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Le Doulos (1962) December 1, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Film Noir, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 2 comments

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville  Starring: Serge Reggiani; Jean-Paul Belmondo; Monique Hennessy  Territory: France

Freshly released from prison, Maurice (Serge Reggiani) immediately commits murder and plans a robbery – talk about not letting the grass grow beneath your feet!  When he tells his girlfriend Thérese (Monique Hennessy) about a new job, he trusts acquaintance Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) although he hears rumours that he is a police informer.  When the robbery goes wrong – and the scene gets overrun with cops – Maurice bitterly blames Silien for blabbing to the authorities.  But the truth may be more complicated…

With its ever-weaving storyline and deliberately misleading narrative, Le Doulos (which means “hat” but is also a slang term for a police informer) is another film noir masterpiece from Jean-Pierre Melville that often reminds me of the better works of Hong Kong auteur Johnny To.  Like To’s latter-day noirs, the plot seems to make little or no sense at first – only revealing what it’s all about in its own sweet time when it’s good and ready.  Which means plenty of patience is required, but ultimately the rewards are greater.

The obvious Melville devices are in place – trenchcoats, hats (lots of hats – it seems everyone is wearing a hat or at least standing next to someone who is) and a laconic approach to dialogue.  The lighting is also used dramatically, especially in the dingy house occupied by the ill-fated Gilbert at the start of the movie.  Film historian Ginette Vincendeau remarks about Melville’s films being about “the uphill struggle to failure” and this statement succinctly hits the nail on the head.

Le Doulos’s habit of keeping the viewer in the dark may be frustrating, but it also makes you want to go back and watch the film again straight away – always the mark of a great film.  Me, I’d love to watch it again right now, but more Melville films are waiting…

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) October 13, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, Film Noir, 1960s films , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Kamatari Fujiwara; Masayuki Mori; Takashi Shimura  Territory: Japan

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well is the least well-known of Kurosawa’s adaptations of the Bard’s work.  Instead of placing the story in feudal Japan, Kurosawa chooses a contemporary setting in this gritty, downbeat film noir thriller.

Toshiro Mifune is Nishi, a man marrying into a major company beset with controversy surrounding the suicide of a former employee.  Suspected of marrying simply to gain power, Nishi faces suspicion and hostility as the secretary for Vice President Iwabuchi (his sozzled new brother-in-law declares at the wedding ceremony “make her unhappy and I’ll kill you”, in what must be one of the oddest wedding speeches on celluloid).  However, it turns out his motives for marrying into the family are even more sinister than power and influence as he struggles to find out the truth behind his new employers’ dark secrets.

The Bad Sleep Well
After criticising the casting of Mifune for High and Low, I have to eat humble pie and say he was absolutely perfect in this film noir masterpiece.  It really is a tragedy that The Bad Sleep Well is not among the absolutely highest regarded of Akira Kurosawa’s films – it is simply a riveting, thrill-packed ride of twists, turns and fantastically drawn characters.  What’s more, you would have to go some way to finding a film so fantastically shot as this one.  Kurosawa’s keen eye for dramatic locations is shown again and again in this film, whether in volcanic wastelands or war-torn bombed-out factories that can double up as prison cells. 

Films about corporate espionage can be convoluted and dull, and in the opening scenes of the film things can seem rather complex with lots of unfamiliar names thrown at the viewer.  But from that scene, The Bad Sleep Well settles down into a clear film with a narrative that is easy to follow.  It may be long, and not a little grim, but the story moves like a bullet and is never dull. 

This is another of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films that really must be seen by a wider audience too hung up on his samurai movies.  The Bad Sleeps Well is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time.  In fact, I can’t understand why Hollywood hasn’t remade it yet.  Give it time…

High and Low (1963) October 7, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Film Noir, 1960s films , 1 comment so far

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai; Kenjiro Ishiyama; Toshiro Mifune  Territory: Japan

A wealthy shoe magnate is extorted when his son’s friend is mistakenly kidnapped.  When every decision he can make will end in financial disaster for him, his hopes lay solely at the feet of the police force, who are pulling out all the stops to bring the guilty parties to justice.

Heaven and Hell is an odd film.  For a start, it doesn’t feel much like an Akira Kurosawa film, despite the presence of both Mifune and, in a relatively minor role, Takashi Shimura.  Secondly, it is essentially split into two parts: the first hour is the kidnapping drama and following that, the police force’s attempts at capturing the criminal.  With the focus shifting so abruptly and forcefully, it is sometimes hard to care as much as you should. 

High and Low
A case in point is Mifune’s character Gondo, who is, let’s not beat about the bush, quite difficult to like.  However, by the end of his story arc, I was firmly behind him as he had become much more human.  What’s more, it seems I wasn’t the only one who thought so: at the point where Gondo essentially leaves the story, one policeman turns to another and says “I never liked him at first”.  I’m also not 100% sure Mifune was the right man for the job - it sounds awfully strange to hear him talking passionately about the quality of women’s shoes.  Nevertheless, the shot of him mowing his lawn with grim determination is quite a sight.  It’s therefore hard to say who the “star” of High and Low is, but I’d say Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) deserves the top billing (although Kenjiro Ishiyama tends to steal the scenes he’s in).

That’s not to say High and Low is a bad film: far from it.  The first hour, which pretty much takes place in one room, is downright Hitchcockian in flavour, and the last half hour or so is genuinely tense.  The film’s use of music as counterpoint to the on screen action is the most pronounced I’ve seen in a long time: the tinkling muzak rendition of “It’s Now or Never” coming over a cheap radio at one critical moment should have you gripping your seat.

One thing intrigued me is the use of colour in an otherwise black and white film.  At one point, we see “pink smoke” in a black and white film – something I don’t recall seeing before.  But seeing something you’ve never seen before is what Kurosawa was all about in this, his most productive and inspired period.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) September 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 5 comments

Director: Kenji Misume  Starring: Shintaro Katsu; Shigeru Amachi; Ryuzo Shimada  Territory: Japan

Nineteen years into my love affair with East Asian films and I’ve just got around to Zatoichi, one of the most famous characters in the swordsman-with-something-wrong-with-them subgenre of martial arts thriller. 

The Tale of Zatoichi is the first of many films featuring Ichi (to give him his proper name – “Zato” is a kind of title) as the blind masseuse who is also a dab hand with a blade.  Employed as a heavy by a yakuza gang on the brink of war with a rival gang, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is drawn to his opposite number Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), a fellow swordsman living by a similar code of honour but who is working for the gang Ichi’s been hired to wipe out. 


The surprise to me is how little action occurs during the vast majority of the film.  Rather, The Tale of Zatoichi is a dramatic character study of two honourable men who are doomed to fight to the death on the whim of intellectual inferiors whether they want to or not.

The relationship between Ichi and the ailing Hirate (who is plagued by consumption) is an unusual one.  To my mind, there definitely seems to be a strong sexual tension there, as seen in their curiously stilted and awkward dialogue and their mutual admiration, although Ichi trotting out the eternal pickup line “come here often?” when the pair first meet on a riverbank is probably unintentional.  I’m not normally sensitive to this (for instance, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing in least bit gay about the films of Chang Cheh*) but I just could not overlook the homoerotic overtones of this film and can only conclude that the pair are hopelessly in love with each other.  Of course, this only makes the fact that they have to fight to the death even more tragic – Edo-period man-love must have been pretty hard to come by.

Anyway, sexual issues aside, The Tale of Zatoichi is one of those classic action movies that I’m getting increasingly fond of as I grow older.  It’s not too quickly paced to allow an old-timer to get confused, looks all nice in classic black and white, and is a must for anyone who gets teary-eyed at tales of honour and sacrifice.  Yep, that’s me all over.

*Except for perhaps this one.

Sanjuro (1962) May 7, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Action, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshirô Mifune; Tatsuya Nakadai  Territory: Japan

A corrupt Superintendent holds a decent town Chamberlain captive, while his nephew and eight friends plot to free him.  They are aided, whether they like it or not, by ronin Sajûrô (Mifune), who quickly proves himself indispensable to the group.

I have to admit a slight disappointment with this workmanlike sequel to the superb Yojimbo.  Mind you, coming straight off Red Beard, and with a general feeling that everything Kurosawa touched in his monochrome period turned to gold, I perhaps had unrealistic expectations.

Sanjuro It’s certainly lively enough, and I would recommend anyone new to this film to pay very close attention to the opening dialogue between the eight young men as it provides vital information.  I missed the significance of this dialogue and found myself completely lost and having to go back and watch it again.  But that’s my own fault…

The film has more of an emphasis on action and has an undeniably lighter feel than its predecessor.  The character of Sajûrô is as unstoppable as he was in Yojimbo, and watching Mifune cut a swath through his enemies is as satisfying as ever.  And when he goes undercover to find more information on the captives, the drama does increase significantly.  Also, it’s interesting that the humour in Kurosawa’s films (when present) seems to have aged pretty well, as there are a couple of comic touches (particularly a scene where our heroes are forced to celebrate a victory in silence) that are still funny. However, I missed the weight and tension of Yojimbo, and while no Kurosawa film can be said to have been hastily put together, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was going through the motions a lot with this film, which by all accounts he wasn’t.   

I do feel like Sanjuro will be a film I will appreciate better with time and repeated viewings, and despite my disappointment, I still actively enjoyed a lot of it.  Which does reinforce my unrealistic expectations theory.

Red Beard (1965) April 2, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshirô Mifune; Yûzô Kayama; Terumi Niki; Tsutomu Yamazaki  Territory: Japan

A young, newly qualified doctor grudgingly takes a job at a clinic for the poor.  But the young Yasumoto (Yûzô Kayama) is arrogant and ambitious, and considers himself to be above his calling.  However, under the guidance of the clinic’s head physician, Kyojô Niide (Toshirô Mifune), the young doctor begins to learn compassion and humility.

Anyone doubting Kurosawa’s genius behind the camera only has to watch the first half of this epic tale of two doctors and their various patients.  The director’s visual style is not hampered one bit by static location (besides, one sub-story told through a series of flashbacks allows him free reign to show his stuff on a larger scale) and one shot had me scratching my head wondering how he’d done it (I’m talking about the “well shot”, and I believe the answer, if you are interested, is here).

Red Beard

In his final role for Kurosawa, Mifune gives a fantastic performance as the humble, compassionate and patient doctor who mentors the new recruit in his spartan clinic.  When Yasumoto’s bad behaviour, fuelled by his desire to be a Shogunate doctor, becomes apparent at an evening meal, Niide (nicknamed Red Beard by fellow doctors) keeps calm and says: “Even bad food tastes good if chewed well.  Same with work.”  I have yet to see all of the Kurosawa/Mifune collaborations, but I have to say that this is the strongest performance I’ve seen from the actor.  I’ve no idea if the scene is taken from the book by Shugoro Yamamoto, or whether it was an inclusion by Kurosawa, but Mifune also gets to show off his ability at brawling when he beats up (and then bandages up) an angry mob.  Mifune hardly breaks a sweat while injuring his foes, in a scene reminiscent of an unarmed Yojimbo.

Any film lasting nearly three hours (slightly longer including the intermission) needs a certain spark to compel the viewer to watch, and Red Beard indeed flies by.  However, in the final third, the film’s episodic nature finally becomes apparent and for me, this stops the movie from becoming one of the greatest films I’ve ever watched.  But don’t let that put you off – Red Beard is still one hell of a great film, and further proof that Kurosawa and Mifune were one of the greatest director/actor combinations of all time.

Yojimbo (1961) June 18, 2009

Posted by Cal in : 1960s films, Jidaigeki , 3 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Main cast: Toshirô Mifune; Tatsuya Nakadai; Yoko Tsukasa; Isuzu Yamada  Territory: Japan 

A Ronin calling himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro (Toshirô Mifune) wanders randomly into a town split into two warring factions.  The rival gangs are vying for supremacy and causing much work for the local coffin maker.  Sanjuro decides to play the gangs off each other, who are both anxious to employ the samurai to get the upper hand over the other.  His plan to eliminate the scum hits a snag when the balance of power is shifted with the arrival of the brother of one of the gang leaders wielding a pistol. 

I have to admit that the merits of this Kurosawa film were sometimes lost on me as I struggled to come to terms with how completely Leone had plundered Yojimbo for his A Fistful of Dollars without so much of a nod to the source material.  Yes, I was aware of the legal wranglings over Leone’s film, but I was unprepared for how closely it follows Yojimbo – even as far as shot composition (just compare the screenshots on this very blog!).   

There's gonna be a whuppin' - the prototype 

The opening is brilliant – Sanjuro wanders into town and sees a dog carrying a human hand in its mouth.  This is obviously not your typical small friendly town full of community spirit where everyone helps each other.  It’s actually a vile little town, as Sanjuro soon finds out.  Seibei, the undisputed boss, has a new challenger for power in the form of his former right hand man Ushi-Tora.  Both have their followers, and they have essentially ripped the town in half with their power struggle.  Each side’s avarice and duplicity gets the better of them when acquiring Sanjuro’s services.  Although his mind is already made up before meeting the inhabitants of the town, the gangs prove beyond doubt they are without any redeeming features.  Seibei even plots to kill Sanjuro in his sleep after defeating Ushi-Tora and his followers. 

Yojimbo is also full of sardonic humour, as demonstrated when the two gangs call a truce when an official visits town.  Or when Sanjuro first unleashes his skills and kills two thugs and seriously wounds another – he walks back to the Cooper and simply says: “two coffins…maybe three”.  In fact, I’ve been wracking my brain thinking if this very line was uttered in A Fistful of Dollars.  I don’t think it was, but it certainly sounds like something Eastwood would have said.  Another funny scene is when Sanjuro gets the two gangs to face off with each other, and then quits the fight to watch their pathetic mid-day squabble from the bell tower, which is reminiscent of the ‘cowardly’ depiction of the samurai fight from Rashomon. 

As usual, there’s an air of Kurosawa being ahead of his time.  There’s a fantastic special effects shot where Sanjuro throws a knife into a leaf blowing around a room.  This effect blew me away, and although it turns out to have been achieved in the most mundane and obvious way, it still seems to have been shot in a way that still seems realistic today.   

Yojimbo is a great film, but I sincerely wished I’d seen it before A Fistful of Dollars.  That way, its impact on me would have been greater.  Out of the two, I think Kurosawa’s style, humour and the use of black and white film gives this film a grittier edge than Leone’s film.  Mifune seems born to be Kurosawa’s cinematic alter ego and gives a solid performance here.  What’s more, he handles the katana with speed and convincing confidence.  He certainly had me convinced he was a samurai master, anyway. 

For once, I thought the BFI DVD was quite good – although the image quality could have been better.  But the subtitles are removable and an appropriate size, which was an immense relief.  It’s probably not a patch on the Criterion edition, though.  One for the wish list, perhaps…

Le Samouraï (1967) August 2, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 5 comments

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville  Main Cast: Alain Delon; François Périer; Nathalie Delon; Cathy Rosier  Territory: France/Italy

Contract killer Jef Costello (Alain Delon) carries out a hit on a nightclub owner during opening hours, and is spotted upon exiting the crime scene by the house pianist Valérie (Cathy Rosier).  However, when rounded up for a police line-up by the Superintendent (François Périer), Valérie denies that she’s ever seen Costello.  Reluctantly, the police release him, keeping him under surveillance until they can get proof.  Pursued by both the police and his employers behind the hit on the nightclub owner, Costello is also curious as to why the pianist didn’t give him away…

When you consider that this is apparently Johnnie To’s favourite film and John Woo practically gushes throughout the booklet of the Criterion DVD release, you’d have thought I’d at least have heard of this film.  But it wasn’t until a fellow Hong Kong film fan mentioned him in this very blog that I became aware of the existence of Melville and Le Samouraï.  Certain things are beginning to click now though, like why Chow Yun-Fat was always referred to as the Alain Delon of Asian cinema.  Well, Chow Yun-Fat loses out on the style stakes but it’s not really his fault – the 60’s were a much more stylish era than the 80’s and I’m looking to get me a fedora and trenchcoat in the vain hope of pulling off a Delon. 

 Ah, this would be Film Noir, then?

Despite Jef Costello’s unquestionable cool, his lifestyle is not too enviable.  He lives in a hovel of an apartment with a canary as his only companion (and even here, you get the impression he only keeps the pet because it serves a practical purpose).  There are no nick-knacks or diversions in his spartan flat, and the only thing that comes close to decoration is a collection of empty mineral water bottles on top of his wardrobe.  His only real contact in the human world is his “alibi” Jane Lagrange (Delon’s then-wife Nathalie), but he treats her so casually and indifferently you can’t tell if they are friends, lovers or just working together as a means to an ends.

The Unusual Suspect - Alain Delon 

The film has style outside its main star, though, and the film has a chic that was only achievable for a short space of time in the mid-to-late sixties.  The colours used are mainly just varying shades of grey, often making you think Melville might as well have shot the film in black and white.  It is a very minimalist film, and the lack of dialogue in many scenes (it’s almost ten minutes before the first line of dialogue is delivered) adds to the distinctive style.  The exterior shots of the city of Paris are also excellent.  This is the only film I’ve seen set in Paris where the Eiffel Tower is not even in a single shot – probably because this is a French film and it’s only us foreigners who need those establishing shots to show we’re in the City of Light and not, say, Istanbul.

It’s not all style and no substance, though.  The plot is compelling enough, although the pace is a trifle more pedestrian than is fashionable today with a surprisingly lengthy section where suspects are gathered at the police station for an identity parade.  He wonders why the pianist Valérie didn’t shop him straight to the cops and suspects she’s up to no good.  That doesn’t stop him obviously developing feeling for her though, even if she’s working for the organisation behind the hit on the nightclub owner.  Like Jef’s flat, there’s little in the film that is superfluous, and the urge to find out what’s going to happen is strong.

Alain Delon & Cathy Rosier 

At the end of the day, it’s the character of Jef Costello that intrigues most.  His solitude, and his abstinence from the most basic human comforts make us want to know more about him.  That he’s a killer (and a damn fine one) adds to his mystery.  Where did he learn his skills, for instance, and what made him become the way he is?  When he refuses his ticket when checking in his hat, we suspect we’re never going to find out.  But although we have few answers to our questions, the ride was worthwhile.

Interpol 009 (1967) May 11, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1960s films , add a comment

Director: Yeung Shu-Hei  Cast: Tang Ching; Lee Kwan; Margaret Tu Chuan  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

There’s an international money counterfeiting gang in town, and Interpol agent 009, Chen Tianhong (Tang Ching) is sent to investigate.

Like Lo Wei’s Golden Buddha from 1966, Interpol 009 attempts to bring a Chinese James Bond to the screen, although the two films are otherwise unrelated.

Agent 009 has much in common with his more famous counterpart – he’s a suave womaniser, heavy drinker (although he prefers brandy to a vodka martini) and is deadly with any form of weapon you can to give him.  He’s also got an arsenal of gadgets to get him out of scrapes, such as a watch with several uses (including a listening device), a lighter that can turn into a smoke bomb and chewing gum that can open locked doors.  However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end, as Chen Tianhong has the charisma of a housebrick.  Perhaps sensing this, he is given a sidekick in the shape of Huang Mao (Lee Kwan – best known for his appearance as Ah Kun in Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss) who runs around Hong Kong in a Beatle suit and provides comic relief.

Somehow, the fluffy bathrobe diminishes the menace a little.

Chen Tianhong (who proclaims, and I swear to God this is true: “Danger?  That’s my middle name”) woos the ladies despite some stinky chat up lines (he even comes out with “do you come here often?” to one lady).  This is perhaps the sauciest Chinese film from the 60’s I’ve seen as Agent 009 canoodles with just about every lady he comes into contact with and there’s even a bare bottom at one point.  This is a far cry from the previous year’s Golden Buddha, which is extremely coy in comparison. 

The story concerns a money counterfeiting gang headed by a beautiful mysterious lady (the tragic Margaret Tu Chuan, who would commit suicide before the decade came to an end at the age of 27) and it’s here that another problem becomes apparent – the villains are all a bit pedestrian and the locations are very domestic, with the action all taking place in Hong Kong.  Part of the appeal of the Bond movies is the exotic locations and the overblown villains, and this film is a letdown on both points. 

There is some enjoyment to be had from the film, despite its drawbacks.  However, I’m not sure all the fun is intentional.  There’s a scene where the bad guys are beating up some guy, who manages to get away in an unguarded car.  He gets away and then drives his car straight off the nearest quay and into the water.  One of the perusing villains just mutters “silly man” and shakes his head – which I found hilariously funny.  The final reel mercifully turns up the action a couple of notches, and another Bond device comes into play – the age-old ploy of the bad guys tying up the hero (with sidekick in this case), planning a grisly fate for them and then scooting off and assuming the hero gets splattered across a large area.  In this case, the villains leave 009 to stew until the bomb they’ve planted goes off and turns Chen Tianhong into a disgusting red mess. 

By far the film's most exciting moment 

So how long do the villains give Chen Tianhong to ponder his fate while they make a speedy getaway?  Two minutes?  Five minutes?  Surely no more than ten minutes?  Actually, they give him two hours.  In that time, Bond would have got out, killed an army of henchmen, downed a couple of vodka martinis, shagged the villainess, killed her and quipped about it to his leading lady while making a witty quip over the radio to an exasperated M.  Chen Tianhong barely gets out with his skin intact, and this sums up the film in a nutshell.

Interpol 009 is just too dull most of the time to be enjoyable and suffers from some illogical plot problems to boot.  It’s not a complete write-off, and the 60’s fashions and sensibilities are always fun to watch, but this is not even on par with the more cringeworthy Roger Moore-era Bonds.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) August 27, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 5 comments

Director: Sergio Leone  Cast: Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards  Territory: Italy

Original title: C’era una volta il West 

Newlywed Jill (Cardinale) arrives in the town of Flagstone to find that her husband and his children from a previous marriage have been slain.  The executions were carried out by Frank (Fonda), who is working for Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a rail baron crippled by a bone disease who is largely confined to his specially adapted train carriage.  Frank plants evidence to implicate the bandit Cheyenne (Robards) and his gang, but upon befriending him, Jill finds he is not the man responsible.  Cheyenne joins up with a harmonica-playing stranger (Bronson) to find out the truth.  Harmonica, though, has his own agenda.

'You brought two too many'

Upon watching this for the first time a few years ago, I was quite disappointed with certain aspects of this film.  In retrospect, much of my criticism was simply down to the fact that I had watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the previous week and I couldn’t help comparing the two films all the way down the line.  Now, I can judge the film on its own merits a lot more now, and Once Upon a Time in the West certainly does have a lot going for it.

It’s crystal clear right from the start that this is a big production. Paramount had given Leone a generous budget to work with and it shows (it has been stated that the Flagstone set alone cost more than A Fistful of Dollars).  The cast list is even more impressive than before (with Henry Fonda gleefully playing against type), and the production moved to the United States to shoot some genuine western scenery.  The direction from Leone is also excellent throughout, with more of his trademark wide shots mixed with extreme close-ups.  In fact, Once Upon a Time in the West is probably his best looking western, even without the standout crane shot introducing the town of Flagstone.

'Inside the dusters there were three men.  Inside the men there were three bullets.'

One of the few things that doesn’t work so well as far as I’m concerned is the decision to make one of the leading characters female.  Don’t get me wrong, Claudia Cardinale is very capable (and utterly, utterly beautiful) but I don’t think Leone really knew what to do with female characters; a little like Chang Cheh (I’ve got to make some kind of reference to the genre or seriously consider renaming this blog Heroes of the West!) in his films – who are usually either virtuous family members, untouchable goddesses or whores.  The character of Jill McBain is a bit of a mixture of those.  It seems to me an arbitrary decision to make a female lead, simply to do something different from the Dollars films.  The result is her character seems the least well drawn of them all, although being a non-combatant it is sometimes refreshing to see things from her perspective and not from a gun-toting cowboy for once.

'Your friends have a high mortality rate, Frank.' 

With the male leads we are on much more familiar ground.  “Harmonica” is cut from the same cloth as the Man with No Name (it is rumoured the part was originally offered to Eastwood, who refused in order to make his name in Hollywood), a mysterious, laconic stranger who plays a haunting dirge on his mouth organ whenever he appears.  His presence and purpose is unexplained throughout the film, but hinted at by his reference to men Frank has killed in the past.  Leone films tend to give rise to all kinds of theories, but the strangest one I’ve heard concerns Harmonica.  Some believe he was killed in the shootout that occurs at the start of the film, and spends the rest of the film as some kind of avenging spirit.  It’s a nice thought but I’m pretty sure it’s not what Leone was thinking and doesn’t seem wholly feasible; but judge for yourself.

Ironically, seeing as how he had such a tough time on a Leone film, it was Eli Wallach who persuaded Henry Fonda to appear in this film.  Leone had been trying for years to obtain him, but the quality of the scripts (or rather, the translations of the scripts) always put him off.  Fonda does indeed have some presence as the ruthless, self-centred Frank, and from testimony obviously enjoyed playing the bad guy for once!  His scene where Morton confronts him on the hillside, away from his specially adapted carriage, has particular bite when Fonda spits at him: “when you’re not on that train, you look like a turtle out of its shell”.

Robards rounds off the main cast with the mainly good-natured bandit Cheyenne, who has some nice chemistry with Bronson’s character.

Ennio Morricone provides the soundtrack once again, but this time his contribution is more conventional.  All of the main characters have their own theme (one of which is actually a plot point in itself), and there’s also a surprisingly bouncy, melancholic tune that serves as the film’s main theme.  There seems to be different motifs or cinematic themes throughout the film (such as water), but one seems to be rhythm; from the persistence of the windmill at the start to the rhythmic click-clack of the railroad.  This is also captured in Morricone’s main theme.

I included this one just because I liked it.

While I still think Once Upon a Time in the West could have been paced a little better, I’m definitely coming to appreciate it a little more now.  In particular, I’m growing fond of the screenplay, which includes plenty of sharp and snappy dialogue.  It seems the film is a grower – it under performed at the box-office and but obtained its classic status in later years.  Which leaves me hopeful of enjoying this one even more in future.

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