26 December 2003
My friends are all geeky, so many of them were looking forward to the day in November 2003 when the extended DVD of The Two Towers came out (and among my friends the extended DVD was the only one worth having.) But for me that day marked another release that was in many ways just as important, Sergio Leone's great western finally made it onto DVD.
It's not to everyone's taste, and you'll know if it's your taste in the first ten minutes. During that time we watch three gunmen wait for a train at a lonely station. There's barely any dialog. The dramatic action is limited to a fly crawling, some water drops, and the cracking of knuckles. Even the music is missing, unless you count the Cage-like found sound (which apparently they did). In that scene lies the slow pace of the whole film (although to be fair it does pick up a little bit). But also in that scene you see the atmosphere and beauty of that film, which makes it one of my all time favorites.
Leone made only a handful of films. Yet all were remarkable and distinctive. Prior to Once Upon a Time in the West, he did The Good the Bad and Ugly, his best known film. They are similar yet quite different. Much of atmosphere of a dusty desert with no clean cut heroes is the same, yet the whole plot of Once Upon a Time in the West would be told in less than half an hour of The Good the Bad and the Ugly.
Despite this, I really enjoy the way in which he slowly teases out the plot. The story is very simple, entirely predictable from the genre of the western. Yet the film drips the story out drop by drop, which keeps up the pacing and suspense.
Dialog is also at a premium, Tuco would take less than 30 minutes to rattle through this sparse script. The real dialog isn't spoken, it's seen in Leone's characteristic ultra close-ups. People don't explain what they are thinking, you have to see it through their expressions, which are not exaggerated as in traditional drama, but underplayed. Despite this it's not difficult to follow, so the story doesn't have the multiple interpretations that come along with Once Upon a Time in America, Leone's final masterpiece. I like a comment I've heard about this film "an opera where the arias aren't sung, they're stared"
This opera does have music, that of Ennio Morricone, whose distinctive sound featured in all of Leone's films. . Apparantly for this film, as with Once Upon a Time in America, they had the whole film scored before they did the shooting. The music and visuals are fused together with a memorable score that may not be Wagnerian in sound, but is certainly Wagnerian in its narrative intent.
So this is a slow film, with little action or dialog. It has a slow, hypnotic quality and I think there's a lot really going on. It's nice to have on DVD so I can give it the multiple watches I think this deserves. If you like this, you'll probably also appreciate the enigmatic Once Upon a Time in America. But although I love all the three films I've mentioned here, Once Upon a Time in the West just peeps above the others, in the same way that the harmonica plays it's haunting theme before that first gunfight.