Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Whore, the Killer, the Revengeful and the Tramp (Part 1)


The Whore, the Killer, the Revenger and the Tramp
50 Years ago in the West

By Didier Thunus

I’m probably not the only one for whom Once Upon a Time in the West played a major role
in the passion that I developed for Leone’s cinema and for Morricone’s music. Yet it took very
long for me to see the movie. For some reason, it was never on TV, and in that time, it wasn’t
as  easy  as  today  to  see  all  the  movies  you  wanted  to  see especially  if  you  lived  in  a  small village far from movie theatres. You had to fall back on other, less satisfactory, options. If like me you are from Belgium or France and old enough for having lived through the seventies, youp robably remember the famous French TV show aired on Sundays on TF1 called “La sequence du spectateur”: 3 times 10 minutes from movies of all sorts. West was in it about once a year, and this was the sole opportunity for me to see parts of that film. I was eagerly waiting for the final duel scene to show up again, and was glued to my seat whenever it did. This long wait and frustration, this never ending period of longing for more developed in me a holy grail kind of aching.  A  young  teenager  acquiring  his  sensitivity  to  art  and  beauty  was  an  easy  target.  For more than a decade, I was seeing only the tip of the iceberg. It alone was already captivating me, and I knew there was a whole submerged part still to be uncovered.

Dilatation of Time

When  you  see Once  Upon  a  Time  in  the West,  you  understand  what  Sergio  Leone had   in   mind   since   the   beginning.   You realize that with the Dollars trilogy, he was only   warming   up.   Those   three   earlier movies  may be  masterpieces  in  their  own right,  they  do  not  showcase  the  director’s intent as well as his fourth western of 1968. The latter surpasses its predecessors both in themes   and   in   style.   The   three   Clint Eastwood  vehicles  were certainly  already very innovative, but they often made use of tricks  and  techniques  that  are  known  to “work”,  in  order  to  preserve  the  appeal, such  as  cavalcades,  twists  in  the  plots,
emphasized cruelty. It still made concessions to the viewers, as if the director did not dare yet to be fully himself. Now we know he had another purpose: Once Upon a Time  in  the  West is  the  slowest  of  the movies. Its story could have resulted in a 1 hour  clear cut  film,  but  what  mattered  to Sergio  Leone  was  to  make  a  deep,  lasting impression  on  the  spectators.  By slowing down his narrative, he amplified the impact of his message. The film doesn’t only have the longest opening credits in the history of cinema, it has the longest everything. There are some shootings throughout  the  movie, some   scenes   of   tension,   but   the   film develops at a pace that is barely bearable by the  average  audience.  After  the  opening train  station  scene and  McBain’s  family massacre,  and  before  the  final  showdown, there   is   not   so   much   happening. Not everybody  is  a  cinema  expert  or  a  fan of clever  filmmaking  who  can appreciate  the smartness  of  a  camera  angle  or  the  quality of   the   editing. The scenes   where Jill searches  McBain’s  house  or  where  Frank speaks    to    Morton    could    have    been downright  boring.  Somehow, there  is  still enough  to  keep  the  spectators  on  tiptoes.

The development  of  the  characters,  the mystery    around    their    intentions,    the enigmatic  flashbacks...  The  scene  where Cheyenne  is  killing  Frank’s  men  one  after the other from the rooftop of a train where Harmonica  is  kept  prisoner, is a smart one in that respect. It is like Leone was saying: ok it is very slow, but bear with me, you’ll see,  it’s  gonna  be  fun,  you  won’t  regret  it. However  it  is  only  when  Frank  will  ride back   to   Sweetwater   in   order   to   face Harmonica for the  final  confrontation, that we   are   able   to   measure   the   distance travelled.  We are now holding our  breath and can’t wait for the denouement. The term “dilatation of time” has often been used for characterizing this movie. The film is like a rope for which the strong beginning and  the  formidable  ending  make  up  the handles,  hard  and inflexible, whereas  the rest of the movie makes up the braided wire in  between,  bendable  and  soft.  The two handles can be moved close to each other at will, as if there was nothing in between. Yet there   is   something,   something   without which you don’t have a rope anymore, and its  intertwined  laces  are  unbreakable.  The fact that the movie lasts almost three hours is a  purely  practical  fact.  In  reality,  Leone managed  to rub out the duration of his picture.

A Multi Layered Screenplay

Actually, what  Sergio  Leone  really  had  in mind  after The  Good,  the  Bad  and  the Ugly, was already the project that ended up being Once  Upon  a  Time  in  America. If his  filmography  looks  pretty  neat  with  its two trilogies the “Dollars” trilogy and the “Once  Upon  a  Time”  trilogy neither  of them was premeditated. They both resulted from   the   changing dispositions   of   the producers. In 1968, Leone had no choice but make yet another western. So he reluctantly headed to the Spanish Sierra Nevada again and to the US to shoot it, but with a bigger budget, with American stars, and determined to give  it  its  own  uncompromising touch thanks to the freedom he could now enjoy. The screenplay, originally written with Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento,  was  then  reworked  with  Sergio Donati, finally credited after having worked in  the  shadow  for  Leone’s  second  western For a Few Dollars More. However I can’t help seeing Bertolucci’s touch in the most quirky turns of the story, such as the ambiguity around Jill’s rape by Frank. The director of Last Tango in Paris or La luna was a specialist  of  abstruse  relationships between man and woman. The contribution of Mickey  Knox, author of the dialogues should not be underestimated either.

It is worth noting that the Italian title of the movie C’era  una  volta  il  West actually means “Once  Upon a Time, the West”. So Leone  did  not  intend  to  depict  a  singular story  somewhere  in  the  Wild  West,  but  to portray  the  West  itself its whole story. When  he  shoots  a  scene  inside  Monument Valley,  like  John  Ford  did  before  him,  he means   it   not   to   be   merely   a   beautiful landscape for a given scene, but to represent an allegory of the Far West. Flagstone and Sweetwater  (the  two  cities  or  would be cities between which his characters travel in that scene) are imaginary, so why would the landscape    between    them    be    the    real Monument Valley we all know. It isn’t. It is just    a    parable    that    speaks    to    our subconscious. The characters are not simply a  bunch  of  people  that happened  to  have been   involved   in   the   same   story:   they represent  the  passing  from  a  period  where people had to fight for their lives by means of their physical strength, defending values such  as  family,  country,  traditions,  belief, justice, to a time that will be dominated by ruthless businessmen, where the only value that prevails is money. Except for Morton, the businessman  in  question,  all  the  main protagonists    belong    to    the    “obsolete” category. Those who will survive are those who will be able to cope with the new state of  things:  Jill  because  she  is  smart  enough to  adapt,  and  Harmonica  because  he has understood what was going on and can take the  necessary   distance.   Frank   himself admits  that  he  is  not  able  to  become  a businessman  even  though  he  believes that this  would  be  the  smartest  way  to  go;  and Cheyenne is an outlaw, killed by Morton in a  symbolistic  turn  of  the  plot not  shown on  screen,  as  if  the  murder  itself  didn’t matter   much:   only   its   metaphor   does. Morton   himself   dies,   but   as   said   by Harmonic a  towards  the  end  of  the  movie, there  will  be  other  Mortons to come and take over.

But   maybe   Harmonica   did   not   survive actually.  Indeed, in  the  original  director’s cut, Bronson’s character takes a bullet at the beginning of the movie by one of the three characters  just  before  the  latter  dies.  The short scene where Harmonica recovers and gets  up  was  not  present  in  the  original European cut: it was added to the American one  and  more  recently  to  all  editions  that claim  to  be  complete.  Later in  the  movie, when Frank asks him who he is, Harmonica keeps answering with names of dead people. Symbolically   again,   Leone   might   have meant    that    Harmonica    was    Frank’s nemesis:   not   a   real   character,   just   a metaphor  for  the  fact  that  a  character  like Frank cannot survive the paradigm shift that is taking place.We must also mention the omnipresence of the  water  element,  not  noticeable  by  the ordinary  viewer,  yet  obvious  if  you  pay attention to it. Water is the very reason why McBain wants to build a town at that place, which he would call Sweetwater, naturally, so    Leone    and    its    screenwriters    have extrapolated   around   the   topic   in   all   its forms: Jill’s baths, Cheyenne’s coffees, the wash   house   where   Harmonica   tortures Wobbles,   the   drops   falling   on   Woody Strode’s hat which he eventually drinks, the painting in Morton’s train and his will to go from one ocean to the other, Cheyenne’s toilet flushing when going in and out of the train  via  the  water closet,  Morton’s  death with  his  head  in  a  puddle,  the  well  from which  McBain’s witnesses  his  daughter’s death  and  from  which  Jill  pulls  water  for Harmonica,  the  water  she  brings  to  the workers  at  the  end,  and  so  many  more examples. It cannot simply be a coincidence. Unconsciously,   this   creates   a   sense   of fluidity,  a  sense  of  transparency,  which impacts the perception of the movie by the viewers.  This kind  of  details  proves  how high the maturity of the  screenplay is. The movie is not a classic by chance.


Dawn of the West

It was said that the box office failure in the US was  due  to  the fact  that  Henry  Fonda was cast as a villain, an  inconceivable fact for  the  American  movie goers.  But why would  that  be  conceivable  at  all  for  the Europeans  or  the  Japanese,  who  made  the same movie  an  instant  success?  They are also movie fans who were used to see Fonda play the law abiding good guy. That failure was more likely due to cultural reasons: the Americans    did    not    have    their    Sam Peckinpah yet, author of the first American crepuscular   westerns,   soon   followed   by those of Clint Eastwood himself. Both were following the footsteps of the Italian master, but were able to make it in a way that was acceptable for their fellow country (wo)men. In 1968, America was   still considering the movies as pure entertainment or at best as an opportunity to address  social  concerns,  and  was  waiting for Martin Scorsese, Arthur Penn or Francis Ford Coppola to shake this all up. Europe in the second  half  of  the 20th century,  in contrast, was already the cradle of a number of revolutionary movements in the cinema, such as neo-realism in Italy, or the Nouvelle Vague in France.

A Character Themed Score

There are not enough superlatives to qualify Ennio Morricone’s score  to Once  Upon  a Time in the West. It is considered the best movie soundtrack ever  by  many,  and  that includes myself of course. This is the score in which Morricone’s character theme approach culminated, each of the five main characters receiving a distinctive theme. Just like in The Mission where  the  choice of  the  main  instrument  (the  oboe)  was dictated  by  the  screenplay, the harmonica plays here a major diegetic and non-diegetic role, associated to Charles Bronson’s character.  Normally a  popular  instrument generally  used  as  a  light  counterpoint,  it receives here the singular stature of a carrier of death. Bronson’s theme is a simple three note motive usually played by the character on   screen, which then develops into a complex cue intertwined with   Frank’s theme to form the Man with the Harmonica piece.  Frank’s melody is more  pastoral, often played by the English horn or by brass instruments. But   inside the Harmonica piece,   it   is   ascribed   to   an   extremely amplified electric guitar.  No one  else  than Morricone dared to exaggerate an effect this much,  to  a  point  that  it  becomes  the  most striking element of the movie when it bursts into the loudspeakers. And no one else than Leone allowed  his  composer to go  this  far and steal the scene.

It   was   a   very   clever   move   to   merge Harmonica’s and  Frank’s  themes,  accentuating  the  strong connection  between  the two men. In the second part of the piece, a new  theme develops played by strings and full chorus. Glorious, captivating and fabulous, it reaches the  highest  degree  of magnificence The  mix  of  Franck’s  and Harmonica’s themes first appears at the end of the massacre of the McBain family, when Frank and his men emerge from the bushes.

The presence of the harmonica in this scene is questionable however, because Bronson’s character is  not  around.  And  it seems indeed that the original intention was not  to  use  the  harmonica  there:  the piece called Il grande massacre on the expanded CD  is  a  version  of  the  theme  deprived  of that instrument. It is very likely that Leone was unsatisfied with that initial version and found  that  the  full  version had a much stronger impact. Therefore the film version
is a collage of the timpani roll followed by a  fragment  from L’uomo  dell’armonica, seguing   into   the   finale   from Il   grande massacro. He was right: it made the scene a classic moment of cinema, and the awkward presence   of   the   harmonica   has   never annoyed anyone.

Both   Jill   and   Cheyenne   also   famously received  their  own  respective  themes:  a wonderful    vocal    by    Edda    Dell’Orso embodies   both   the   femininity   and   the larger than life  epic which Claudia Cardinale’s character is going through, and a  laid back  folk  tune  follows  the  deeds  of Jason  Robards’  tramp like  personification. A   fifth   theme   has   been   conceived   for Morton, capturing  both  the  ambitions  and the fragility of the businessman.

It looks simple at first sight: five characters, five themes. But if you look at it a bit closer, you’ll  realize  that  the  architecture  of  the score is much more complex than it appears. Frank’s  theme,  for  example,  can emerge when  Frank  is  not  around.  But  is  it  when Harmonica  is  around, confirming  the  link between the two characters? Well, not even: it is heard once when Jill is alone. Is this a departure  from  the  perfectionism  of  the Leone Morricone pair, or should we find a justification  elsewhere?  My  feeling  is  that not  only  the  characters  are  allegoric:  the music   also   is.   Frank’s   theme   not   only characterizes  the  man,  it  portrays  a  feeling of melancholy: things could be great in this new  world,  but  there  are  killers  and  there will be blood. So you will never be able to fully and carelessly embrace your new life. When   played   in   a   suspense   mode   (cf. L’uomo), it’s telling  you that the danger in question is imminent. And when played by the  distorted  guitar,  it  is  an  explosion  of violence and sadism, the allegory of a world where  a  whole  family,  including  young children, can be assassinated, where killing a man can become a sadistic game that will mark the survivors ever after.

Harmonica’s simple motive  is  an  allegory of the agony: on the first degree it amplifies the  breathing  of  a  boy  whose brother  is about to die, and later of his dying killer; on a more general level it represents the agony of the Old West, and also the agony of the American  western – a  theme  which  Leone will   exploit   further   in Il   mio   nome   è Nessuno five years later, again with Fonda and  with  an  additional layer as  Leone  will humbly   portray   the   agony   of   his   own western-style, making room for parodies.

Jill’s  theme  is  the  allegory  of  love, of  the place of the  woman in  this  new  world,  a woman who is fed up of only being a wife or a whore and now wants a place of choice. Morricone saw it as the embodiment of the whole film as he gave it the C’era una volta il West title. Morton’s theme is a metaphor of  the  dream  and  of  the  fact  that the  end justifies  the  means. Finally,  Cheyenne’s theme symbolizes the man on the street, the normal  person, and in the end:  us,  the audience.

We  see  that  the  music  is  not  only   an illustration  of  the  director’s  intent,  it  is  a prolongation  of  it,  it  adds  concepts  which are not portrayed explicit ly by the images.

Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone were 40. They were  at  the  peak  of  their respective
careers.  They  had  been  to  school  together and  now  they  were  changing  the  face  of
cinema and music for ever.


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