FIRST DO NO HARMONICA

Based on the title alone, “Once Upon a Time Upon in the West” sounds like an epic bedtime story about cowboys. And when the movie is referred to as a “spaghetti Western,” one can reasonably expect Indians slurp some noodle pasta. Neither cases are true, but the movie, like its title and a spaghetti, is lengthy and extended. Slurping this bad boy will take three hours.

The first scenes should test some patience as three men, none of which are the main characters, interminably wait for a train. The plot is intentionally at a stall as the film brings out its Western flair to the forefront. “Once Upon a Time …” lives in the moment; it immerses its viewer in its dry, scorching atmosphere. It pays attention to details from mundane sounds (a buzzing fly, water leaks, and a howling wind) to the slight grimaces of its cowboys. If a viewer succumbs to ennui during these scenes, there is no hope that he can last the entire movie.

It takes a good hour for the plot to take shape as it links four of its principal characters, each with their own lengthy scene of introduction. Charles Bronson plays a harmonica-playing stranger, who has come to town to settle a score with Frank. Played by Henry Fonda, the sought-after Frank is the unmistakable bad guy. We know this the moment we learn Frank has murdered a father and his three children. Claudia Cardinale portrays Jill, a buxom bride who tragically comes home to a dead family. And Jason Robards is Cheyenne the bandit, the wrongly-suspected criminal of the family massacre.

“Once Upon a Time …” is my second Sergio Leone film, but this is the first time I became alert of his cinematic approach. (I fast-forwarded through “A Fistful of Dollars” because the story is so close to Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” which I already watched.) I was initially wow-ed by the stylistic choices. I like its attention to details, its fetish towards cowboy eyes and un-mosturized, porous physiognomy. The sprawling cinematography is impressive, especially the pan across Monument Valley, which was more gorgeous than I remember. And the music by Ennio Morricone, arguably a character in its itself, stunningly invigorates.

But as the movie struts to its three-hour length, “Once Upon a Time in the West” begins to show its age. Its flashy style becomes repetitive, almost becoming a joke. Take the harmonica music. It is first haunting, but loses its effect the more times it is played. Did we have to hear it every time Bronson’s character enter a scene? Ditto goes to Jill’s mournful music and Cheyenne’s sprightly theme. The problem is not the music, but the approach. What Morricone could have done is to develop these themes overtime, instead of offering the same compositions in repetitions.

I also found the story a bit underwhelming, playing second fiddle to the movie’s artistry. There are three great reveals here, but it’s too few for the allotted time. The characters also seems out-of-reach for me; the movie is more content in keeping them mysterious. But if you don’t latch on to a character right away, it’s kinda hard to care whether they die or not. The one I liked the most is Cheyenne, strictly due to Robards’ charisma, but then I wonder if the character was that essential at all. And when I start to wonder at what can be edited out, it’s a sign of a film too long for its own good. I believe that “Once Upon a Time …” would have been great had Leone made the film more compact. Alas, that is not his style. While his spaghetti Western is indeed savory, it can be too much to devour.

Grade: B+

CAST
Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, and Jason Robards
Written by
Sergio Leone
Sergio Donati
Directed by
Sergio Leone
Rated PG-13 for western violence and brief sensuality.
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