and so badass. I think this one looks better overall, but I prefer the soundtrack and characters of The Good. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Tuco (Eli Wallach) is Leone's best character. He's such a despicable sleazeball, but you can't not love him. He's too damn funny. He adds a kind of spice and variety that Robards cannot replace.

That said, see this movie. Hell, see every Sergio Leone movie. If only Westerns like this were still being made . . .

And, of course, don't forget to check out the film festival website to see if there's anything of interest to you. This weekend is just the kickoff.