There are some movies that are art: they evoke an emotion, they require time to look at, they require time to absorb, time to enjoy. Sergio Leone’s epic masterpiece about the railways in the old west is a fantastic example of art. As I said to my wife the other day while enjoying the DVD, “Each frame is like an impressionist painting.” When I think of impressionist paintings I think of heavy strokes, light, thick paint, yellows, slightly out of focus, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir. I think of paintings by American West artists like Remington. Sergio Leone delivers that direct to our screens.
The opening of this movie will forever be the opening to live up to. It’s a once in a lifetime experience that screams movie magic. Each frame is a painting. Each frame is an emotion. Jack Elam and Woody Strode dominate the screen, Elam being the star. His character of a face fills the screen as that 70 millimeter camera absorbs every inch, every pore, every wrinkle and every hair as though we watch it through a magnifying glass. And Elam sucks it up; he hams it up beautifully, majestically. As he sits on the swing with its creaking, a fly attached to his face and all the time in the world.
Our three cowboys, Strode, Al Mulock, and Elam play their parts so well that I don’t want the opening scene to end. While I cheer for Charles Bronson’s first appearance–oh what a magical set up–I really don’t want him show up. I’ve having so much fun with the characters on screen that I might be able to watch them sitting, standing and shuffling for a whole 2 hours. It’s like sitting in a museum and looking at a Monet all day.
It is the composition, the colors, the atmosphere that Sergio Leone creates. The colors that he finds through his camera as high noon strikes. Color is the star of this experience. The yellow of the summer sun as it heats and burns all that it touches. The yellow of the sun creeps into every crevice and crack and even in the shade there is no real escape. But that yellow, that 6700 kelvin illuminates everything so that every perfection and imperfection shines through. The old broken and brown wood stands out against the yellow desert and the yellow reflections. Their imperfections become art as they are painted across the canvas. There is so much life in the colors and composition of the pictures in front of us, there is almost no need for a soundtrack.
Sound. The simple sounds that become the orchestra, being it the creaking door, windmill, birds chirping, the swing, the gentle breeze, the fly’s wings, a cicada in the far off or the sounds of boots shuffling on the ground. If I didn’t know better I would swear I was sitting on a back porch in the middle of a Texas ranch in the middle of July. Sound in this scene is just as important as any other aspect, I can close my eyes and hear all those sounds that I know to be a part of the old west. Without opening my eyes I know what colors, what temperature, what smells. The sound of the train in the far off distance. Once it arrives, the sound of the engine and the wheels and the brakes. All familiar sounds, all sounds that make a soundtrack an annoyance.
Leone and Ennio Morricone know this. They know that a soundtrack must enhance and not be the scene. They are careful, oh so careful with the soundtrack. In fact the only music is Charles Bronson’s harmonica, signalling his arrival and the cowboy’s coming death. And when the shooting is over, the only sound is the windmill, turning and turning.
Bronson is amazing, the closeups of his face a reminder of what made him a star for so many years. He is by no means handsome; there isn’t a face on him that makes women swoon, he’s no Robert Redford, Paul Newman, or Clint Eastwood. But his face is made for Sergio Leone’s 70 millimeter love-making. His small, sharp blue eyes, his wrinkles and leathered skin all commanding our attention as Leone uses the camera to paint his picture.
And with an opening like this, what’s left to see? Indeed.
A continued masterpiece as Leone takes us through an incredibly corrupt railroad development traveling West. There are no real heroes in this story, from the ambitious future train-station owner, staking his claim, to his new wife, the prostitute from New Orleans, the railman, corrupt and on a mission to the ocean, Frank, the outlaw, and Cheyenne, the outlaw. None of these people are heroes or have done good. All are corrupt and as they play one another to gain control of a little plot of land.
Jason Robards as Cheyenne is simply fantastic. Another classic face, one that consumes the screen. Leone loves his actors, loves the ones with eyes that his 70 millimeter lens soaks up. Robards delivers. An excellent actor of stage and screen this role is almost too weak, too simple. But Robards makes it work, his understanding of what Leone wants to the camera to do to him of the painting he wants to make on the screen.
Frank is played by Henry Fonda. Fonda is one of the greatest American actors to grace the screen, he commands the screen. And those blue eyes, those steely blue eyes; you’d almost think that 70 Millimeter cameras were made specifically for him. This role is against type for Honda as he plays the villain, and he does it so well. He’s just flat out mean, like he could kill you with his looks means. You feel like the ant beneath his booth as he stares at you through that lens.
Each actor, a painting on the screen.
I do love the plot of this movie, it is so simple, an old fashioned fight for a piece of land, it allows Leone to play with camera, to tell a story with the camera. The story about railways traveling West, corrupt ambitious rail barons, and every outlaw and cowboy wanting to get their share of the profit. And they are willing to kill each other to do it. Except for Harmonica, who is the lone wildcard, he only wants one thing: Frank. He could be a player in the grand scheme, he could have the woman and the treasure, instead he chooses vengeance. Nothing more simple than cowboys, railroads and vengeance.
This is one of those movies for me. Come over, we’ll break out some chips, queso and a bottle of tequila and melt the night away having a ball watching and talking about this painting.