After more than three decades when this movie appeared first on the silver screen, is has finally been released on DVD. It is the perfect format for this classic movie with its long playtime, grand scope and fantastic soundtrack. The DVD has some nice added features in the form of documentaries, featurettes, interviews and photo galleries. However, the most important is that the movie is shown in its full length, digitally remastered and with superior sound quality. This is a masterpiece that deserves nothing more than the best.
Unquestionably the best western ever and arguably one of the best movies of all time, this is truly one of my favourite films. I remember being impressed since seeing it for the first time and many times thereafter. The particular beauty of this movie is that its antagonists and protagonists share a common point on which they generally judge this movie: The long, silent scenes with their extreme close-ups. I am an ardent protagonist in this. I really do love the brilliant long scenes where apparently nothing happens. For instance, we see a guy struggling with a pesky fly on his face and water dripping on another guy’s a hat. People who say this is boring, haven’t understood that the real power in cinema lies in telling a story with as little words as necessary. What these languid scenes do is give a tangible depiction of the atmosphere and thus suck the viewer completely into the movie. You can feel the sun’s heat, taste the dust and anticipate the inevitable climax.
This movie has another unique quality: it has established the perfect marriage between image and music. Never were a movie and its score in such harmonious sync and did the music play such an integral part in the movie. Ennio Morricone, who’d worked with director Sergio Leone several times before, composed the perfect soundtrack with a separate theme for each main character. He’d finished the score before Leone started shooting -which is in itself quite unusual- therefore allowing Leone to play the music during the shooting of the scenes. Leone also used what he called ‘environmental music’, which meant that he used spontaneous sounds to accompany the silent images. A striking example is the ongoing squeak of the rusty windmill in the splendid opening sequence.
The plot of this film easily resembles that of a revenge movie, with the silent avenger Harmonica looking for the murderer of his brother. However, the film contains several subtle layers in which various themes are explored. Contrary to his early western movies, Leone greatly dismisses the usage of archetypal characters to portray the story’s ethics. The only archetypal character in this movie would be Frank, the ruthless killer, brilliantly played by Henry Fonda. He seems the most shallow character and stands for evil in its purest form. The motives of the mysterious Harmonica stay clouded until he finally confronts his Nemesis; the late Charles Bronson (R.I.P.) set the benchmark on how to play the cool avenger.
The charismatic rogue Cheyenne, fantastically played by Jason Robards, seems to be the last of a dying race of gentleman-outlaws and is responsible for tying everyone’s destiny together. Then there is Morton, played by Gabriele Ferzetti, who embodies the ever-increasing corruption and lust for money that got hold of the Wild West. His persona heralds the end of the old West; the West that was conquered by brave men with nothing more than determination, a strong horse and a quick gun. And last, but certainly not least, there is the smouldering character of Jill, played by the unearthly beautiful Claudia Cardinale. What a fantastic woman! Few women looked so good in a movie. She plays an interesting role, since Leone previously used to depict women as either a pure Madonna or an anonymous whore. Here he incorporated his first independent role of a real woman who tries to get by in a hostile and male-dominated world. Incidentally, Jill embodies both the Madonna as the whore persona, but she ultimately shows how a woman with a basically good nature tries to survive.
With this movie, Leone wanted to carry his western-period to the grave, by making the mother-of-all westerns. He depicts a West that now has almost been completely conquered and where the hard-working pioneers are being replaced by greedy, power-mongering businessmen. This is shown by the relentless advance of the railroad, which was to connect the Wild West to the civilised world. Leone had another symbolic gesture in mind for his last western: for the opening scene (where three hitmen are supposed to kill Harmonica, but get shot themselves) he wanted to cast Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee van Cleef, the cast of his previous western movie The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. By shooting them in the first act, he wanted to symbolically bury his western-period. Unfortunately, Eastwood declined and the scene had to be shot with different actors.
For 35 years, this movie has captivated many audiences and has won a lot of admirers. As far as cinematography goes it has set the standard on techniques like extreme close-ups, dramatic full-screen pan-shots and long, painting-like scenes. The fantastic soundtrack is still the world’s best-selling movie score ever and now -with the movie being done justice on the DVD-format- let’s hope it will do the same for the movie.
I (obviously) rate this ***** out of 5.
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