The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Complex: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

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If you know films, you know the work of director Sergio Leone, who is credited with re-inventing the western film genre with his “Spaghetti Westerns,” a sub-genre of Westerns directed by Italians and usually featuring a more graphically violent and morally complex vision of the American Old West. Old West (“Frontier”) stories typically “[exaggerate] the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the [latter half of the 19th century in the American West] for greater dramatic effect.” Without ever having visited the United States or even being able to speak English, Leone, who often co-wrote his films, created western heroes, villains, and films that would change the genre forever. Beginning with his classic A Fistful of Dollars, the first of the Dollars (or Man with No Name) Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, Leone paid tribute to Hollywood’s westerns while, at the same time, significantly humanizing them.

In Leone westerns, the heroes do not wear white hats, nor the villains, black, as was the Hollywood tradition. Leone’s characters do not wear designer outfits, and, whether heroic or villainous, his characters look dirty, sweat profusely, and rarely shave. Leone’s characters are more well-rounded human beings, with both “good” and “evil” traits, making them more complex and interesting. In fact, it is often difficult to determine which characters are the heroes and which the villains in Leone’s films since all characters are “morally ambiguous… appearing generously compassionate, or nakedly and brutally self-serving, as the situation [demands].” Further, the relationships of all Leone’s characters “[revolve] around power” — not around familial or romantic love — and “retributions [are] emotion-driven rather than conscience-driven.”

In Leone’s Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — the protagonist, played in each by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t change, although his violent acts often alter the natures of those around him, making them either more dangerous and desperate, or more reflective and compassionate. In Leone’s second major trilogy of thematically connected films, sometimes called the Once Upon a Time Trilogy — Once Up a Time in the West, Duck, You Sucker (originally titled, Once Upon a Time… the Revolution), a western set in Mexico during its revolution, and Once Upon a Time in America, a crime drama about organized crime in New York — the same actor does not play the major protagonist in every film and the setting is not always the American Old West. Instead of the films’ being somewhat quirky and upbeat, the films in this second trilogy are slower paced and thematically darker.

In this second trilogy, Leone concentrates more on the “rituals preceding violence” than on the violence itself, which may have been why some critics and viewers called “slow” scenes in which not much happens. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) marked a new phase in the style of Leone’s films as well as a new phase in his character development. The protagonists in these films, who are even less clearly defined along the traditional lines of good/evil or hero/villain, actually do change during the course of each individual film’s story, which is “unusual” for Leone characters. Because of its protagonists’ attempts to become different though not necessarily better people, Once Up a Time in the West is one of Leone’s best films and one of the greatest westerns. Its characters are so morally complex that critics and viewers often list it as one of the “greatest films of all time,” not just one of the greatest westerns.

The story of Once Up a Time in the West may seem predictable, with its Old West tropes of wealthy, land-grabbing villain going after the defenseless, newly widowed homesteader, but it is the shootists on opposite sides of this battle that are the film’s triumph. These shootists (sometimes called “gunslingers” or “gunfighters”) are so fascinating and disturbing that they justifiably become the story’s focal point. Instead of viewers’ caring about who wins the land-battle, they become more interested in the shootists and how their characters change.

opening gunfight in Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film opens with a stunning scene: three men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) terrorize people at a train station and then wait to ambush a traveller. Their target (Charles Bronson), who has no name throughout the film but who is called “Harmonica” because he often plays one.

Charles Bronson as Harmonica, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Harmonica has arrived to keep an appointment with someone named “Frank” who is not at the train station. The resulting shoot-out between Harmonica and the three shootists is the first indication that this film is different from Leone’s previous westerns. Harmonica is wounded during the shoot-out: he is not invincible.

Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at an isolated homestead, a widower and his family are massacred. In one of the most startling Reveals in film history, viewers are introduced to Frank (Henry Fonda), a shootist and one of the most heinous villains ever. Frank has been ordered to scare Landowner McBain and his children into leaving so his boss can acquire the land. Instead, Frank kills them all.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

That is, Frank kills all the family except Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who has just arrived via train from New Orleans and who has become the landowner by default due to her recent secret marriage with the now-deceased McBain.

Jason Robards as Cheyenne, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

Meanwhile, at a roadhouse where Jill is awaiting transportation to her new home, Harmonica, who is pursuing Frank without knowing what he looks like, informs an escaped prisoner Cheyenne (Jason Robards) about the ambush at the railroad-station. The killers dressed like members of Cheyenne’s gang. Because Cheyenne himself has been accused of the McBain massacre, where the killers also wore the his gang’s characteristic dusters, Cheyenne must find out what happened.

Claudia Cardinale as Jill, and Henry Fonda as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

The film’s violence increases as the lives and interests of Widow Jill, Shootist Frank, No-Name Harmonica, and Prisoner Cheyenne now all converge on the McBain homestead. Cruelty, betrayal, (implied) sexual violence, and murder become so commonplace that the violence itself becomes less interesting than the natures of the protagonists themselves. For the film’s characters and its viewers, the initial McBain massacre — as well as the reason behind it — becomes merely a metaphorical footnote in the “real story” of Once Upon a Time in the West: how these characters themselves will change because of their interactions with each other.

Fonda was originally hesitant about taking the role of the murderous Frank — of the the wittiest and most caustic villains ever created — and did not accept Leone’s initial offer. After talking to his best friend Eli Wallach, who had worked with Leone in his classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and who told Fonda he’d have the time of his life working with Leone on a film, Fonda accepted the part.

Henry Fonda as his blue eyes as Frank, Once Upon a Time in the West ©

He showed up for filming with facial hair and brown contacts, believing that his fans would more easily accept him as the bad guy if he looked different than he did in his other films. Leone insisted that Fonda shave and that, furthermore, his piercing blue eyes were necessary to symbolize the “cold, icy nature of the killer.” Fonda, cast against type, became one of the first lead actors to play a villain in a western.

Hugely popular in Europe on its release, though performing poorly in US markets — perhaps due to editorial cuts which were later restored to American versions in directors’ cuts — Once Upon a Time in the West is now considered to be a masterpiece and one the “greatest films ever made,” often ranked in the Top 100 lists of Best Westerns, Best Action, or Best Films.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with 7-day Starz trial), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, the Film

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are some of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen, if only because they never question whether their criminal characters are good or evil. Instead, their stories plunge viewers deep into a world where doing evil is such a given, it’s the norm. Even in these evil worlds, however, criminals have some moral standards by which to judge the behavior of their fellow thieves, gangsters, and murderers. It is this exploration of good and evil within an already evil world that makes these films so fascinating.

The 1995 neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters, examines morality, honor, and justice among people who would scare most of us to death if we simply saw them on the street. The film’s unexpected story-delivery and darkly comedic scenes don’t hide its tragic moments, but , instead, lift it beyond the ordinary story of crime-from-the-criminal-perspective to that of a classic. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead  is a film you’ll want to watch multiple times so you can decide which of its quirky criminal characters you like best.

Andy Garcia as Jimmy the Saint, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The film’s premise is a familiar one in crime stories: seriously bad-ass gangster wants to abandon the criminal life, go straight, and earn some good karma in the remaining time he has left, but somehow gets coerced, by someone much more dangerously bad-ass and way more powerful, into doing “one last job,” which, of course, goes terribly wrong. In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to be a legitimate businessman with his Afterlife Advice services, where the terminally ill record reminiscences, advice, or other final messages for their loved ones. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s non-criminal life isn’t paying well enough to keep him solvent, and his former boss has paid off Jimmy’s debts and now wants him to do one last job.

Narrated by Joe (Jack Warden), to anyone who’ll listen, in a malt shop, the film’s quirky start gives you a hint of the film’s compelling and unique slang while letting you know that virtually everyone involved in the story, but especially Jimmy the Saint, is already a legend.

In those days, you wanted a piece of quim, you knew where to go. You’d go with a big noise guy, you know, a cake-eater. Before you could say “beef bayonets,” you’ve got a bangtail on your arm, sweet as Dutch cheese.

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The “big noise guy” in this film is The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), and he has a son, Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), who’s tried to kidnap a little girl off the school playground.

Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

This is not a good thing, even in their criminal world. The Man with the Plan believes that if his son Bernard were reunited with his former girlfriend, Meg, things would be like the good ol’ days, when everyone was happy, and Bernard would be “cured.”

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Sarah Trigger as former-girlfriend Meg, and Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Unfortunately, Meg has a new boyfriend, and something has to be done. The Man with the Plan wants “an action,” not a “piece of work,” i.e., Jimmy is to scare the current boyfriend away from Meg and no one is to be physically hurt, let alone killed.

Christopher Walken, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Because The Man with the Plan, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” and not a “piece of work,” the viewers immediately know that something is bound to go terribly wrong and that it’s going to effect all the characters in the film, not just Bernard or his former girlfriend Meg.

Gabrielle Anwar as Dagney, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Despite having met Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he’s falling in love, and despite trying to help a friend Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) get out of the street-walking life and go straight so she doesn’t die from drugs or disease, Jimmy goes back to work for The Man with the Plan.

Fairuza Balk as Lucinda, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Jimmy gathers together his old gang (below, L-R): Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), and Pieces (Christopher Lloyd). Then, on a symbollically dark and rainy night, they wait on the side of the highway to scare away Meg’s new boyfriend.

As you may have already guessed, things do not go well.

Treat Williams as Critical Bill, Bill Nunn as Easy Wind, William Forsythe as Franchise, and Christopher Lloyd as Pieces — Jimmy’s gang. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Things go so horribly wrong, in fact, that The Man with the Plan feels obligated to “buckwheats” the entire crew. For this, he hires an outside man, Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), who has never failed to complete a job for which he’s been hired.

Steve Buscemi as Mr Shush, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

But in this world, as you might have already guessed, nothing ever seems to go right, not even for the criminals who are punishing criminals who (intentionally or inadvertently) disobeyed other criminals’ orders. In almost any world, it seems, disappointment breeds betrayal, and treachery breeds vengeance, no matter who’s involved.

A few critics labeled this neo-noir classic a “copycat” and a “weak sister” of Pulp Fiction by “wanna-be Tarantinos,” but other critics praise Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead as an “offbeat thriller” that is “relentlessly quirky” and “perversely comic,” allowing it to “dodge any hand-me-down Pulp Ficton formula.

Though Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead earned only about $529K (USD, $1M adjusted) of its $8M budget at the box-office, it has since developed a cult-following, earning more through DVD sales and streaming services.

Available for free viewing to subscribers of Starz (showing this month) and DirecTV (premium channels), and for rent ($1.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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When All Your Dreams Come True, But Your Heart Is Still Broken: Dearest, the Film

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Child trafficking is a huge problem in China: 20,000 to 200,000 children are sold every year. Sometimes, the biological parents sell their own children because they are unable to pay the fines for having 2 or more children. “Families ill equipped to pay penalties on top of the costs of raising a child—food, school tuition, etc.— sometimes opt to sell their offspring.” More often, however, children are stolen — snatched off the streets — and sold to orphanages or to wealthy childless families for adoption, sometimes for international adoption. The US State Department named China one of the world’s worst in child trafficking in 2017, and while the Chinese government acknowledges the problem, it refuses to release any statistics about its high abduction rates.

When children go missing, government officials often avoid investigating, or, worse, are complicit in aiding kidnappers by giving wealthy families who buy kidnapped children the appropriate legal documentation to explain the presence of multiple children in a country where the government has regulated births since 1980, and though the one-child-per-family law is now defunct, its legacy continues in high child trafficking rates. Worse, parents of kidnapped children are often persecuted as a “nuisance” and a “threat to social stability” for continuing to search for their children and for accusing the government of inaction and complicity in the kidnappings.

You wouldn’t imagine that a film about China’s child trafficking problem would be anything but grim, but director Peter Chan’s Dearest (Qin ai de, 2014), based on a true story of parents who are reunited with their kidnapped child several years later, turns the tables on viewers’ expectations by putting an ostensibly happy ending in the middle of the film. After the parents are reunited with their abducted child, the film becomes more gripping and powerful  as it explores the pain and heartbreak of everyone involved in child trafficking, from the grieving parents and the presumably guilty adoptive parents to the kidnapped children themselves. Though some of its subplot are irrelevant,  Dearest is one of the most scathing and brilliant stories of a painful and horrifying topic.

Huang Bo as Tian, Dearest ©

The first half of the film concentrates its story on the divorced parents. Father Tian (Huang Bo) runs a small internet cafe in Shenzhen and has many arguments with his ex-wife Lu (Hao Lei) over the best way to raise their three-year-old son Pengpeng (played by multiple child actors).

Hao Lei as Lu, Dearest ©

When Tian is distracted by a group of teen boys fighing in this store, he sends his son Pengpeng off to play with some neighboring children. The little boy gets distracted and tries to follow a car he thinks is his mother’s, and he gets snatched off the street (which is apparently a common way for kidnappers to abduct children in China).

Huang Bo as Tian, and Hao Lei as ex-wife Lu, Dearest ©

Somewhat reunited by their guilt and despair, parents Tian and Lu begin an initially fruitless search for their son. Since police and other officials are downright obstructive, the couple joins a support group for parents of missing children. Some of the most frightening scenes in the entire film deal with the way the group handles members’ grief, the violence that erupts in these grieving parents when they confront suspected kidnappers, and the terrifying “group-think” when these hopeless parents follow a truck they believe may carry kidnapped children wrapped in burlap bags in the back.

Zhao Wei as “adoptive” mother Li (kneeling), Dearest ©

About halfway through the film, Tian and Lu are told that their son has been located, and despite the fact that this seems as if it should be a happily-ever-after moment, Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy, who not only does not recognize them, but who fights to remain with his “mother,” Li (played by renowned Chinese actor Zhao Wei).

Zhao Wei as Li, Dearest ©

From that moment, the film becomes a more morally complex and painful examination of good and evil as it focuses more on the disingenuously naïve adoptive mother Li, who insists to officials that her now-deceased husband only brought home “abandoned children” whom he found, and as the film focuses on the children Li “adopted” and raised as her own.

Zhoa Wei as Li, Dearest ©

Even without my being fluent in Mandarin, it was obvious to me that the most powerful actor in the film was playing the mother who was accused of raising kidnapped children. After Li loses her son (who is, indeed, Tian and Lu’s son Pengpeng) and her daughter, whose parents cannot be identified, Li begins a legal battle to adopt the daughter rather than leave her to be raised in an orphanage with hundreds of other children.

two of the actors playing the kidnapped children in Dearest ©

The few sub-plots, such as that with the lawyer and his dementia-afflicted mother, distract slightly from overall narrative, but the film as a whole is gripping and intense. Knowing that the parents find and “rescue” their kidnapped son does not detract from the power of the film. Instead, the film becomes more gripping the instant it flips its protagonists and antagonists: when biological parents Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy Pengpeng themselves and run from villagers who are trying to rescue him for his screaming “mother,” Li.

Some of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes involve not the parents but the two young children: neither remembers any mother but their “adoptive” one and neither can understand why they are no longer allowed to live together even though they are “brother” and “sister.”

Compelling and morally disturbing because it deals with both the victims and the offenders of child trafficking, Dearest won awards for Director Peter Chen and for Best Actress Zhao Wei. In Mandarin with English subtitles, Dearest is available to rent ($1.99-2.99 SD/HD, free for Prime members) from Amazon.

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