Classic Review: Once Upon A Time In The West

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Highly underrated, but a sure-fire masterpiece of a Western.

Review:  At some point in the latter half of the 90’s, I remember flipping through channels on the television before landing on Turner Classic Movies.  I didn’t know the movie they were showing, but I could tell by the dress and terrain that it had to be a Western.  As it happened, I had come in on one of the greatest Western finales ever shot.  The driving music, the stark imagery, the shootout (the Western climax is always a shootout, it seems).  As a child no older than eight, I was amazed and speechless.  Afterword I ran upstairs to my father, who I knew liked Westerns, and, describing the scene best I could, asked him what the name of the movie was.  He told me it was ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’.  As it turns out, he missed the mark but hit the tree.

The movie I saw that day was Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, the last “real” Western from the man behind the famous ‘Dollars’ Trilogy, of which ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ was the final installment.  I have to give my Dad credit for being close given my description as an inarticulate child.  Certainly, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ bears many of Leone’s spaghetti western trademarks (epic showdowns, nameless anti-heroes, operatic music from the legendary Ennio Morricone, and gritty violence).  And yet, looking a littler deeper, this film is actually a horse of a much different color.

The fundamental difference between ‘West’ and Leone’s earlier films is that, where as the ‘Dollars’ trilogy was a bit quirky and slightly ridiculous (a tone that works well for those movies, mind you) ‘West’ goes for a grander, dramatic approach.  It’s very serious in a way Leone’s prior films hadn’t been.  The story is as dark as any Western has ever been, a dark tale of greed, murder, and revenge; and yet it also celebrates the vibrancy, grandeur, and surprising complexity of the American West and its people.  The West was, in many ways, the last “final frontier” for civilization.  It was an untamed land, filled with danger and peril, and devoid of law and order.  On the other hand it was a rugged and pure place, devoid of the corruptions of the modern world.  One of the films themes, the coming of the railroad and thus, civilization, shows beautifully this conflict and tradeoff between the arrival of civilized-order and the loss of wild-innocence.

This theme of the dying west dovetails strangely well with the change in the Western film industry at the time of the film’s 1968 release.  Up to that point, Westerns had been relative juggernauts, both on television and film, despite their lack of historical accuracy and often-insensitive depictions of Native Americans and Mexicans.  By the late sixties, an increase in ethno-history, civil rights, and historical accuracy had begun to take their toll on the Classic Western’s credibility.  By the seventies, classic television Westerns went off the air, and Revisionist Westerns pictures, much more somber and realistic, were taking precedent at the box office.  These new approaches were intriguing and involving, and many of these Revisionist Westerns are outstanding films.  However, they do lack the pure, undiluted spirit of the earlier films.  In the West as well as in Western Films, a simple and pure world was traded for something less straightforward and less innocent.

Back to ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, this film is one of the last to celebrate the Classic Western style, ironically directed by a man who was accused of ruining it with his earlier works.  The key to the Classic Western was the central theme of men, lone warriors, standing against something larger than themselves, the vast, untamed West.  Westerns are about the enduring human spirit against danger and evil.  ‘Once Upon a Time in The West’‘s multi-layered tale of a stranger seeking retribution, a cold-blooded killer, an outlaw framed for murder, and a widow caught in the crossfire shows the many ways this spirit is tested and eventually overcomes.  Thematically, this is one of the most powerful films, let alone Westerns, ever filmed.

In addition to the story, the actors in this film are just plain awesome, as is the music.  Henry Fonda as the film’s villain was a surprisingly brilliant casting choice, as was Jason Robards (a very under-appreciated actor) as a bandit with a heart of gold.  Charles Bronson adopts a role similar to the Man With No Name as a nameless, driven gunfighter, and he pulls it off well.  Claudia Cardinale, an Italian actress not too well-known in the States, delivers an especially moving performance as Jill, a widow who finds herself at the forefront of the film’s bloody tale.

Ennio Morricone has always been one of the best film composers ever, and, in no exaggeration, this is his best film score. His combination of electric guitars, harmonicas, operatic screaming and classical orchestration has never sounded more perfect than in this film. His ability to move from delicacy to driving power is nothing short of amazing. This score, worth owning independent of the film, is truly a masterpiece and adds brilliantly to this already stellar film.

‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s combination of story, acting, music, and style make it one of the best Westerns ever made and a wonderfully cathartic piece of story-telling. Though initially overlooked when first released, this film has grabbed people’s attention overtime, much the way it did for me as a child, and it is now revered as a classic. It’s worth watching for anyone who claims to be a fan of Westerns. I’m so very glad I was watching television that day…

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MMM: Mansell’s Moon, Avatar Piano, Morricone’s Harmonica

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Our customary three today lean on the meditative side.

Clint Mansell’s score for ‘Moon’ is suitably futuristic, haunting, and introspective.  A great companion to a story about lunar monasticism.

Among the many disappointments I experienced with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ was James Horner’s score.  Now, the man can write music, there’s no doubt of that.  The problem is that musically as well as narratively, ‘Avatar’ is mostly unoriginal and unsatisfying.  However, the main theme is actually pretty good… in instrumental. On piano, the melody doesn’t get lost as easily as it does in the film’s actual score.

Ennio Morricone is a titan among giants, and his music for Sergio Leone’s underrated ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ stands out with the best of his work.  This string of three pieces, from the film’s sublime climax, is equal parts meditative, mournful, and terrifying.

Patrick’s Top Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Well, apparently I’ve been called out on the Silver Mirror for a top ten directors.  Here we go.  My Top Ten Directors (again in no particular order):

Sergio Leone

I feel a little guilty about stealing a little of James’ top ten thunder here, but it’s a proven fact that Sergio Leone is made of pure awesome.  His movies are violent, comical, and (surprisingly) touching.  He doesn’t allow himself to get boxed in by labels or genres.  Even if you’re not a fan of spaghetti westerns or gangster films, you can’t help but watch his movies and smile just a little.

Hayao Miyazaki

This man is the Steven Spielberg of animated films.  Movies like ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’ show powerful story telling and an incredibly beautiful sense of art, all the while delivering a powerful and yet not anvilicious message.  He shows that animation isn’t just for kids, it’s for adults too.

Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner knows how to make a good movie.  Well, as a matter of fact, he knows how to make a lot of different kinds of good movies.  He’s done everything from horror movies like ‘Misery’, to dramas like a ‘Few Good Men’, to fantasies like ‘The Princess Bride’, to family movies like ‘Stand by Me’, to comedies like ‘This is Spinal Tap’.  Few directors have such a resume.

Akira Kurosawa

The excellence of Akira Kurosawa cannot be understated.  He is the mastermind behind Japanese epics full of action, slow motion, quick cuts, and badass samurais.  He’s not too well known in the U.S. of A., but he ought to be, considering that such famous films as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ wouldn’t have existed without his work.

Ridley Scott

What can I say?  This is the man who made ‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’, and ‘Gladiator’.  He’s a master of despotic story telling that still shows a surprising amount of action.  Let’s hope his next film, ‘Robin Hood’, lives up to his other classic works.

John Carpenter

John Carpenter is a master of horror and suspense.  He has scared audiences to death with films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Thing’.  He’s also responsible for the arguably coolest character in the history of film, ‘Escape from New York’s’ Snake Plisken (“Call me Snake”). Badass!

John McTiernan

I think action directors are very underrated.  John McTiernan helped resurrect the then-ridiculous genre in the late 80’s and early 90’s with such classics as ‘Die Hard’, ‘Predator’, and ‘The Hunt For Red October’.  He’s made his fair share of bad films, but when it comes to action films, you can count on him to deliver.

Woody Allen

Woody Allen is great about telling very personal stories that also manage to make you laugh your ass off.  His insights are unique and yet relatable at the same time.  His movies about everyday people caught up in the struggle of day-to-day life are forever entertaining.

Clint Eastwood

Not only is he a badass actor, but a master director as well.  He shows seemingly hard-hearted people slowly learn to open up to others, and it’s a powerful effect.  Films like ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Gran Torino’ mix subtly and raw power.  As the Smashing Pumpkins might put it, he is a bullet with butterfly wings.

Don Bluth

Don Bluth dominated my childhood. Films like ‘The Land Before Time’ and ‘The Secret of NIMH’ I still love to this day.  There’s a certain mysticism he employs in his films that is, well, empowering.  The characters in his movies are always just a little more real than in other animated stories, and it makes them that more relatable and really less “kiddy”.  That’s the great staple of his animated films.  They aren’t just for kids, they really are for all ages.

James’ Top Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Sorry about the long hiatus, folks, but I kind of lost my drive to write.  The good news is, I did regain my drive to screenwrite, and I’ve got a solid idea progressing nicely.

It occurred to me that a major obstacle to the success of this blog is the lack of variety in articles.  Sure, we’ve got reviews and the ‘Elements’ series, but what about top-tens and other die hard blog tropes?  Ain’t nothing wrong with a good trope.  So, here we go.  My top ten favorite directors.  Minus the numbers one expects from such things.

Steven Spielberg

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you.  Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you. Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Here’s the why. He made ‘Raiders’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Jaws’, and your mother’s amazing plasticine face.

Christopher Nolan

I think he's an accomplshed actor, too.  Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...?  No?

I think he's an accomplished actor, too. Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...? No?

Here’s the why.  He saved Batman’s batfilm batexistence batfrom bathell.  He’s really good at screwing with your mind, even in relatively straightforward movies like ‘The Dark Knight’.  On the extreme end of intentional mindscrews, of course, is ‘Memento’, which is referenced in way too many screenwriting books. C’mon, people, we’re novices, if we’re reading your book looking for advice, don’t mock us with a challenge to repaint the Mona Lisa.  Also, Christopher Nolan is the only fellow I would trust to remake ‘Blade Runner’.

Quentin Tarantino

That's the German three.

That's the German three.

Here’s the why. Quentin cares enough about his stories that he lets them gestate for ridiculous periods of time.  That way, he doesn’t rely on formula, but delivers a compelling and original story that breaks a lot of “rules” and yet somehow still works.

Peter Jackson

Before

Before

After.

After.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which kicked everybody’s ass, except J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who was on the moon fighting vampires when it was released. Mr. Jackson has since lost a lot of girth and become a Hollywood heavyweight, shepherding up-and-coming directors and projects, like Neill Blomkamps’ ‘District 9’, which was like the ’80s sci-fi craze had come back to life with a blood transfusion from Jason Bourne. So he’s got that going for him.

J.J. Abrams

He is not clueless.  Merely geeked the heck out.

He is not clueless. Merely geeked the heck out.

Here’s the why. He’s great at fusing genre films with solid, emotional stories.  Sometimes too good.  I didn’t expect the opening of ‘Mission: Impossible III’ to be nearly as traumatizing as it was, but that’s okay.

Alfred Hitchcock

Nobody does it better...

Nobody does it better...

Here’s the why. Hitchcock represents the majority of exposure pretty much anyone has to the silent era and its powerful ‘show, don’t tell’ ethos. Thanks to this training as a silent film director, Hitch kicks lots of ass in the suspense department, and his stuff is really memorable.  Every suspense movie, ever, is compared to Hitch.  Not to his movies, no, to the man himself.  Why is he laughing in that photo?  Why?  Why!?

Brad Bird

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Here’s the why. Brad Bird is another fellow who can blend genre with emotional, original story. So far, his works have been fantastic animated movies, such as ‘The Iron Giant’, and Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’, but he may be making his first foray into live action soon. Whatever the case, Brad Bird’s imagination is sure to soar.  Ha.  Ha.

Sergio Leone

OVIEIf he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER.

If he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER

Here’s the why. Sergio Leone is the godfather of the Spaghetti Western subgenre.   Since he’s passed away, there’s no point in making Spaghetti Westerns anymore.  Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or something.

Duncan Jones

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘Moon’, the best sci-fi film of 2009.  Strangely, he’s David Bowie’s son.  Sure, this guy’s new, but he’s awesome and he looks to be building a sweet sci-fi series.

Tim Burton

How dare you, Tim.  I used to hate your movies.  Who do you think you are?  Get out.  You misfit, you.

How dare you, Tim. I used to hate your movies. Who do you think you are? Get out. You misfit, you.

Here’s the why. He’s quirky.   He’s got scissors for hands.  He was not permitted to eat sweets as a child — because his father was (not) Christopher Lee.  His movies are bizzare.   I don’t like the ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’.   I do love ‘Batman’.  Why, Tim?  Why do I admire you, so?

And, that’s my top ten.  Patrick should be coming out with his soon.  Very soon.  You hear that, Patrick?  WRITE THE DAMN LIST.

What?  Oh, okay.  Bye for now.

Classic Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Violent, epic, touching, and even comical at times, this film is quite the ride.

So good, who cares if the poster's not in English?

So good, who cares if the poster's not in English?

Review:  Somewhere in the West lies buried an enormous sum in gold, and three men know about it.  Three violent, self-centered men, each of whom would just as soon kill the others if he had the chance.  The only problem is that no one quite knows exactly where this treasure is. Each man knows only a piece of the puzzle, forcing him to work with the others.  Thus begins a rampant odyssey as these men fight both the elements and each other in their search for gold.  Not only that, but the American Civil War is unfolding all around them, and more than once, they get caught in the crossfire.

This is the setting of one of the oddest, yet most well done westerns in existence.  Director Sergio Leone and crew take all the tropes about spaghetti westerns, twist them sideways, and stick them smack-dab in the middle of what should be a much more grandiose film.  So, yes, all those showdowns and shootouts and morally ambiguous characters are here; yes, Clint Eastwood is back as the Man with No Name one last time; and yes, all that crazy music and camera work is here.  It’s all been seen before, right?  Well, sort of, but when you throw large-scale Civil War battles and treasure hunts into the mix, this truly becomes a horse of a different color.

It’s a film that thrives on contrast and hyperbole, a western with a backdrop of war, and that’s what makes it so effective.  In the western, everything is comically exaggerated.  Gunslingers aren’t just good with their weapons, they’re gods literally capable of hitting targets a half-mile away.  Standoff’s aren’t just paced out, they’re dragged out for a full five minutes as tension sky-rockets.  The score isn’t just exciting and energetic, it’s an over-the-top bombastic joy ride, as composer Ennio Morricone mixes howls, yells, and screams along with his usual and diverse array of instruments in this iconic film score.

In the backdrop of the war, however, a near polar opposite is found.  Soldiers are shown realistically wounded, and a true sense of loss is felt as you see multitudes of dieing Union and Confederate men.  Rather than catering to one side or the other, the film shows the good and bad aspects of both factions, making it all the more saddening to see them fight.  Morricone provides his most touching pieces yet for these moments, combining trumpets, violins, and even human moans into truly moving music.

Complementing the story and music is the casting.  Clint Eastwood, in his final spaghetti western, delivers as the fast drawin’ and cigar chomping Man with No Name.  But in this movie, he’s known as The Good.  Lee Van Cleef returns this time as a most sinister and reprehensible killer (The Bad) and, in my opinion, one of the best screen villains of all time.  Newcomer Eli Wallach gives quite the performance as the sometimes-idiotic-sometimes-deadly outlaw, Tuco, (The Ugly).  Interestingly enough, it’s Tuco who steals the show.  He gets the most screen-time, the most lines, and the most back-story; and is arguably the most human of the three.  However, it’s Eastwood who is the most remembered of the three.  Something about the silent toughness that permeates his character wedged its way into the public consciousness, and to this day, he continues to influence the anti-heroes of film and television.

Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More are great spaghetti westerns, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is different.  Sure, it too is a fantastic Italian-made western.  Sure, it’s a great western in general.  But first and foremost, it is an outstanding film.  It transcends any and all classifications or genres and delivers one unique story, the effect, of which, would influence countless pictures to come.  Combining tragedy with action and comedy, it’s the sort of film a man like Quentin Tarantino would have made had he been making films in the sixties.  The film itself, vastly more than its prequels, has become a true classic.  Even people who’ve never seen the film know the name.  In short, it’s the best spaghetti western, it contends for the best western period, and it is without a doubt, one of the most entertaining movies ever made.  Even to people who are not fans of these kinds of movies, I encourage them to give it a watch.  I give this film my highest recommendation.

Classic Review: For A Few Dollars More

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Just look at the title—it’s more of what you want from your spaghetti westerns.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Nobody makes posters quite this awesome anymore.

Review:  He’s back—the Man with no Name.  So are the sun-drenched Spanish deserts, trigger-happy gunslingers, close-ups, showdowns, and over-the-top Morricone music.  In short, everything that’s great about this little subset of the Western genre is here in fine form and is, in fact, better than in ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

The Man with No Name, again magnificently played by Clint Eastwood, has turned bounty hunter and now wanders the west, collecting buck for his bang on the various outlaws of the frontier.  When the opportunity to collect a fortune on the recently escaped, and certainly psychotic, bandit el Indio (Johnny Wels) arises, he sets out after him.

So has the Man in the Black, however.  A rogue colonel turned bounty killer, the Man in Black (known in the film as Colonel Mortimer and played by Lee Van Cleef), carries with him an arsenal of fire arms and is as deadly with any one of them as The Man with No Name.  He’s after Indio for his own reasons.  Inevitably, the two rivals meet up and are forced to work in an uneasy truce together to catch Indio and his gang.

I have to say that l found this film to possess a much stronger story than in the first movie.  Van Cleef and Eastwood have great chemistry together as competing gunslingers.  Even as they work together, they try their best to one-up each other while doing it.  The result is some very entertaining and amusing moments.  The filmmakers also went out of their way to cast the villain, el Indio, in a more sympathetic light.  A series of flashbacks and a key twist at the end make him more tragic rather than purely evil.  It adds a whole new layer to the Leone west, and it is a welcome addition.  Fans of ‘Fistful’ may notice that the Indio is played by the same actor who portrayed the ruthless Ramon from the first movie.  Although this is a bit confusing to people who are new to these films, these are, in fact, two different characters and should not be confused.

Ennio Morricone returns to score, delivering equally impressive yet also much livelier music this time around.  All the staples from the first film (the guitars, whistling, chanting, trumpets, etc.) are here, but he now introduces some new “twangy” instruments and increases the tempo for a more energetic affair.  To coincide with the deeper and more emotionally involving story, he also wrote very atmospheric and touching pieces which, when played during key scenes, really add to your concern for the story and investment in the characters.  One particular “chime” theme is quite moving.

Lastly, the famous cinematography is back.  The close-ups and the panoramas of desert wasteland are here, and they work as well as ever.  All of the ‘Dollars’ films were very impressively shot and, again, it really adds something special and unique to these movies.

‘For a Few Dollars More’ expounds and improves upon the template set by ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. Attacking on two fronts, it finds itself even more violent and yet also much more involving and moving than the first film.  Refining and bettering what made the first film so great, it is, quite simply, what a sequel ought to be.  In my opinion, it truly surpasses the original.

So it seems that we have a new winner for Best Spaghetti Western.  After all, this film pushed aside the legendary ‘Fistful’ to become the archetypical and bar-setting representative of its genre.  Right?  Wrong.  Just you wait…

Classic Review: A Fistful of Dollars

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★★1/2

Summary: (From the trailer) “A Fistful of Dollars is the first film of it’s kind, it won’t be the last.”

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

With an introduction like that, do you really need a title on the poster?

Review:  The desert sun shines high as a mysterious gunslinger (Clint Eastwood) wanders into a dusty border town torn apart by the power struggle between a band of bandits and a sheriff who, frankly, isn’t much better.  Driven by a vague morality and empowered by being “quick on the draw”, the mysterious gunslinger takes on both factions of the fight in a battered array of violence, deception, showdowns, and retribution.

While not the first “spaghetti western” (western films made by Italian production companies), this is the film that truly defined the genre.  Essentially a remake of the classic Akira Kurosawa samurai film, Yojimbo (itself based upon an earlier American novel), this movie transcends its influences to deliver a bold new take on the American West, one vastly different from American-made westerns.  Gone are the clean shaven, morally sound cowboys and their polar opposites found in the villains; gone are luscious and beautiful landscapes of the true American West; and gone are the traditionally orchestrated pieces, saloon piano music, and country-western “sing-a-long” tunes that guided heroes on romantic exploits.

Instead we are shown the West as imitated by the harsh, barren landscapes of the Spanish desert, filled with gunfighters, all seeking a profit, whose label as “good” or “bad” depends on little more than who they’re shooting at (and trust me, there is quite a bit of shooting).  It’s a grittier, more action filled affair.

Clint Eastwood’s performance fits this new atmosphere like a glove.  In his breakthrough role, he talks tough, plays rough, and looks intimidating as the “Man With No Name”, his appearance complete with the famous cigars and poncho.  Johnny Wels, as the rifle-toting main villain, Ramon, is quite memorable as well, despite the actor being relatively unknown to American audiences.

As a template for later spaghetti westerns, this movie, of course, features the famous (some would say infamous) spaghetti western music and cinematography, both of which have been satired and imitated over the years.  Composer Ennio Morricone delivers a fresh style for the score.  Combining Spanish-themed melodies, male chanters, whistling, electric guitars, and trumpet solos, as well as more traditional orchestration at times, Morricone creates a groundbreaking and surprisingly cohesive score, one that his later scores, and those of other Italian westerns, would draw from.

Then there is the camera work.  Most people are familiar with the famous “close-up” shots on the eyes during shootouts.  It’s become such a cliché and has been parodies so many times that most people don’t realize how affective it is when creating suspense.  Leone used a variety of shots, often alternating between close-ups and long-distance shots.  He used the contrast to build tension in many of the film’s scenes. In short, it works wonderfully and really adds a new dimension to the movie.

In conclusion, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ is everything a spaghetti western ought to be.  Some would call it shallow, violent, and lacking in morality.  I call it refreshing, and so do quite a few other people.  This film not only defined its genre, but it influenced movie making as a whole.  Films as diverse as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Kill Bill’, draw influence from this film.  With such a unique style and influence, one would argue that this is the best of the spaghetti westerns.  Then the sequels came …