Continuing onward —
I’m having a hard time deciding how I feel about Once Upon a Time in the West. I really like parts of it a lot, but as a whole? I’m not entirely sure about that.
Jill moves to Sweetwater, only to find her new husband and his entirely family have been murdered by Frank (Henry Fonda), a sadistic hired gun. An outlaw (Jason Robards) and a stranger who’s very fond of his harmonica (Charles Bronson) team up to protect Jill.
1. This movie has a runtime of two hours and forty-six minutes. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this going into the movie, but I was downright horrified after watching the opening credits.
The credits are ten minutes long and primarily consist of a few henchmen silently hanging out at a train stop, drinking water from their hats or trapping flies in the barrel of their guns. It is excruciatingly slow, and I was very concerned that the whole film was going to move at this glacial pace.
Thankfully, Once Upon a Time in the West does pick up quite a bit, although I think there are a few snags in the pacing here and there throughout the movie. Surprisingly, I can look past that — my real problem is that a nearly three hour film shouldn’t feel like scenes have been cut for time constraints, and yet there are two that seem to be missing. One such scene is more transitionary than anything, but the other is highly plot relevant, and yet? Nowhere to be found. I don’t get it. We can spend ten minutes watching water drop on Woody Strode’s hat, but an entire gunfight where very important things happen is left on the cutting room floor? The hell?
2. On the upside, I really enjoy all the acting in this. Charles Bronson is a perfectly decent Clint Eastwood stand-in — oh, that’s not fair; I actually like quite a few of his lines — and Henry Fonda makes for a surprisingly good villain. Most people, presumably, were surprised because Fonda primarily played good guys throughout his career, but as this was the first movie of his I’d ever seen, I didn’t have those expectations. I was surprised because the bad guys in my westerns have not, thus far, been particularly overwhelming. There’ve been a couple of good ones, but I’ve definitely been a little disappointed with a fair few of my black hats this year.
As to the rest of the acting — I like Claudia Cardinale quite a bit as Jill.
She’s strong and interesting, and while I think calling her the main character is something of a stretch, she certain is a lead, and not just the cowboy’s girl on the side or something.
Also Jason Robards plays my very favorite character in the bunch, Cheyenne.
Cheyenne is scrappy and funny, and Robards seems an easy fit in the part. He transitions seamlessly from ominous to likable, and he and Bronson make for a surprisingly fun dynamic duo on screen.
3. Watching another spaghetti western means I get to add to my ongoing collection of awesome Ennio Morricone songs. YES. I really love this one. It keeps getting stuck in my head during mundane activities, like playing board games with friends during birthday parties, and I tell my brain, Uh, brain? This is inappropriately tense music for a not terribly high stakes activity like Dixit. My brain never listens.
4. Hm. Already I’m struggling with what I want to talk about without getting into spoilers. I’m afraid there isn’t very much, but I guess I can say a few things about Monica.
Cheynne calls Charles Bronson’s character “Harmonica” because — appropriately — the guy’s always carrying his harmonica around, playing it whenever he doesn’t feel like answering a question. Which, hey. That seems like a sound strategy to me. I should try that shit out at work. I think I still have a harmonica somewhere around here.
But Mekaela misheard Cheyenne the first time he called Charles Bronson, “Harmonica,” which basically meant we were morally obligated to call Chucky B. “Monica” for the rest of the film because we’re children.
I generally like Monica fairly well, but there’s one scene where he’s kinda rough with Jill, and I don’t particularly like it. I did read a couple of different explanations for said scene so far, but I’m not sure that either of them make all that much sense to me, and the whole thing just seems kind of . . . off. I honestly wish it just wasn’t in the movie.
5. I really like a lot of the action scenes. There’s one on a train that’s pretty enjoyable. Also, the Big Showdown is kind of great. More than that, though, I like that you have a few different players involved in this, all wanting different things, all approaching them in different ways. Everyone has their own kind of power in this movie, and I like that. I enjoy watching morally ambiguous people make various power plays, which is probably one of the reasons the spaghetti western appeals to me so much as a sub-genre.
I just wish that the story, ultimately, felt a bit tighter. There’s something to the idea of keeping a slow, steady pace and occasionally punctuating it with huge bursts of action and violence . . . but it’s a hard line to walk, and there are times where I think the overall story suffers because of the uneven pacing. It’s possible I might feel differently about this on a second go-around because such pacing is definitely something I can and have changed my mind about on repeat viewings of other films . . . but I still feel like this would be a stronger movie with considerably stricter editing.
But I won’t talk anymore about that without getting into spoilers.
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? (It is, after all, an excellent place to start.)
We have our three lackeys at the train station, and the fact that this scene is an homage to High Noon IN NO WAY makes it interesting. Thankfully Monica finally arrives, determines that none of these men are the Evil Frank, and quickly kills each of them. So, sayonara, Woody Strode. Nice seeing you again.
We’re then introduced to Dead Meat Family. Brett, the patriarch of Dead Meat Family, orders his considerably petulant son to meet Brett’s new wife at the train station. Unfortunately, before he can leave, Evil Frank comes around and kills everyone, including the littlest, less petulant son who can’t be any older than ten.
The execution of Dead Meat Family is actually kind of sad. When Brett starts screaming for his daughter after she’s shot, only to get shot himself as he runs towards her . . . I don’t know. It was kind of moving, or something.
We then get to see Evil Frank and his pretty blue eyes.
Apparently, the idea of bad guys with blue eyes was revolutionary in 1968 because Henry Fonda had planned to wear brown contacts before Sergio Leone thankfully nixed the idea. I’m both amused and mildly offended that blue eyes were apparently thought of as some universal symbol of virtue and heroism, whereas brown eyes were regarded as, I don’t know, particularly villainous? Mind you, I have hazel eyes, so I don’t know where the hell I fit into this eye-color-is-the-indicator-of-the-soul test. (Probably as morally flexible.)
Jill McBain is Brett’s new wife and unfortunately no longer has anyone to meet her at the train station, now that everyone is dead. She hitches a ride with a man I wouldn’t trust to lift luggage onto a cart, much less drive it. Crazy Old Driver Man stops at some dive inn along the way for a drink — as you do — and Jill asks to soak in the bathtub. Jill’s love of baths is actually kind of an interesting part of her character, but that being said, this is probably not the place I would choose to scrub down in.
Before she can get that bath, though, there is a loud scuffle outside followed by a number of gunshots. Enter Cheyenne.
Cheyenne orders gin and, hilariously, drinks it while still wearing very large and very obvious handcuffs. He then proceeds to get into something of a pissing match with Monica, who basically answers all of Cheyenne’s question with the same, mournful notes he always plays on his harmonica. Seriously, it’s not even a real song — it’s just the same strange sounds over and over again. (There’s actually a whole story reason for this too, which is great, but we don’t know about that yet.)
Cheyenne’s lackeys arrive, and Monica notes that they look a lot like — or at least wear similar coats to — the men he shot at the train station. It will eventually become clear that Evil Frank is framing his various crimes, including the murder of Dead Meat Family, on Cheyenne.
Surprisingly, there’s no bloodshed at the terrible little dive hotel. Everyone goes their own merry ways, and by merry, I mean Jill arrives at her new home to discover a quasi-funeral already in progress for her dead family. Each body is laid out upon a different picnic table, which was a little funnier to me than it probably should have been.
In related news, I continue to be a terrible person.
Cheyenne pays Jill a visit. He starts out kind of intimidating at first, but it becomes pretty clear that he has no intention of actually hurting her. Honestly, I kind of like the two of them together, maybe because they’re both awesome characters with decent chemistry, or maybe because of the three male leads, Cheyenne actually seems to behave the least inappropriately with her. But this scene is not about shipping — it’s about innocence. Cheyenne tells Jill that he didn’t kill Brett McBain or his children, and they try (and fail) to come up with a motive for the crime.
Eventually, Cheyenne leaves. Jill is about to skip town herself, but Monica pops up and tells her not to. He also kind of throws her down on a table and starts ripping up her dress. Here are the basic explanations I’ve come across for this scene:
A. Monica is putting on a show for Frank’s men, who are out in the distance, watching.
B. Monica is ripping the white off Jill’s black dress, leaving her in true mourning colors.
I did consider A, while watching the film, but I’ve got to tell you . . . that’s not how the scene reads to me. Frank’s men are way the hell out there, and it seems like they can barely see Jill when she’s outside the house, much less when she’s inside. They certainly can’t hear her. If Monica’s trying to make Frank’s men think he’s just there to get laid, why doesn’t he tell her what he’s doing?
And while it’s true that Monica deliberately tears the white from Jill’s dress . . . you know, why? Is there some reason he couldn’t have just asked to take off the offending fabric? Is it really necessary for him to violently shove her down and hold her still with a firm hand directly on top of her breasts? For that moment, why the hell does he care what she’s wearing, anyway?
Honestly, it’s an awkward scene, and it mostly feels like a cheap ploy to create artificial tension between the two characters. It especially squicks me out because Jill seems to harbor Romantic Feels for Monica by the end of the film, and my brain just has trouble with that.
Anyhow, Monica kills Frank’s men. Meanwhile, Frank himself is on Morton’s Train of Luxury. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a crippled, rich, railroad tycoon, hired Frank to scare the McBain family, but since Frank is basically a remorseless sociopath, he decided to kill them instead. Frank also has delusions of becoming a businessman himself, and I find some of the conversations about power between the two of them interesting.
Monica eventually leaves Jill’s place and sneaks onto the train — like, literally, he’s hanging out on top of it — but Frank sees his shadow and captures him. Cheyenne, though, is hidden underneath the train — like a badass — and comes to Monica’s rescue while Frank hops off and rides back to Sweetwater to abduct Jill.
We very quickly cut to a scene where Morton and Frank are talking outside near some cliff, and it’s kind of a strange transition. Like it really feels as if we’ve missed a scene where Frank’s leaving Sweetwater with Jill in tow, or Monica and Cheyenne arrive at Sweetwater to discover she’s missing, or even Morton just getting off his train of luxury. I had kind of a whiplash moment, like, wait, these guys are together again? Weren’t they miles and miles apart just seconds ago? Where the hell are they even at?
By this point, Jill has discovered why McBain and his children were killed — Sweetwater isn’t the useless dump everyone thinks it is. As the railroad keeps going farther and farther out west, the train will have to go through Sweetwater to access the, er, sweet water. McBain had planned to build an entire town there before he was murdered. Morton, tired of all this mindless violence, plans to just buy the land from Jill. But Frank will have none of it — he’s all evil and power hungry, especially now that his employer’s physical limitations are so apparent. (Inside his train, Morton’s got a pretty awesome setup with all these handles on the ceiling to help him move around. Outside the train, Morton’s got . . . not much.)
Frank kicks Morton around and tells his men to keep an eye on the guy while he leaves to go rape Jill. In the two hours we’ve been watching him, Frank has killed children, raped women, and stomped all over cripples. Frank is pretty much the opposite of a sympathetic villain.
Frank also reveals (to the audience) that Jill used to be a prostitute in New Orleans before she secretly married Brett McBain. He basically mocks her for it, and for willingly having sex with him. “I think, yeah. I think I might be a little sorry killing you. You like being alive? You also like to feel a man’s hands all over you. You like it, even if they’re the hands of the man who killed your husband.” Of course, not resisting is hell and gone from willing, and it’s no big shock she starts touching him more, trying to distract Frank when he brings up things like, oh, murdering her and all. That’s the kind of thing Jill’s not very keen about, for obvious reasons.
Frank briefly considers marrying Jill to take control of her land, but he points out (unnecessarily) that he would be a bad husband. He goes for the easier road instead: he forces Jill to sell Sweetwater at auction for a ridiculously bargain price. Frank’s men intimidate the townspeople from bidding, but Monica walks in at the last minute and offers 5,000 dollars for the land, which just happens to be the amount of money he’ll get for turning in Cheyenne. Cheyenne’s about as pleased with this development as you might expect.
Meanwhile, Morton bribes Frank’s men to turn against him. They arrive in town, looking for Frank, at the same time Cheyenne is put on the train to jail. (A couple of Cheyenne’s men also board the train in a semi-ominous manner, but I didn’t realize they were his guys. In the film’s defense, they made a point of saying Cheyenne’s men wore these long coats. In my defense, Frank’s men have worn them too, one of the guys is just carrying his coat, and its not long they’re super bright or distinctive coats anyway. These dudes basically look the same as everyone else around.)
Frank tries to buy the land from Monica (for the huge profit of $5,001.00), but Monica refuses. He also won’t give Frank (or us) his real name. He’ll only call himself by the names of men that Frank has already murdered, which is just a fun little touch I enjoy for some reason. Eventually Frank leaves but quickly realizes that something is afoot. And by afoot, I mean that all of Morton’s men (previously Frank’s men) are hiding around town, ready to kill him.
Monica saves Frank repeatedly, much to Jill’s disgust:
Jill: “You saved his life!”
Monica: “I didn’t let them kill him, and that’s not the same thing.”
Well, yeah, I guess, but . . . we’re kind of splitting hairs here, aren’t we? I know you want to be the one to shoot Frank and all, but honestly. If you lost your little revenge fantasy at the end of the movie, and Frank decided to torture and kill Jill through the ends credits, well. Then you’d just be an asshole, wouldn’t you? I’m kind of on Jill’s side here.
Anyway, Frank goes back to Morton’s train to find him dying next to a puddle. Everybody else on the train — Morton’s men and Cheyenne’s men — are all dead. Cheyenne himself is missing. Frank basically dismisses Morton as pathetic and not worth a bullet and leaves him to die, and Morton does, in fact, die, listening to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean in his mind. Since he’s been longing to reach the Pacific Ocean the entire film, it’s actually kind of sad. Morton doesn’t seem like such a terrible guy, although he is a spectacularly lousy judge of character.
Cheyenne appears back in Sweetwater and hangs out with Jill. Men are hard at work building the station there, and Cheyenne gives some advice to his newfound kind-of-friend: she should go out and give them water, since they’ll appreciate not only the drink but a glance at a good-looking woman too. And should one of those workers “accidentally” slap her ass, well, she should take that in stride because, hey, they earned it. Shockingly, I’m not wild about this advice for a couple of reasons: one, you know, feminism, and two, I don’t feel like this is a lesson that Jill really needs. The moment just seems utterly unnecessary to me, and I’d rather it wasn’t in the film at all.
Frank rides back into Sweetwater, and he and Monica finally have their showdown.
We’ve been getting glimpses of Monica’s blurry flashbacks the whole film, but as the two are Death Glaring at each other, we finally get the whole thing. Turns out, Young Frank was just as much of an evil dick as Old Frank is. He forced Child Monica to play a harmonica with his brother balanced on his shoulders. Unfortunately, that brother also had a noose around his neck. When Child Monica eventually collapsed, the older brother hanged. (Hung? I still have trouble with this.) Now it seems as though Monica keeps playing the same sounds that he made with the harmonica when his brother died . . . a deliciously angsty concept. I like it a lot.
Back in real time, Monica shoots Frank. Dying, Frank once again asks, “Who are you?” Monica puts the harmonica in Frank’s mouth, which seems to answer the question. Frank has his moment of realization and abruptly dies.
Monica then goes inside to say goodbye to Jill. She clearly wants him to stay and kiss her and all that gooey romantic stuff, but none of that happens, as Cheyenne predicted. He only says that he’ll maybe come back someday, in a way that means he’s never coming back. Oh, you wandering gunslingers. You just can’t settle down.
Cheyenne takes off too — after slapping Jill on the butt himself, which still bothers me considerably less than how Monica treated her earlier in the film. Anyway, Cheyenne falls off his horse and reveals that he’s been secretly dying for a while. See in that train scene, the one we didn’t get to see, Morton apparently shot Cheyenne in the gut, and he’s been hiding it ever since.
To be honest, I’m not all that crazy about the Secretly Dying trope in general. But if you just have to do it . . . I feel like you need to see at least part of the actual fight in question. I mean, this scene is a big deal; it leads to two major players dying, and we’re just going to skip past it? Why? Did Jill eat up all the screen time staring at herself in the mirror or something?
Cheyenne asks Monica to look away because he doesn’t want anyone to watch him die. Monica obliges, and Cheyenne quickly falls to the ground, his awesome quirky signature music cutting out. Ah, another favorite character bites the dust.
Monica rides off into the sunset — as one does — and the film ends with Jill going outside, presumably so the workers can drink a little water and grab her ass some.
Harmonica: “The reward for this man was 5000 dollars, yes?”
Cheyenne: “Judas was content for 4970 dollars less.”
Harmonica: “There were no dollars in them days.”
Cheyenne: “But sons of bitches . . . yeah.”
Harmonica: “Did you bring a horse for me?”
Snaky: “Well, looks like . . . (laughs) . . . looks like we’re shy one horse.”
Harmonica: “You brought two too many.”
Cheyenne: “You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman who ever lived.”
Harmonica: “I saw three of these dusters a short time ago. They were waiting for a train. Inside the dusters, there were three men.”
Harmonica: “Inside the men, there were three bullets.”
Harmonica: “Well, you know music and you can count. All the way up to two.”
Cheyenne (spinning his revolver): “All the way up to six if I have to, and maybe faster than you.”
Frank: “So you’re the one who makes appointments.”
Harmonica: “And you’re the one that doesn’t keep them.”
Jill: “If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men! Well. No woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I’ll be exactly what I was before, with just another filthy memory.”
Cheyenne: “Hey, Harmonica. When they do you in, pray it’s someone who knows where to shoot.”
(Frank draws his gun as Morton pulls out a stack of money from a drawer.)
Morton: “You see, Frank, there are many kinds of weapons. And the only one that can stop that is this.”
Morton: “How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?”
Frank: “Almost like holding a gun, only much more powerful.”
The more I think about this movie, the more I like it . . . but it still feels uneven to me, at least on a first viewing. There’s so much I really enjoy, but a few scenes kind of bug me; those opening credits just kill me, and I really don’t think there’s any excuse to not include a gunfight that leads to two characters dying.
Hm. Evil men will always get their comeuppance eventually? The bullet is more powerful than the dollar? Oh, how about this — hardworking men aren’t just entitled to a paycheck. They’re also entitled to some innocent groping. Sorry, ladies. Sucks to be you.