Something to Do With Death: A Fistful of Sergio Leone
[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 9 No. 2, March-April, 1973]
Early in 1967, United Artists undertook a massive publicity campaign to sell the country on a recent acquisition that had broken box-office records in its native Italy and might, just might do the same in the States. After all, its inspiration was Americanâ€”what more American than the Western? And its star was American: Clint Eastwoodâ€”true, the all-but-forgotten second lead of a TV series long sold into syndication, but the genuine article all the same. He sported a bit of stubble now, and had perfected a disinterested visual snarl that Rowdy Yates rarely had call to flash. And then there was the topography, animal and mineral. It would be hard to find corners of the American West more convincing than (and as undespoiled as) the Spanish canyons and deserts that served as exteriors alongside the CinecittÃ interiors. And the faces of the supporting castâ€”swarthy, oily, Fellinily grotesque, latitudes and longitudes and generations and cultures away from any Central Casting selectionsâ€”became landscapes themselves in huge, flyspecked closeup. The music capped and integrated the rest: memories of the Mascot-Monogram stock libraries filtered through a modern and European sensibility, the result an idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock; it was startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur, and it somehow complemented the bizarre exoticism of the film, the familiar made fresh, new, and neurotically contemporary. A Fistful of Dollars swept the nation and “spaghetti Western” became a catchword.
A Fistful of Dollars won general audiences for its stylish embellishments of the new sadism and a narrower, more discerning audience for the perverse originality of the man whose talent embraced most if not all of the preceding categoriesâ€”director Sergio Leone. Leone was original, and then again he wasn’t: almost scene for scene, his movie was an uncredited swipe of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A lone gunman (Eastwood) rides into a border town where two equally reprehensible gangs are vying for control. He demonstrates his lethal competence to the satisfaction of both sides but will work for neither very long. Instead he arranges deception after deception calculated to keep the rivals at one another’s throats until all have been annihilated.
Considering that Kurosawa has acknowledged his own debt to the American Western, we should not be surprised at the ease with which another foreigner co-opted the Japanese film back from its “original” genre, with refinements. The fans who dragged me to Fistful were unfamiliar with the Kurosawa predecessor and its own apocalyptic sense of black humor, and hence failed to understand my own resolute disenchantment afterwards. However, although a more recent viewing of Fistful has confirmed my belief that it is by far the least of the Leones, I was guilty of some underestimating. What zapped my acquaintances the most was an apparent Christ motif developed in relation to the Eastwood character: he comes into town on a donkey, suffers a sort of mock-crucifixion at the beginning and a nearly-real one later on, rises from the dead (or so it seems to his enemies), returns to confront the purveyors of evil in a dynamite-punctuated apocalypse, and fails to collapse as the enemy’s bullets slam into him (or rather, off him, since he’s crafted a makeshift bulletproof vest). Some of these details relate to analogous incidents in Yojimbo, but stylistically they are given a special emphasis here. Ennio Morricone’s frequently ecclesiastical-sounding music increases the emphasis; and when, in For A Few Dollars More, a bandit named El Indio meets his gang in a ruined church and climbs into the pulpit to relate “a parable” (a lesson in bank-robbing, as it turns out) to his twelve boys while they eat and drink around a long table, Leone’s penchant for very personally mixing and twisting Catholic and Western conventions can scarcely be denied.
For A Few Dollars More retains Eastwood’s Man with No Name and finds another incarnation for Fistful‘s splendid chief villain, there billed as Johnny Wels but subsequently restored to his own identity: Gian Maria VolontÃ¨. Completing the roster is another American expatriate who, visually familiar for years, found he could make a memorably evil name at last with European audiences: Lee Van Cleef. Here Leone brings into sharp focus the sort of triadic struggle or at least rivalry that was only fudgily implicit in his first Western but which has obtained throughout his later work. Eastwood has turned bounty killer, but now he has an efficient competitor in Van Cleef. Eastwood’s purpose is casually mercenary; Van Cleef is in it to underwrite a more personal cause, the avenging of the rape and death of his sister. VolontÃ¨ is the scoundrel responsible, and Eastwood and Van Cleef, alternately in competition and in concert, infiltrate and ultimately ventilate his gang. Van Cleef and VolontÃ¨ meet to shoot it out from the opposing rims of a flagstone circle laid out in the center of the outlaw town, the first appearance of this obsessive corrida in Leone’s work. Eastwood completes the triangle and also the circular imagery by sitting elsewhere on the perimeter holding a circular watch that plays a mesmerizing Morricone tune; its completion will be the signal to draw.
The watch and the tune are key narrative elements throughout the film: the Colonel (Van Cleef) carries one such watch, Indio (VolontÃ¨) the other, which he took from the Colonel’s sister. Long before she has been identified, we have recognized her face from a likeness in the Colonel’s watchcase and from a red-tinted, violently stylized memory-dreamvision Indio has in moments of stress: in the act of being violated, the girl took Indio’s gun and shotâ€”not himâ€”herself; as a result, Indio incorporates (whenever practical) this musical fetish in his murders.
For A Few Dollars More is one sequel vastly superior to its antecedent. Leone’s direction is more detailed, his pace more assured, his imagery almost constantly stunning in its size, sweep and singularity. Most importantly, in his second Western endeavor he discovers the past, and begins to realize how a sense of the pastâ€”in his characters’ studied ritual-like behavior and his own genre-conscious artistryâ€”geometrically increases the resonance of his and his characters’ actions which, however violent, are always scrupulously considered.
The past figures in his next Western, the spectacular The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, not as psychic motivation for the action but rather as history itself. The American Civil War places this film as nothing in either of the previous pictures did, although the essential location remains the Leone universe itself, pitched on some wind-whipped plateau where a desertscape is suddenly wiped by a pockmarked visage that tilts up out of nowhere, its gaze bent relentlessly on revenge; where a man, surprised in a bathtub in an abandoned house in a shell-torn Confederate town, has had the foresight to secrete a .45 in the suds, from which he blasts his garrulous would-be assassin and then offers the posthumous advice: “If you’re gonna shoot, shootâ€”don’t talk!” Against the backdrop of the war, realized in the sort of cast-of-thousands set-pieces identified with Hollywood in its heyday, Leone narrates the search for a cache of gold by three grotesquely unprincipled men sardonically classified by the movie’s title (Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, respectively). The proliferation of character, incident, subplot, and ironic detail is epic, and the use of the Civil War perverse: as much of the action takes place in an Andersonville-style hellhole as on the battlefield. At one point Eastwood and Wallach, dressed in rebel gray, meet a column of gray ghosts and hail them in the name of Jefferson Davis, only to discover in closeup that the riders are dusty Union cavalry. Elsewhere Wallach tries to hang Eastwood from a hotel rafterâ€”there are numerous shifts of personal as well as military allegiance in the filmâ€”but is foiled by a handy bombardment that splinters the beam. Eventually the three rivals find themselves in a mammoth graveyard, disposed about the perimeter of the central hub, waiting to see who will be left to enjoy the fortune stashed in one of those thousands of graves radiating concentrically outward.
By the time he came to make The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Leone’s commercial eminence was assured. Dozens of spaghetti Westerns were being made, but Leone’s remained supreme. And so it was that Paramount Pictures extended carte blanche to him to create his magnum opus (United Artists had distributed his first three films). And Paramount got burned badly. Once Upon a Time in the West died at the box office. Bucket-of-blood audiences remember it as that bummer that took far too long between doses of cathartic boom-boom. Paramount gave Sergio Leone millions of dollars and Henry Fonda and access to authentic Western locations, and the son-of-a-bitch went off and made a goddam art movie fercrissake! Of course the enterprise was doomed: the loge sadomasochists wouldn’t have it, the reviewers made quips about the long long pauses, and the audience that sucked up Antonioni, Bergman, and Truffaut would never look under the roof of a downtown grindhouse for masterpieces. After a couple weeks of soft grosses, Paramount took drastic action, whacking 25 minutes out of the nearly-three-hour movie so that theaters could at least work in an extra showing per diem, with a little less art and comparatively more slambang. It didn’t work. It never does work. Once Upon a Time in the West was no more useful to the parent studio mutilated than whole. It remained, ironically, for network television to restore the pieces for a marathon prime-time showcasing. As of this writing, they have not been restored to either the theatrical or nontheatrical prints.
One of the most superfluous announcements and most charming japes in recent cinema occurs several minutes into Once Upon a Time in the West.* In a preposterously rickety and wind-riven train depot in the middle of nowhere, under the perpetual creaking of a windmill badly in need of greasing, a wizened ticket-taker has turned around to find his several doorways filled with three ominous figures in flapping dusters. One of them, a giant black man, has a sawed-off carbine strapped to his thigh; another, a scowling blond with the face of an aged and angry child, chatters insanely at the old man’s caged bird; the third, with one good and one vagrant eye, firmly yet with droll ceremoniousness leads the old codger into his own safe and favors him with a friendly warning ssssssshh. The door is nudged, the screen goes black, and as the latch slams home the white letters leap up: A SERGIO LEONE FILM. Who, when all is said and done, else?
These and the ensuing five or ten minutes comprise as outrageously personal a piece of cinema as one could ever hope to see. Leone exercises the director’s full prerogative to choose precisely the nature of the action and non-action to take place, and the speed and manner of it. There is never less than a world-sense at stake in any moment of the film. Above all, there is that all-too-rarely felt sense of total committedness: to the enthralling archaic trivia, like the nattering telegraph set that jitters along in puny and ignored counterpoint to the windmill; to the grizzled, wall-eyed, beloved, mythic ugliness of Jack Elam, a portrait drawn from a thousand movie memories and yet caught in the flesh, in living process; to the proposition that three men like these could come to a junction in the mind to wait for a man on a train, and prepare for the meeting, each according to his own physical and spiritual discipline, and to ignore and accommodate and encompass the phenomena of the place and the moment. Leather-pated Woody Strodeâ€”Kubrick’s gladiator, Ford’s Negro cavalryman, Indian warrior, and Chinese renegadeâ€”places himself under a water tower, and on that fine skull a drop of water splashes. He looks up, sees a second drop condensing with cool auspiciousness on the base of the tank, letting go to plummet heavily down, toward us all. There is no sense of humiliation or surprise in his demeanor; he replaces his broad-brimmed black hat, listens appreciatively to the subdued concussion, and smiles at the rightness of it all. The water splashes on the brim, unsullied: he waits. The blond man (Al Mullock) perches on a fence and pulls his knuckles with savage concentration, the railroad track reaching toward a golden infinity over his shoulder. Elam demolishes the telegraph with a lazy hand, slopes back on his bench. A fly lands on his face, that face, and browses among the stubble. And of course he does not brush it away, he will not brush it away, because that would not be … right, and the moment needs filling, even if the non-action or non-reaction that fills it must send any reasonable audience through seizures of amusement, bewilderment, hilarity, vague discomfort, frustration, even impotent (and again hilarious) rage. Elam withholds his hand, although he blows, snorts, rolls the good and the bad eye, all of it in cruel, worshipful Techniscope closeup. And finally he must brush it away, because the moment is right at last, and he traces its flight, and he notes its landing, and he … draws his gun: and for an instant we are ahead of him, thinking very naturally Yes that’s right, that fly simply has to be shot and that’s all there is to it. But after aiming he does not fire, but slams the barrel precisely around the fly, and stops the bore with his finger, and leans back again, content, listening to the whine of captive wings. And the moment is complete: the whine is picked up by the whistle of the train. It thunders right over us abruptly although it is some distance away yet. Then we are looking at Strode, a chiseled face, a composed face, monastically composed: and he drinks solemnly from the black brim that descends the screen like a benediction and leaves him steeled. Elam releases the fly: it no longer matters. The train stops. And no one gets off.
Of course that is not the end of the scene, nor does this stand as a complete description of the scene to that point. But it catches, I hope, some of the feel of the passage, and establishes Leone’s infatuation with detail, and his genius for achieving emotional saturation through studied acceptance, almost stoical endurance of time and space as the key events of any scene. He is not a director of the efficient-throwaway school: he will never use one quick shot when twenty lengthy ones will work a little better. And his masterpiece may be described as an opera in which arias are not sung but stared.
Space is a constant adventure in Once Upon a Time in the West. The film’s baroque vastnesses resonate with the promise of a detonation that will at once supply energy for the winning of the West and shatter its aesthetic sublimity. Four bodies crash down around an acre of plank flooring, followed almost immediately by a full-screen shot of sun-creased skin and one blue eye returning to life. To watch Leone’s film is to realize how few truly widescreen movies there have been. Three, maybe four men die under the creaking wheel of the windmill, and in the next scene Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) pans the circuit of his Sweetwater claim when the constant life-sound of the cicadas stops of a sudden. His survey reveals nothing. After a moment he turns his attention to getting water from the well; the wind raises a swell of dust, the cicadas cease again, and he and his family are wiped out, their assassins metamorphosing out of the very color of the land. His new widow similarly checks the same dooryard after a night-long vigil in the home she never had; yet a moment later Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is there at the door when she opens it, and his men sit beyond on their horses, and moments/hours later they are still sitting there when Cheyenne has done talking with her.
Many of the characters enjoy special power over space. Frank (Henry Fonda) picks up a cigar in Morton’s private coach, tugs at a silken cord, and the train starts, the landscape begins slipping by the window, Frank’s conversation proceeding unaffected. Frank usurps Morton’s authority, casually like this, more pointedly when he sits in Morton’s chair and watches the crippled man drag himself by means of a golden frame to reclaim his seat of power. What Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) sees out that window does not reassure him: he got on board within sight of the Atlantic, hopes to survive to see the Pacific, but the plains Frank crosses and re-crosses with his mounted army are a mocking sea of brown land to him. Enclosed in his car, like one of the cigars Frank keeps pinching from his humidor, he measures the progress of death inside himself and leaves behind him, an agent of manifest destiny, “a slime … like a snailâ€”two beautiful shiny rails.” Although the script hardly stresses Morton’s positive energies, he had to be some kind of visionary to begin his railroad, if only a capitalistic seer. Significantly, his only consolations are aesthetic: the gentleman’s bookish, period poshness of his cage’s decor, the mentally audible waves of a sea painting on the wall. His breath is the breath of the train, which coughs on after the opposing armies have annihilated each other, and after he crawls snail-like to die in the mud of a ditch, as that other seer McBain died scrabbling in the dust of Sweetwater. The imagined sound of the Pacific comes again and is integrated with the construction sounds of Morton’s railroad moving on without him, grown into an entity in its own right beyond personal destinies.
The Man with the Harmonica (Charles Bronson) makes the most surprise apparitions in the course of the film. In the opening scene he is disclosed after the train has pulled out of the station, but more frequently he enters scenes, mostly in direct, closeup profile. More forcefully than any other personage, he cuts across the intentions and actions of everyone else: staying Jill’s departure from the ranch; stepping in to ask Cheyenne, amid the demarcations of McBain’s envisioned community, “Can’t you see? It’s a station”; preventing Frank’s takeover-by-auction of Sweetwater with a surprise bid of $5,000; and in each of these cases he moves into the scene as described. As Frank realizes he is under his own men’s guns in Flagstone (Morton having bought their loyalty), there is a pair of stunningly joined shots: the first, of Frank moving from our left to the right, being panned in the street in close profile until he is wiped by a post; whereupon we cut to the second, of The Man being panned in the reverse direction, walking on the balcony across the street, wryly helping Frank stay alive until the two of them will be able to meet, holding one another in orbit like planets as they describe the fateful Leone circle at the film’s climax.
The most striking instance of virtually supernatural comprehension of space is Cheyenne’s rescue of The Man on Morton’s train, where he was discovered eavesdropping. Much of Cheyenne’s behavior serves his own grotesque sense of humor but remains within hailing distance of the credible: his hanging upside-down outside the train window, his ascent and descent by means of the chain flush on Morton’s commode, which he uses like a stirrup. But his method of eliminating the last of the guards forever shunts logic onto a spur line: The guard sees a boot edging down outside the window and steps near, confident that Cheyenne himself will momentarily come into view; but the boot turns like a sentient being in its own right, and indeed it grows an eye as the gun concealed inside blasts the guard to glory.
Leone is doing two things here: Cheyenne’s astounding dispatch of the guards retroactively justifies the running paranoia of everyone save him and The Man. Frank, for instance, reflexively went for his gun earlier when he heard Morton opening a drawer behind him; and indeed, the drawer does contain Morton’s weapon, the money with which he eventually buys Frank’s men. But Leone is also celebrating the Western convention of the hero who knows, just knows a little bit more than others, enough to stay alive. At one point Cheyenne squats by the fireplace with his back to Jill; she opens a drawer to get some food and notices a knife; presumably the drawer is unfamiliar to Cheyenne, yet he clearly is waiting to see what she will do.
The presence of heroes with supernatural capacities implies directorial power itself, and Leone employs space not only for spectacle (he can afford a whole train just to mask The Man’s surveillance of one of Frank’s agents) but also for celebration and miracle. Along with Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the two great visionary/mystical films of the Sixties: one looking to the future, the other to the past. We shall talk about the factor of time in a moment. Meanwhile, it is fitting to note that Leone careens as lyrically and expressively around his belching locomotives and half-raised frontier out-buildings as Kubrick did about his starships and space stations. The shot that dollies Jill up to the door of the Flagstone train station, adjusts to observe her through the window, then cranes up past the roof both to follow her progress out the other side and to create/reveal the teeming town site beyond is an expression of that sublime arrogance indispensable to great cinema. And make no mistake about it: Leone bids in Once Upon a Time in the West for nothing less than greatness. The rich glimpses of Flagstone’s life-poem (as Jill is driven through its barely delineated streets) are certainly splendid, especially when we consider they were achieved by a CinecittÃ art director. But then Jill’s buckboard curves along a desert track through a flare of sun, and Leone pans with it 180 degrees, and thenâ€”if any location in the world is possessed of cinematic meaningâ€”you draw your breath and hold it a long, long time: Claudia Cardinale gets on a buckboard amid the studied aestheticism of the foreign-grown Western and rides out into John Ford’s Monument Valley. Sergio Leone is committingâ€”and knows he is committingâ€”an act of sheer hubris. And he pulls it off in a single luminous stroke. It is plainly and simply a religious experience, the spiritual union rendered complete as the buckboardâ€”framed by those three buttes unmistakable from Stagecoach, Fort Apache, The Searchersâ€”rushes past a railroad surveyor who signals “Slow down!” with an equally unmistakable Italian thrust.
When Jill (Cardinale) gets down from the train in Flagstone, she takes out her watch and checks it against the station clock. The clock has stopped. The detail has immediate relevance since the shot that killed the last of the McBains was answered by the scream of the train’s whistle as it approached the town: the life Jill had planned to adopt has been destroyed. But in a larger sense time has been suspended for and by Sergio Leone.
Leone’s four central characters are Jill McBain and the three men who represent tentative possibilities for her. Of these four, Jill and Frank are the most acted upon, the most divided by forces in time. Both attempt to shape their lives toward a personal future; both are forced into assuming historical roles.
Frank’s case is perhaps easier to describe: Although he has looked out for himself, made a career and kind of style (“Yeah, that always was one of Frank’s tricks”) in quest of self-aggrandizement, he is not fitted for the businessman’s image he affects. He fancies he can beat the arthritic Morton at his own game, then learns Morton’s economic mobility can embrace and improve upon Frank’s own tactics: Frank is nearly taken out of the running by his own men. His dreams of avarice shattered, he rides out to meet The Man, true to his own nature (“It wouldn’t have bothered Morton knowin’ you were around somewhere”) but ironically unaware of the extent to which he has been marked by, doomed by his own past. “Just a man,” he classifies himself for his enemy, and The Man replies, “An ancient race.” Harmonica goes on, the camera focusing on neither man but instead on the railroad, McBain’s and Morton’s dream: “Other Mortons’ll be along and they’ll kill it off.” Frank says, “That won’t matter to us because we won’t be around. Nothing matters now, not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you, ’cause now I know you’ll tell me what you’re after.” And he nods understandingly as The Man responds: “Only on the point of dyin’.”
Jill’s dramatic identity is more complex and multilayered, although curiously less compelling than any of the three men’s. We do not learn till her love scene with Frank (who kidnaps her as part of his attempt to gain Sweetwater) that she has come to McBain from the best whorehouse in New Orleans, which retrospectively charges Cheyenne’s comparison of her to his mother: “the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman anywhere.” But her experience is clear enough in the mixture of bitterness and gratitude with which she describes her pact with McBain. She wouldn’t, she says, have minded giving him half a dozen kids in return for the chance to “do something” with herself.
Before any of these remarks have been made, we have watched her perform two rounds of the McBain home. On the night of the funeral she ransacks the premises in search of “the why”â€”as Cheyenne terms it, alluding to the reason for the murdersâ€”something concrete with which to console herself. Leone shoots the search Visconti-style: lots of dark-shadowed rummaging, zooming and sweeping telephoto stuff, the camera suddenly catching Jill and us unawares by observing her in the mirror on the dresser. She stares at her reflection for a moment, stopping in the search, then laughing. She abandons the material quest and goes to the bridal bed, looks around at the potentially domestic scene, lies down and rolls over onto her back. Leone cuts to a high shot looking down through the black-lace canopy of the fourposter, zooming slightly and shifting his focus subtly between Jill and the fabric: her regret is stylized in the finery of the lost future. The next morning she drifts about the rooms again, her greed spent: and she pauses before a different mirror. Into this one she looks even longer, at first seeming to meditate on something within its depths: then she recognizes herself, studies herself. Spiritual analysis gives way to practical criticism and she begins to touch up her face, a self-ironic grin faintly visible on her lips. She takes her carpetbag, ready to go back to the house in New Orleans. The door opens, the camera swings about to discover Cheyenne, and her course is deflected for the first time: “Did you make coffee?”
Jill unburdens herself somewhat to Cheyenne, who privately dedicates himself to looking out for her. It is clear that he never has serious hopes of winning her himself; his is more of a bizarre confessor role. She is still resolved to leave; he declares, “You deserve better,” and she replies, “The last man who told me that is buried out there”â€”a foreshadowing of Cheyenne’s own end. Cheyenne and his outlaws ride off and Jill prepares to drive to town. But The Man intercepts her, tells her “This isn’t the time to leave.” (He will later tell her in Flagstone: “It’s time to go home,” “home” by then meaning Sweetwater, to which point the railroad has come.) He advances on her as if to rape her (both he and Cheyenne have implied they might have killed the McBains; she assumes either might assault her), but instead he tears away precisely those parts of her dress that would encumber her in her later role. “Get me some water,” he demands. “From the well. I like my water fresh.” Jill will carry waterâ€”and an unspecified degree of consolationâ€”in that same remodeled costume for the builders of the railroad, in an earth-mother role considerably more Italian than American. Both The Man and Cheyenne help shape her historical role, to which neither sees himself in a co-starring part. As for Frank, he both desires and goads her as he both uses and humiliates his partner Morton. He guesses correctly that she will do anything to stay alive, and it is for that very reason, not any personal kinkiness, that she flings herself upon him the more passionately when he reminds her he is the killer of her husband: she must get into her role before disgust with him and herself overwhelms her and costs her her life. Significantly, the mistress of Sweetwater yearns to purge herself afterward with a hot bath.
The Man’s service to history in no way represents a dilution of his primary, indeed his sole purpose: bringing Frank face to face with his own violent destiny. We have already remarked The Man’s dynamic freedom in space; his comment “I don’t invest in land”â€”as he turns the newly purchased Sweetwater over to Jill once more-refers both to his lack of worldly (spatial) claims and his indifference to progress except insofar as Sweetwater’s realization will confound Frank’s hopes. As he enters frames from the side, Frank strides into or looms in the center: stepping out of the brush after the murder of the McBains, standing over Jill with the model Station, rising ramrod-straight in the doorway of the saloon as The Man and Jill talk at the bar, and of course walking out of the mist of past and distance in the eerie memory-image that strives to come through three times during the film. Frank moves centrally down a boardwalk in Flagstone and almost steps out into an assassin’s line of fire: he is passing a watchmaker’s shop, and a painted clock with only three-and-a-half numerals painted on it ironically appears at the side of the frame. The Man coyly calls Frank’s attention to the last sniper, hidden above another painted clock, this one with no hands at all: “Time sure flies!” The Man himself is not bound even by time. Cheyenne tells Jill: “People like that have something insideâ€”something to do with death”; and indeed, The Man is known only by dead men’s names, and he himself may be dead, may have died and risen a dozen times as, apparently, he dies and rises in the initial gun duel with the three men at the lonely depot. As Elam meditates on the music of a fly, as Strode gathers drops of consciousness in his own brimming bowl, so does The Man sit waiting for Frank; as Cheyenne observes, “He’s whittlin’ on a piece of wood. When he’s done whittlin’, I got a feelin’ somethin’s gonna happen.” When Frank appears, riding on air, floating in dreamy telephoto closeup as he floated on foot in slow-motion years before, The Man tosses the stick away: surrogate forms cease to matter when the form of revenge itself is about to be consummated.
The final confrontation of Frank and The Man, and the revelation of The Man’s claim on Frank, is one of the several most powerful moments the cinema has ever given us. As a plot device, the avenger’s grievance is thoroughly familiar: the death of a blood relation is probably the paramount motivation for action in the Western genre. But the synthesis Leone achieves in every aspect of the sequence, the sheerly cosmic sense of unification, is staggering. This time his mortal enemies delimit the circular arena by their own centrifugal pull; and as Morricone’s music score attains its most bravura effects, Tonino delli Colli’s camerawork keeps pace with an astonishingly successful simultaneous sense of fluidity and monumentality. As The Man stares piercingly at Frank, Leone travels in and literally fills the wide screen with Charles Bronson’s eyes. We cut to Frank, and it is the Frank of years before, approaching us as he has twice previously approached (unrecognized) in vague glimpses flashed during earlier moments of confrontation between these characters. Past and present fuse here. Leone cuts back to The Man and he is still The Man of the present even though Frank has become one with the past. And then The Man is visually replaced by himself as a boy. We see him only in extreme closeup until Frank has placed a harmonica in his mouthâ€”the same harmonica that has signaled most of his apparitions throughout the filmâ€”and sneered, “Keep your lovin’ brother happy!” And then Leone cranes out and up, out and up, and we see that a man is standing on the boy’s shoulders, and that this man has a noose about his neck. And the shot continues to grow: the rope is fastened to a bell (bells have chimed before the murder of the last McBain child and as these two warriors assume their orbital positions), and the bell to a crumbling, golden Roman arch, and that arch sits against the surreal yet very real blue depths of Monument Valley.
Many shocks of recognition occur at this moment. We are tremendously satisfied to have a great narrative question answered, and it is electrifying to see the legacy of death come home in a shattering instant: the suspended man deliberately kicks his younger brother away to terminate his futile attempts to stand firm, and as the boy settles into the golden dust in slow motion, the harmonica falling away from him in a musical cry of anguish, we are wrenched back into the present by the crash of guns. Frank spins about, shocked, then collapses. In answer to his last strangled query, “Who…?”, The Man displays the harmonica and firmly shoves it into the dying man’s mouth. Time’s debt is paid, and now The Man is free to disappear again, his offhand acknowledgement that he might return “some day” carrying no conviction. His life, consecrated to the dead, no longer has any validity.
A recurring carp of the movie’s daily and weekly reviewers held that Henry Fonda was “miscast” as a villain. Apart from the standard rule that any hack reviewer’s complaint about miscasting very probably indicates just the reverse, there are two crucial factors to justify Fonda’s use here. Firstly, Leone clearly recognized the strain of cold, calculating concentration contained within the ostensibly folksy personae of two of Fonda’s most memorable performances, Abraham Lincoln and Wyatt Earpâ€”the American hero as cagey poker-player. Fonda’s Frank reveals the other face of the Ford-Fonda hero even more grimly than Ethan Edwards in The Searchers stands for the darkest aspects of the Ford-Wayne hero; his bemused, almost comforting smile an instant before he shoots the youngest McBain child chills to the bone.
Secondly, the ferociously right evocation of Henry Fonda circa 1939 in the flashback sceneâ€”not, of course, as Fonda was wont to behave in 1939, but as he looked and even as he walkedâ€”is as vital to the knitting of disparate film traditions as that rugged, most American of landscapes and that thoroughly Italian arch. The first real look at Frank is provided during the McBain slaughter: the camera circles from behind him, disclosing that so-well-known yet utterly unexpected face, the cheek swollen with a prodigious chaw. We seem to have discovered the demented product of generations of criminal inbreeding (and several years before the frozen analysis of those generations in Godard/Gorin’s Letter to Jane). It is, I think, a conscious critical reflection on the incestuous Western traditions Leone so loves and emulates and, by extension, on the colossal scale of Hollywood-style filmmaking of which this film may be the last glorious gasp. For no one is so out of time in Once Upon a Time in the West as Sergio Leone, who here has indulged in a grandiosity that the economics of today’s movie business and the demographics of today’s movie audience simply cannot support. “Other Mortons’ll be along and they’ll kill it…. ” It has been Leone’s lot to have been one of the Mortons and also to have been killed by them. Which is not to say we should be anything but profoundly grateful for the magnificent futility Leone has made: as The Man with the Harmonica says of McBain and Sweetwater, “You don’t sell the dream of a lifetime.”
Three years had elapsed by the time United Artists decided to release Leone’s next film, Duck, You Sucker (known in France as Once Upon a Time in the Revolution and, in England and eventually here, as A Fistful of Dynamite). After a masterpiece on the grandest of scales, the director’s next film would almost of necessity come as an anticlimaxâ€”a sense enhanced by the recapitulation of structural material that has operated more forcefully before. The circle of the corrida recurs very early, but this time as a scene of goodnatured rape rather than a staring match to the death. Again the present-tense narrative is punctuated by memory flashes, but instead of a single, gradually disclosed image and scene we have a sequence of chronologically progressing moments and nothing like the emotional payoff in Once Upon a Time. Once more we find a triadic configuration of characters, but two characters clearly dominate the film with the third remaining crucial to the structure of intention while commanding insufficient interest in his own right. But other aspects of Leone’s art have continued to grow subtler, more expressive. The new film has a satisfying density of its own.
Leone continues his reluctant march toward modernity, if only in his setting: Mexico, during the post-Madero phase of the Villa-Huerta civil war. Juan (Rod Steiger) heads the scurviest bunch of banditos this side of anywhere, six of them his illegitimate sons by as many mothers. Sean (James Coburn) is a master dynamiter late of the Irish Republican Army. Juan hails their chance intersection as “a miracle of God” and proposes that Sean blow open the banks with his “holy water” (nitroglycerine) so that he and his boys can go in after the gold. The Irishman gives every impression of acceding to this wish but in fact is really interested in serving “the revolution”â€”to him all revolutions are oneâ€”and he forces his childishly avaricious comrade into the historical role of revolutionary hero. Ultimately this role costs Juan all he has: the bank of his dreams (which he takes over only to learn it has become a political prison), his family and finally his mysterious amigo, the other half of his proposed bankrobbing firm of “Johnny and Johnny” and perhaps of himself.
Duck, You Sucker suggests the beginnings of a new mode for the director. While his peculiar sense of humor has informed all his previous films, here it bursts through so frequently that we find ourselves watching essentially a comedy. But it is a grotesque comedy. If Leone in Once Upon a Time worked toward a merger of the film-worlds of John Ford and decadent Italian romanticism, in this case his handling of camera space invokes a Langian world of restricted awareness. He is most faithful to the limited comprehension of the lethal, ballsy, comic-opera naÃ¯f Juan, who begins the film in extreme closeup, apparently helpless in the midst of an arid landscape, but proves to be springing a trap on some contemptuous patricians. It is virtually the final instance of Juan’s mastery over space and events. Even as he waits to pull off this coup he vaguely registers a distant thunder that turns out to be Sean’s dynamitingâ€”detonations in the midst of a desert that serve no rational purpose whatsoever, operating purely as stylistic definitions of an environment.
Many forces beyond his ken impinge on Juan’s existence, abstract yet undeniable forces like politics and history, to the extent that Juan frequently looks somewhere above the top of the frame for Heavenly encouragement. Sean apprehends these theoretical realities with the sentimentality of a romantic and the bitterness of a cynic; in the end he rejects the very role into which he has led Juan, a role in which he once tried and executed his best friend for betraying The Cause. “When I started using dynamite I believed in many things, all of it. Now I only believe in dynamite.” Like The Man with the Harmonica he has about him “something to do with death”: he wears that death, that dynamite stuffed into the very lining of his coat, and he drinks whiskeyâ€”or what he claims is whiskeyâ€”from a flask identical to the one that contains his nitro. Dying of bullet wounds, he returns to Juan a rosary that the bandit threw away after the death of his family an ambiguous gesture that seems intended to console the giver at least as much as the recipient; a restoration of the symbol of faith in dreams after the film has effectively shown all dreams to be doomed. A moment later Sean has been transliterated in his greatest detonation and Juan is held in extreme closeup again. As he stares into our eyes, his childlike voice asks from somewhere: “What about me?” Sergio Leone’s answer is the end title, which is also the title of his film.
*Read this small printâ€”the plot synopsisâ€”carefully. The story (by Leone, Dario Argento, and one Bernardo Bertolucci) is focused on a desolate scrub flat known dubiously as Sweetwater. The owner of this land, Brett McBain, a red-haired Irishman assumed to be loco by most of his neighbors, foresees that the railroad must pass through his land and, further, that his is the only water supply within miles ,insuring Sweetwater will become a station. McBain and his children are murdered by Frank, a blue-eyed assassin in partnership with the crippled railroad baron Morton. But unbeknownst to anyone else McBain has taken a wife, Jill, and she arrives just in time to find her new family deadâ€”and to spoil Frank’s plans by inheriting the land. She arouses the interest of Cheyenne, a sentimental hooligan everyone assumes is the killer. Also ever-present is a Man with a Harmonica who intercedes menacingly but beneficently to force Jill to stay and protect her interests. Complications set in, allies begin to operate at cross-purposes, and eventually Frank is betrayed by Morton, who has begun to fear his own essential purpose will be fatally delayed: to live long enough to see his railroad reach the Pacific. His men and Morton dead, Frank rides to Sweetwater where he knows he will find The Man who has striven so relentlessly and inexplicably to confound his hopes. The Man proves to be the brother of one of Frank’s long-dead victims, and he beats Frank to the draw. The railroad moves on, surviving its masters, and Cheyenne and The Man ride away, leaving Jill to play hostess to the workmen, the nation, and Progress. (In the complete version Cheyenne dies just out of sight of Sweetwaterâ€”he had been mortally wounded in an attack on Morton’s trainâ€”but this is part of the concluding action lopped off the present theatrical prints.)
Â© 1973 Richard T. Jameson