8. Once Upon a Time in the West


Gun to my head, this is the best film ever made. And you don’t even need the gun. Here, take this — there’s one thing that can stop a bullet.

It’s the followup to the Dollars Trilogy, that loosely connected series of adventures in the west, which dovetailed in shades of revision and nostalgia by The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But those themes culminate here in perfect expression. This is a story that would have a profound effect in many different media, but it only works as a film.

Because it is as much about the Old West as it is westerns. Much like Watchmen, you can’t take the metatext out of the text, not when the commentary of the form is so evident. Charles Bronson’s Harmonica slides in and out of frame like the ghost of Frank’s past he is, and each of these characters is mythological in nature. The mother of the frontier, the black hat, the romantic gunfighter, the industrial dreamer.

The story is so beautiful, and its expression in the micro makes for some teary-eyed viewing, even when nothing particularly sad is going on. It’s Sergio Leone’s various preoccupations, my favorite directorial signature, above Oshii’s bassett hounds and Scorsese’s weird spotlight thing and “Gimme Shelter”: His whole deal is that Ennio Morricone is tasked with doing the music first, and then his score is played on set, which is why the players seem to move in step with the music.

It’s also why the scenes are so long and drawn-out. Yet — not poorly paced, or indulgent. That mythological nature accounts for a lot of it, but also the tone. Jill arrives at the station, and no one is there to receive her. That Morricone tune fades in, accompanies her through her journey into town. When the camera rises over the station to reveal the frontier construction, the score reaches its climax in time.

It’s storytelling in mood, in silence (except for all the music). The dialogue, while lyrical and profound, takes second stage to what goes on in-between. Ultimately, this film is a study in the reconciliation of literature and cinematic language. It’s a highly creative expression in this way, the invention of the kind of narrative required for this specific story about myth, revenge, romance, and cultural rebirth. It’s so impressive that the gorgeous cinematography doesn’t even read as such, but just another needed tool toward this end.

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