How strange is it to believe that when this film was first released, it was received mixed reactions that really were more leaning towards the negative side than the positive side. I am glad that nowadays its reputation precedes it. This film is a masterpiece, which makes it all the more surprising that this film was met by a negative reaction from critics and audiences alike. Indeed, the film ended up not making much money at all in the United States or Britain, which is where the big bucks are made, although in France it was a hit, and it played for 48 months in a theatre in France (actually, that was the only theatre where you could see the movie in its entire original cut, because another thing about this movie is that it comes in a numerous amount of different cuts, which adds to the legacy of the film itself, as one will never be able to tell whether they are watching the cut with one scene less, and if so, which scene is missing or which scene is added). But of course, we all know that hate or love the French, they know their movies, and that’s why the legendary Cahier du Cinema is so highly regarded among people that have interest in film criticism and film history. It is strange to know that people didn’t pick up on the magic of the film.
The key to reading the reason why the reception wasn’t so good may easily be found in something that Leone himself said on an interview. He stated that he believed that people were readier to forgive failures much more than they were able to forgive successes. He said that in the sense that after his film The Good the Bad and The Ugly had such a tremendously succesful theatrical run, the Americans called him over to shoot a film for them. The only thing is that they wanted him to film a western, and not only that, they wanted him to film a western ala Dollars trilogy, whereas Sergio Leone didn’t want to direct another western, he wanted to shoot a gangster epic movie which would later be done, much later in fact, and be called Once Upon a Time in America. However, he was convinced to make this new western, although still just as convinced that it wouldn’t have anything to do with the ones from the dollars trilogy. On this note, it’s interesting to take in consideration that has been going around ever since the project got started, of Leone calling Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach, and was going to have them in the initial piece of the movie, and they would have been the three that get shot in the opening sequence by Harmonica. That would have been the sybmol of Sergio Leone, wanting to distance himself from the filmic style of the dollars trilogy.
I believe that if Leone was to make another western masterpiece, he was going to have to dig deep inside the genre and realised what it was that he had so loved about it. He had already picked up the reputation as the first true post-modernist director, one that worked off of other movies rather than doing some sort of historical research. Also, one that would rather have watched movies rather than studied at some pretentious film school (and I know from personal experience how useless and depressing film schools can be). He was going to have to see what had interested in making westerns in the first place, what had interested him so. And I have no doubt in thinking that a certain struggling young filmmaker by the name of Bernardo Bertolucci and a young film critic of an Italian evening newspaper named Paese Sera called Dario Argento hekped him out a lot in rediscovering that passion.
It is interesting to know how the three got to know each other. Argento and Bertolucci, both hige fans of Leone and both considering him as the most interesting director in Italian cinema at the time, attended a premiere of The Good the Bad and the Ugly at some Roman cinema, at least I think it was Rome, I should check my facts. Leone attended too, and the three met each other at the projection booth; the funny story about that meeting being Bertolucci he loved Leone’s filmmaking style because he loved the way he shot the arses of the horses, something that he had ever only seen in John Ford movies. The three started to research and gather material to write the script for the new movie. They watched movies together, like Johnny Guitar and High Noon (these two movies influenced the final work heavily and there is no doubt about that) and even went right back to their childhood to how the would manifest their passion for westerns, like how they used to mimic the gunshot or whether they had a favourite character from a paricular movie and so on. Gradually, the script began to take shape, although it took a couple of months for them to have an idea of where the movie would be going. Strange to think that for a movie that almost always reaches the three hours in any cut, it had about fifteen pages of dialogue, but that follows up on John Ford’s ideology that states that in a movie, dialogue ain’t even half as important as action (debatable, but finds strong support in a movie like Once Upon a Time in the West, or The Searchers for that matter as far as John Ford is concerned).
Thinking back at those meetings, it is amazing to picture Leone, Bertolucci and Argento having meetings. Probably the most important meeting of Italian filmmakers to date, and went on to influence the careers of young Bertolucci and Argento greatly. In return, they got screenwriting credits for the movie, although their names naturally came after Sergio Leone’s own name.
This movie was never going to be a conventional western either, if it wasn’t going to be another Good the Bad and the Ugly. For starters, he famously cast Henry Fonda, the original American blue eyed hero, who in his wonderful career had played such heroic figures as a young Abe Lincoln and, as far as westerns are concerned, Wyatt Earp, as a villain, and not just any old villain, but Frank, the coldest son of a bitch that ever lived in the old west ( and heck, I was shocked as the next guy when I witnesses Henry Fonda and his blue eyes shoot the little Irish kid). He also defied the conventionalities af almost all westerns that by nature do not have strong female characters in the lead, by creating the character of Gill McBain, played by the beautiful Claudia Cardinale (in fact, the only other western heroin from a major western I can think of is Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar). Strange and challenging was also the casting of an almost forty year old Bronson as Harmonica as opposed to someone more popular, and theatre actor Jason Roabards as Cheyenne, the latter at the time having picked up the reputation as a drunk on set. The characters are iconic as hell, and they pick up the same style as the three leading characters of the good the bad and the ugly, with the exception of the new and welcome female character of Gill McBain. Well, leading cast is brilliant, although the sound is, as usual in all Italian films of the time, post-synch. It hardly matters. As usual, an actor’s performance ain’t so important in a Sergio Leone movie, although he had a reputation as a director that loved actors. Truth is that his films look so beautiful themselves that a lead character overacting in this film in any scene would have been overwhelming. After all, wasn;t he the man that cast Clint Eastwood in his film because, as he said, that man had only two facial expressions, one with a cigar and the other one without a cigar, and that was without couning when he was wearing a hat.
Tonino delli Colli is back as director of Photography. The two work great together. As I mentioned before, the sound was worked out in post sound in Italian films of the time, and that always gave way for some beautiful shots, because the worry of the boom being in any shot is actually a burden in planning the shots themselves, whereas if you have post sound, you don’t have to worry about that at all. Tonino delli Colli in that sense is one of the best DPs of the time, some of the shots still are complex because of the synchronicity of action, and it’s nice to see that he never did shy away from a shot that looked too difficult, although Sergio Leone, the absolute perfectionist, probably would never have allowed him anyways. The whole sequence when Gill gets off the train to right after we see the town being constructed, that is a masterpiece of cinematic photography.
The pacing of the film is part of the magic. The movie moves slowly. Let’s take in consideration the introduction, where we realise that the men, the vicious killers, have to wait at the station because, as we see from the blackboard the train is two hours late. We wait with them and feel the passing of time. The wait is extremely important in a Sergio Leone film, and in that sense, that sequence is the most distinctive Sergio Leone sequence. The scene is also rendered more precious by Morricone, who was inspired by John Cage in making music out of amplifying natural sounds. The scene is wonderful, and already sets the mood of the film. This is not the fast faced violent epic that The Good the Bad and the Ugly was, this is a slow, operatic and almost solemnly romantic movie about the old west, or at least the old west as portrayed by the great western cinematic classics. That sequence itself also tells us that the waiting takes centre stage in the movie, but also in a cinema theatre showing the movie. The audience waits for something to happen, whereas the three main characters, Frank, Harmonica and Cheyenne seem to be waiting for something else…and that something else seems to be death.
Adding to the preciousness of the film is something else, Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score. What’s new, we know he’s wonderful from the previous three films, right? Wrong. Leone and Morricone had had this idea for a long time, which was to record the full score that would be used in the film. In this sense, Morricone wrote different themes for all the different characters, and carried them on as a Wagner piece, where each piece of music are the characters and eventually the pieces of music begin to intersect with one another, which conveys the fact that the characters interact more and more on the screen as well. This is important to the making of the film because as Leone shot the film, and even as he edited it, he knew what music would be played under it as well. In a way, it’s the same concept of a music video, in another way, it comes from the same artistic vein as the ballet scene, or the even more relevant opera, opera being an important part of Italian’s historical artistic scene. That is why his film are often seen as poetic and operatic. Needless to say, the music is wonderful, ecstatic, marvellous and every other postitve adjective you can think of.
The film has no faults, and it gets better every time you see it. It actually has that ability, like all great films do, to get better every time it is seen, like most wines improve with age. There is nothing extraordinary about the plot itself, it’s the way that it’s brought to the screen that makes it amazing, that makes it special. The setting makes the story look amazing. The town isn’t built, it’s being built. It’s messy, untidy. The setting in this sense, lends a feeling of innovations, of changing times, which conveys the feeling of the director that wanted in fact to move on. This film really is a masterpiece, and should feel that way to anyone that will allow to be swayed by the tempo, carried away by the mood and the flow of the film. It is an amazing piece of cinematic work under all aspects. A post modernist masterpiece. One of the best westerns ever made to anyone’s eyes. An ode to a genre. A monument of a film.
Even the title hints at something magical.
WATCH FOR THE MOMENT – It’s hard to pick one particular moment, but the introduction of Gill McBain with her arrival to the station is just such an amazing sequence under all aspects. Truly mervellous, like the whole film after all.