Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne


Weekend Wrap-up: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West & more

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 17, 2012

An early scene in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Once Upon a Time in the West: Made in 1968, two years after The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone returned from semi-retirement with a veritable epic that showed how much he’d matured in his filmmaking (and that there’s no one that can make movies like him paired with composer Ernio Morricone, but we already knew that). The ravishing Claudia Cardinale stars as a newly-married prostitute-turned-wife who arrives in the dust desert town of Flagstone to find her new husband and his family massacred, victims of the nasty Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gunslinger working for handicapped railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). As a mysterious, harmonica-playing loner with a personal vendetta against Frank, Charles Bronson is a compelling Man With No Name figure, while Jason Robards gives some comic relief as a renowned desperado with a large gang who’s also a quite decent, sympathetic fellow. And comic relief is gladly accepted – the the quite slow Once Upon A Time in the West is much different than the Clint Eastwood-starrers that made Leone famous and coined the term Spaghetti Western, with a complex, deep, and challenging story (which takes some time to figure out) that has plenty of allusions to the death of the Old West by way of railroads and industrialization. It’s a serious movie, that is, with plenty of meaty substance combined with Leone’s traditionally flashy and brash style. A perfect example of such can be found in a tense moment before the final showdown, where Harmonica, as he is called, tells Frank that apparently he found out he’s not a “businessman” after all. The reply is terse: “Just a man.” “An ancient race. More Mortons will be along, and they’ll kill it off,” Harmonica acknowledges.The conversation straying too much for Frank, he says, “The future don’t matter to us. Nothing matters now — not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you.” And then the two cowboys are done talking and are now speaking the quintessential Leone way, circling slowly towards one another and to their last proud gunfight while the Old West still stands and they still mean somehting. Hands inching towards their gun belts and hard inscrutable faces squinting in the harsh sunlight in tight closeups, all while Morricone’s rising score blares gloriously in our ears and sends literal shivers down our spines — I mean come on, this is cinema at its most satisfying, this is the stuff the legendary Westerns are remembered for. Once Upon a Time in the West is not only an excellent Western but a mighty fine film at that. [A-]

Starship Troopers: Hotshot kid Johnny Rico (Casper Van Diem) can’t really choose between the lovely Denise Richards and Dina Meyer, that is, when he’s not on the front lines splattering insectoid brains all over as part of the tough-as-nails Mobile Infantry in Paul Verhoeven‘s future-set, satirical 1997 romp about a interstellar war between humans and bugs (loosely based on Robert A. Heinlein‘s military sci-fi novel). You’ll find more bloody gore and gleefully decapitated limbs than solid acting, which makes Starship Troopers a cheesy camp classic and a whole lotta fun while it lasts. A tip of the hat to a young Neil Patrick Harris. [B+]

Sunset Blvd.: A tragic and beautiful melodrama for the ages, this classic Hollywood film noir about a faded and forgotten silent film queen (Gloria Swanson) in Hollywood and the struggling screenwriter (an underappreciated William Holden) who gets quagmired in her living fantasy hits all the notes, with lightness and even comedy deftly weaved in by director Billy Wilder (who, after this film, would go on to make side-splitters such as the incomparable Some Like it Hot). The best thing about it? The story is so timeless and the execution so nearly flawless, you can’t believe that it was made in 1950. [A]

Dead Man: Jim Jarmusch directed this odd, spare film posing as a surrealist neo-Western in 1995, and I can’t say that I completely got the story at all nor understand the particular appeal of the same. Shot entirely in black-and-white, Dead Man stars a young Johnny Depp as William Blake, a man accused of murder and who, wounded and on the run in the wilderness, meets an educated yet strange Native American called “Nobody” (Gary Farmer) who believes Blake to be a certain famous poet and takes him under his wing for a spiritual reincarnation of sort.  [B-]

One Response to “Weekend Wrap-up: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West & more”

  1. Fucking masterful film-making.

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