Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Legends of a dying breed (Once Upon a Time in the West)

I mentioned last week that recently I had not exactly been unswervingly faithful to my plan to limit my pop culture consumption to Westerns – Stephen King’s fantasy-cowboy Dark Tower as well as classic cinematic gems about frontier justice. And it’s true I’ve been mixing in other genres at will, for reasons ranging from logistical challenges to a hankering for different flavors in my diet. But I haven’t abandoned the plan altogether, and while I’m still casting around for a reasonably cheap-as-free method of getting my hands on the next Dark Tower volume, I did watch Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West over a few VRE rides late last week and yesterday.

There’s a few different ways I could come at the movie at this point: as a movie in and of itself, meriting an entry in the 1001 Films list; as a spaghetti western, which as I’ve mentioned before I’m only recently getting into as a sub-genre; and as an element of my own personal Dark Tower, Its Influences & Complimentary Works project, which probably promises to be the most fruitful. Along the first two approaches, things are fairly cut and dry. It is a great movie, whether you judge it against other westerns or other films in general. And it’s a spaghetti western, all right, interesting for coming along in Leone’s career after he swore he was done with cowboy movies, and for not featuring his muse Clint Eastwood, yet still managing to be exemplary.

Leone was interested in deconstructing the Western, but not radically reimagining it like King. So there isn’t anything really fantastical in Once Upon a Time in the West, not on the same level as the slow mutants and disembodied demons and sentient computers et al populating Roland Deschain’s Mid-World. But I still found it revealing that Leone entitled the film as he did, evoking a fairy-tale feel from the very outset. No ogres or witches in Once Upon a Time in the West, but it isn’t exactly something you’d hold up as a paragon of realism, either. It ends with a duel between two cowboys, one wearing (essentially) white and the other (unambiguously) black, a literal good-vs-evil conflict that at least feels of a piece with the struggles to find the Dark Tower and oppose the Crimson King. Everything in Once Upon a Time in the West is heightened to epic, archetypal levels, while at the same time retaining a certain grounded, gritty earthiness. It’s as if Leone walks right up to a line of suspension of disbelief, which King happily jumps across.

But, absent the outright supernatural, there was still one incredibly weird element of Once Upon a Time in the West: the overdubbing of Charles Bronson’s harmonica. Now, granted, movies are fake, even without gratuitous special effects: the characters are actors in costumes, the buildings are constructed sets. Spaghetti westerns in particular recreate American southwestern vistas in European locations. Dialogue gets re-recorded all the time, and Foley artists add the environmental noises as needed. (I may or may not have mentioned how jarring I found the utterly false-sounding gunshots and punches in Escape From New York, and that movie came along later in the evolution of the art than Once Upon a Time in the West.) And music is added in after the fact despite real life’s refusal (by and large) to have a soundtrack.

Here’s where things get exceptionally weird, though: Charles Bronson’s character (another classic nameless Leone protagonist, though he ends up being called Harmonica himself) carries a harmonica and occasionally plays a bar of just a few notes, always basically the same. But whenever he does, it doesn’t sound like a man playing a mouthorgan while sitting in a saloon; it sounds like (and in fact is) a studio recording of someone playing harmonica, with a fair amount of post-production audio engineering on top to make it sound especially haunting. And for the first half of the film or so, I couldn’t understand why they made that particular choice. I’m all for characters having their own leitmotifs in the score, and if that doleful harmonica draw had just kind of floated into the soundtrack during certain Bronson scenes, that would work for me. Or if Harmonica provided his own theme music, and it actually sounded like a cowboy having a little unenhanced blow on his instrument, that’s work too. But Bronson puts the instrument to his lips and there’s no question that he’s is supposed to be playing it in-narrative, but the sound doesn’t match up. And yet I didn’t hold this to be a flaw of the movie, in the end.

Because of course Bronson’s Harmonica turns out to be on a quest for revenge against Henry Fonda’s Frank, and when the backstory is finally revealed just before the climax, it turns out that a harmonica actually played a crucial role at a pivotal point, so really all of the preceding unreality of the harmonica sounds were a kind of musical symbolism, not realistic but mythic. And also a little bit crazy, but I tend not to find craziness terribly off-putting. Including the crazy off-the-rails tendencies of the latter installments of the Dark Tower (and tomorrow, I’ll swing back over to talking about those books specifically, too.)

And just to loop back around to qualities of a must-see film, I should mention that Fonda is fantastic as Frank, a worth-the-price-of-admission performance and then some. Once Upon a Time in the West is often known as “the western where Fonda plays against type as the villain” but that almost does the final product a disservice. Fonda makes the role memorable, not because it’s an interesting curiosity to constantly contrast his previous reputation with the nature of the character, but because he brings a cold-blooded death-dealing nightmare to irresistible life.

Ultimately, Once Upon a Time in the West is both an apt addition to the intense and other-worldly westerns I've been shoring up my Dark Tower experience with, and also another example of me spoiling myself on westerns in general by watching only the really, really good ones.

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