Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), directed by Sergio Leone.

I read once that the key to understanding Leone westerns is that they do not happen in the American West, but rather in some Old World space -- accessible from Italy -- that has been running for thousands of years. That's probably true of many genre stories: after a while they occupy their own mythological space only tangentially related to historical reality. It's the movies.

This one is slow and heavy on mood, sometimes violent but often funny, starting with that remarkable 15 minute opening segment when killers Woody Strode, Jack Elam and the other guy meet the train. The leisurely pacing (it's an hour before we meet all the key characters) is easy to take in this case: there is always something to watch, many fine scenes, and the unfolding plot to ponder.

It's meant to be a mashup of classic western scenes and motifs and that's the source of much ironic humor. Monument Valley again?

Great performances from all the stars, with special mention to Henry Fonda, who has a once in a lifetime chance to play the deeply evil villain. Charles Bronson communicates so much with such an impassive, laconic demeanor.

On the down side: it's less of of western than a tough guy fashion show. Looking mean, dressing tough, long menacing stares, ritual sadism to haunting music. All while bystanders cower in fear. Who knew the West was settled by such timid folk? The overblown arena gunfight ending always makes me queasy.

I see this is often called "the finest Western ever made." Best spaghetti western, maybe.

From a story by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento. Famous score by Ennio Morricone.

Available on Blu-ray, most notably fine in the extreme closeups, of which there are many. Faces are the stylistic center of the film.