Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bambi (1942)

The day I first saw Jurassic Park at the Empire Leicester Square, my little sister also saw Bambi for the first time at the Odeon Colchester. It was, likewise for her, a pivotal cinematic experience. For successive generations of children (before the age of DVD), there was a whole cycle of classics (as they truly deserve to be called) which the Disney studio had the canny sense to release every decade or so for every succeeding generation of young children, who knew a timeless classic when they saw one.

If you want the rites of passage story, quintessentially this is it, translated in anthropomorphic terms, playing on children's sentimental fondness for animals, within some beautifully natural settings. The Disney studio could not surpass this film for standards in animation (Fantasia and others have only matched it) from what was unquestionably their Golden Era. The opening, atmospheric, multi-plane animated tracking shot through the forest (accompanied buy some great music throughout the film) sets its stall out quite magically from the first.

To heighten the atmosphere, Disney and his animators worked very hard to draw authentic deer (bringing live ones into the artists' studio to study their movements), away from their hitherto cartoony approach to most of their main characters. The potentially heavy subject matter combined with the obsession for naturalism was offset however by the light relief engendered through the other animal characters in the woods - less naturalistic than the deer, and therefore open for much more comedic possibilities. "Flower" the skunk is quite an endearing character, so too the Wise Owl, but the most memorable comic creation in Bambi is Thumper the rabbit, who has most of the best gags and the most peerless of wisdom, including a maxim (taught by his father rabbit) that many a critic would do well to heed:

"If ya can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all."


The saddest, most powerful scene in children's cinema is where Bambi looks back through the snowy meadow, and wonders where his mother has disappeared to. Scores of children through the decades have sat in the cinema (or nowadays, in the living room), with perplexed confusion and uncertainty, sometimes giving way to tearfulness, asking their parents what's happened

For my part, when I first saw Bambi at the Odeon Aylesbury in 1978, like most children I wasn't without my own share of tears (and in some ways, still am), but in later years I can look back with an equal amount of poignancy at the quiet, commanding but moving presence of the father figure, particularly at the end when the now fully grown Bambi takes his place, and the former Great Prince of the Forest quietly departs.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Jurassic Park (1993)

Saturday, 17th July 1993: the day is etched in my memory as being quite a memorable one. Thanks to my friend Craig Stevens' skills in getting an opening weekend ticket, I watched the first big screen release in the UK of Steven Spielberg's latest blockbuster - the day when cinema special effects moved up to the next level.

Never mind that cinema was changing from that day onward; it was just a bloody good film; one that reaffirmed Spielberg's ailing career after his previous efforts - in particular his previous film Hook had packed in his loyal audience, but few of them or the critics were moved. The sight of a giant inanimate crocodile devouring Captain Hook was supplanted a year later by the far greater cinematic image of a terrifying velociraptor attack, and the mighty T-Rex telling everybody who's boss on Isla Nublar.

The genesis of this cinema landmark came from the playfully imaginative mind of the late Michael Crichton, who made a buck or two out of his own scientific thrillers, as much as Dan Brown made a mint out of exploiting archaeology and religion, and Ian Fleming from the intelligence service. A little knowledge, it seems, goes a long way.

The template for Jurassic Park was Crichton's own 1973 cult sci-fi thriller Westworld: a seemingly idyllic theme park where guests can live their dreams and be characters in the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome, or the Wild West, without any fear of damage to their person - until of course, the science begins to show its imperfections and things start to go wrong. The thrilling sight of Yul Brynner's robotic gunfighter relentlessly pursuing hapless Richard Benjamin through the various worlds was scary, quirky, and of course highly far-fetched, but Crichton was having fun staging the ultimate Wild West chase, with a 1970's spin.

The climactic third act of Jurassic Park very much mimics that of Westworld, where supporting characters (among them a pre-stardom Samuel L. Jackson) intrinsic to the running of the theme park curiously disappear or get killed off, leaving the heroes - and the antagonists - to fend for themselves. Among the latter is Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), a rare case of stereotyping by Spielberg, portraying the film's chief catalyst as a fat, fast-food eating slob of a computer wizard, whose hi-tech skills lead him to greedily steal the precious DNA samples, and who in the process shuts down the fences during a particularly badly timed storm, which unleashes the dinosaurs - whom inevitably, claim Nedry as their first victim.

Those among the heroes left behind therefore to deal with the mayhem are Dr. Ellie Sadler (the always excellent Laura Dern) and her business/life partner Dr. Alan Grant, played in droll fashion by Sam Neill, the cinematic man for all seasons whether in British or Antipodean comedy or drama, or the supernatural (such as the adult Damien in The Final Conflict) and science fiction, not just for Spielberg but also subsequent cult items such as the TV series Space and cult Australian comedy The Dish.

Also most notably making a return to acting after 16 years behind the camera was Richard Attenborough as billionaire John Hammond, the book's original Frankenstein figure, but here translated by Spielberg and Crichton into a much more jovial and only marginally Machiavellian owner of the theme park (clearly modelled on Walt Disney), who is as much a victim of the science as anyone else. Hammond's mentality in Spielberg's version is essentially that of the showman or movie producer who wants to produce a great spectacle (and Attenborough himself has certainly made his own fair share of spectaculars such as Gandhi), and leaving scientific morality to the philosophers (and the scientists). In a sense, Hammond also mirrors elements of Steven Spielberg.

The scientific Devil's Advocate therefore, shows up in the presence of the wisecracking "chaotitian" Dr. Ian Malcolm, a great cameo for Jeff Goldblum. Just as Star Wars had its cynical Han Solo-type figure, so does Jurassic Park have its cynical protagonist in the shape of Golblum's character who voices the film's scientific conscience ("You're scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could they didn't stop to think if they should!") - although as most science boffins will tell you, a lot of the science of Jurassic Park is highly theoretical - the sight of the T-Rex on the Jurassic logo is Cretaceous Era rather than the Jurassic Era. But what did it matter, the very idea - no matter how improbable - that dinosaurs and Man could share the Earth in the modern world, is still chilling and thrilling. The film, and the book, are very much the most gloriously conceived science faction.


Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) flirts with Dr. Elly Sadler (Laura Dern). The flirtations were off-camera as well as on.


The discreetly hidden name - one might say the ghost editor - behind Spielberg's huge success was that of George Lucas. It was he who supervised the editing - and of course, the special effects - of Jurassic Park whilst Spielberg was away in Poland shooting Schindler's List - considered by many to be his masterpiece.

I have failed to mention in the course of this blog, Spielberg's familiar well-established working relationship with child actors. In this respect he was also well served by two exemplary members of that breed, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello (outstanding in Shadowlands and also Kubrick's original choice for the boy android in A.I.), who become the gullible victims of the dinosaurs. By the end there's no question of who's in charge of Jurassic Park once the T-Rex bursts his (or rather, her) way through the complex, as the slogan "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" is knocked off its perch. Spielberg was so impressed by Industrial Light & Magic's work that he installed an eleventh hour ending for the T-Rex to give him his true star power. It was a pivotal moment, both in the story and in the field of cinema special effects.

The velociraptors prove too hot to handle, and are soon stalking young Timmy (Joseph Mazzello) in the kitchen: Spielberg's homage to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

Okay, plotwise the original story takes a hike once the dinosaurs take over, but this was always Michael Crichton's point anyway. Spielberg returned to the original novel in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (the one and only time he has filmed a sequel) which covered some of the darker elements that he didn't dare cover first time around, and a second sequel (with Sam Neill again) returned to the slightly more tongue-in-cheek aspects of the first film.

Looking back to that pleasant July day in'93, coming out of the cinema into Leicester Square was something akin to stepping off a fairground ride. There were those among us who were disappointed at the plot's shortcomings compared to the chilling original, but as a cinematic entertainment it could not be faulted and marked the beginning of a new era.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

It's a cynical truism in the eyes of many that a suspect is Guilty until proven Innocent (as a character says in Star Wars spoof Troops, "all suspects are guilty, if they weren't guilty they wouldn't be suspects!") - certainly in a jury like this one. In all the times I've listened to or read about court cases, it perplexes me how seemingly obvious guilty (or innocent) suspects can be forensically scrutinized and pared down to the bone so that the slightest bit of evidence can be disproved. This I realise, is too often the syndrome of personal prejudice.

Step into this corrupt world the man in the white suit: Henry Fonda, as the anonymous (as they all are) Juror No. 8, imbued with all of Fonda's integrity and just a hint of suppressed insecurity; a pet project of Fonda's, it was he who successfully lured Sidney Lumet into faithfully transferring Reginald Rose's gripping TV play onto the big screen, for which international cinema can be eternally grateful.

There can be fewer better first films than this one, exemplifying the theory that when unleashed on a new medium for the first time the artist is at his greatest: I confess I find much of Lumet's work (with one or two exceptions) painfully laboured and dull, but here his camera angles and build up of tension make it his most cinematic film of the lot, and all practically within the setting of one room.

That the subject itself was also riveting and unusual probably helped: in 90 per cent of films with court cases the jury is the bunch of people who retire (and in some of the more cliched trials don't even have to do that) to consider their verdict. The twist here is that this is the first scene of the film and not the last. We are briefly afforded a glimpse of the defendant himself, which is perhaps a dangerous move as his nervous little face clearly informs how the drama will develop - whereas without him we the audience can become just as prejudicial as those in the jury room.

Not just Lumet, but his brilliant ensemble cast (who were so well rehearsed in their roles to have done the play on tour had they wished) all deserve their mention, not just Henry Fonda. Starting with the Foreman himself (Martin Balsam), an inwardly proud but humbled, self-effacing man, like so many of Balsam's later characters, who performs his tricky role as coordinator of the 12 as meekly or as unobtrusively as he thinks he ought to, and never tries to make his personal opinions or prejudices known, either one way or the other. Balsam quickly became a Lumet favourite.

The Foreman however is upstanding and strong-willed in coparison to Juror No. 2, a funny little man as played with expert diligence by John Fiedler, but much smarter than he looks or sounds, often spoken down to by the bigger brutes in the jury who think they Know Better, of whom the most ballistic of the lot is Juror No. 3 (the explosive Lee J. Cobb), a man of deeply troubled convictions who can't help but compare the accused in the dock with his own troublesome son, and thereby becomes the hardest of the twelve nuts to crack. Next to him comes the second hardest, Juror No. 4 (E.G. Marshall) who is in some ways, the flip side of Fonda: an intelligent, educated man, but also very clinical, and for whom the supposed facts of the case easily match the crime.

Juror No. 5 (Jack Klugman) is on the surface, the vulnerable weakling of the jury, quickly betraying his slum origins similar to those of the defendant. It is to the credit of Klugman's skill and versatility that he can play such a nervous outcast as expertly as his later TV work (such as Quincy and The Odd Couple).

Edward Binns is Juror No. 6, another brilliantly versatile character actor, playing to his minor misfortune the least dramatically interesting of the twelve jurors: a principled working man - but only as far as it goes ("I don't suppose, my boss does the supposing..."), perhaps the typical average juror.

The most enjoyable of the twelve is the goofy but still prejudiced Juror No. 7, whose only passion is getting to the ball game on time - the first of many splendid star character roles for Jack Warden.

Next to Fonda is the wonderful Joseph Sweeney as Juror No. 9, the elder statesman of the group who naturally shrivels into the crowd at first (sympathising with one fellow elderly gent in the witness stand), but as the discussion in the jury room grows, so too does his confidence, and it is he who uncovers the key piece of evidence that swings the jury's verdict...

...unlike Juror No. 10 (played with commendable belligerence by Ed Begley), a racist bigot who huffs and puffs (and coughs) his way through his one-sided point of view, ultimately into self submission.

He is also irritated by the obsequious politeness of Juror No. 11 (Russian character actor George Voskovec), who has the perfect riposte to No. 10: it's the way he was brought up. A token immigrant New York presence in the twelve perhaps, but once again, brilliantly and thoughtfully played and sympathetically written. Finally there comes the slick operator Juror No. 12, whose vacuous world of advertising is as far removed from the defendant's as can be possibly imagined ("We were lucky to get a murder trial. I figured us for an assault or burglary, boy those can be the dullest. Hey, is that the Woolworth building?") and played to perfection by another future TV face, Robert Webber.

From all this it is apparent how the verdict will turn out, but it makes the process of watching it unfold all the more riveting. It is rare to find a film where all of the actors give excellent, well-thought out characterisation in almost every level of the drama, not only in the jury room but also in the judge's summing up at the end of the trial...and the finale where all the jurors descend the steps of New York's County Courthouse (below), taking all their prejudices - good or bad - out with them, but not without effect: the last of the jurors to descend the steps is the soberly thoughtful Juror No. 3.


Thursday, 7 April 2011

Cabaret (1972)

On the surface, the title suggests simple pleasures and delicious vice in fishnet tights and glamorous (or otherwise) performers in a hot, steamy setting. In the 1970's this was very much the image that was cultivated in publicity - that, and Liza Minnelli in a bowler hat.

But dig deeper. There is a reason why this "divine decadence" is so compelling. I track back to 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall. The history of that city had long held a fascination for me, and it was shortly afterwards that I started reading William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, so the whole atmosphere of that period in Berlin had long intrigued me. The tyranny of the Nazi era was infamous and inhumane, but what preceded it is a poignant and compelling illustration of the decadent calm before the storm.

I first became connected with Cabaret (based on Christopher Isherwood's atmospheric semi-memoir I am a Camera) in 1993, when the East Anglian Daily Times featured an article advertising a new theatre group in Walton-on-Naze asking for actors and performers. I had only a vague awareness of Bob Fosse's classic film version, but the reminder that it was set in 1930's Berlin set ears a-twinkling with interest - it's not just about Liza Minnelli, I realise, it's also about the rise of the Nazis.

Weimar Germany was a prime example of what happens when the people get too much of a good thing. Almost by accident or by default, the old ways of the Kaiser were set aside in the course of Germany's severest economic depression, and out of it came an outpouring of artistic frankness - a similar sense to the expression of free love in the 1960s - which is one reason why this subject appealed to the America of that decade, and still has resonances today.

It led however, in almost tragic operatic fashion, to the sweeping rise of Nazism which trounced it - the perfect subject for a Berthold Brecht/Kurt Weill-style opera on the subject. John Kander and Fred Ebb tapped into this rich field, and fashioned the first version of the musical as a grand vehicle not only for the seediness of 1930's Berlin, but also as a partial vehicle for Kurt Weil's widow Lotte Lenya as Fraulein Schneider (as also played by Jean Murphie in 1994, right), the tragic elderly landlady of Christopher Isherwood, in a fictionalised romance with a Jewish greengrocer, Herr Schultz.

To get onto the Broadway stage, it had to overcome many obstacles, not the least of which was the Jewish sensibilities towards the many anti-Semitic overtones, including the sight of a gorilla - Jewish by implication - dancing romantically with the Kit Kat Club's Master of Ceremonies (the unforgettable Joel Grey), and many other satirical moments, which were a true picture of Berlin society and the cabarets and nightspots (many of them Jewish owned) that painted the picture of the attitudes and social mores of the time.

In the local production, I played Ernst Ludwig, the charismatic smuggler of illicit goods into Germany from abroad - who it later turns out, is using these ill-gotten gains to fund the Nazi cause. I based the character on Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, a confidant of Hitler in the early 30's but also a reveller in the sleazy nightlife of Berlin which Hitler was later to exterminate. It was my first realisation that the evil of Nazism had a face. Any demonisation of them would distort the historical context and render them one-dimensional fantasy figures.

(That same year saw the release of Schindler's List in British cinemas, which saw another vicious Nazi, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) portrayed in a semi-sympathetic light in order to try and get into the head of the man, or perhaps more importantly for Steven Spielberg, to understand the reason for such evil.)

The production was a great fun, provocative, entertaining and thoughtful experience, in the process of which I had resisted the urge to watch the 1972 film until afterwards in the spring of 1994.

The film digests some of the operatic theatricality of the musical; it transposes and, where necessary, edits and amends it, back into the real world, bringing Isherwood's Berlin to life. Whilst some of these phases are sluggish, the general atmosphere of underlining decadent sleaziness, mostly in the setting of the Kit-Kat Klub, where most of the original songs from the musical are retained, makes for a brilliant juxtaposition with the growing political and sociological upheval.

And then, to play the starring role, Kander & Ebb found the ideal choice that they'd had in mind from the first: Liza Minnelli, who embodies not only the unflappable spirit of Sally Bowles (American style) but also brings on board the spirit of her mother Judy Garland - particularly in the moving solo "Maybe This Time", one of many extra songs written for the film.

In truth, the stage version captures the political implications much better than the film, but one unforgettable scene (transposed from the stage) still remains: at a seemingly innocent, idyllic outdoor beerkeller, the merriment is interrupted (and embellished) by the sound of an Aryan boy singing a beautiful solo, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" - which in seconds becomes a rousing Nazi anthem, supported by nearly all of the crowd in one giant statement of ominous national fervour. Fosse brilliantly intercuts this with the image of one older gentleman, sitting unmoved at his table whilst all the others are singing - and the MC cuts in just at the end, with a sly, silent grin on his face.

Visually, Fosse's vibrant direction and Minnelli and Grey's performing dominate, but Michael York is also an excellent version of Christopher Isherwood, "Brian Roberts" (although Isherwood himself was mildly offended at the notion of his character being bisexual, when it seems he rarely had any physical attraction towards Sally Bowles.)

Most aficionados of Cabaret will come to it out of their appreciation of Liza Minnelli and then learn about the political context. I came to it from the opposite angle: Liza Minnelli was the finishing touch.

A landmark stage musical became an even more notable film. Both are classics of their medium.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

King Kong (1933)


If you'd shown me this particular picture at the age of six, that would probably be as much as I would ever need to see of King Kong. It was around this same time that the (inferior) 1976 remake came along, which, I failed to realise at the time, was a new version of the story and NOT the terrifying original - when the subject of awards came along that year, and the film was nominated for a BAFTA for "special effects", the announcer uttered the words "And the nominations are...King Kong!", and in terror I immediately switched off the television, for fear that the BAFTAs would show clips from the film...

To young children, the idea of anything giant coming down to destroy them was a motif of primal fear, and Kong was probably the ultimate expression of this (the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park don't even come close.) There were adults too, such as film producer Merian C. Cooper who had nightmares on the subject: the idea of Kong came to him once when he dreamt of a mighty beast at the top of the Empire State Building. Whether he intended it as a means of scari
ng babies is doubtful; what he and his collaborator Ernst Schoedsack were interested in back in the 1930's was exploration - cinematic exploration, to faraway lands and bringing the seemingly impossible to the screen in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard and many others.

In this case, the particular lost world in question is the suitably named Skull Island, where egotistic filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) - a thinly veiled version of Merian Cooper - has learned (goodness knows how) of a something on the island, mighty and monstrous. A thing named Kon
g.

Having already created vivid monsters in the likes of The Lost World and various other primitive monster films using hand-drawn or frame-by-frame animation, Hollywood found its Monster Man in Willis O'Brien: he and his protegee Ray Harryhausen went on to define a whole generation o
f often hokey but always inventive "creature features". Not only his meticulous animation, but significantly O'Brien's characterisation of Kong was the genius that made this film what it is today.


The creators of the Kong legend: Merian Cooper, Willis O'Brien, Fay Wray and Ernst Schoedsack

It is on the surface, the Beauty and the Beast story to the Nth degree. I've never fully accepted this analogy, as this particular Beast is so HUGE. Nor does he transfer into a handsome young prince - Kong is what he is: a sheer, unbridled mass of bestiality, and we love him all the more for it.

The brilliance of the enterprise is the scale on which O'Brien and the directors achieve in depicting the story, from amusing conceits such as giving Kong a big enough door for him to be able to walk through and terrorize the Skull Islanders, to the rightly famous climax on the world's tallest building.

Only on occasions does the effect reach tacky and unconvincing proportions, with occasional close-ups of a mechanical full-scale K
ong head, that by today's standards shows up as technically naive and fleetingly spoils the suspense - something which Peter Jackson ironed out and "improved" for his overlong 2004 remake. That, and the screaming of Kong's would-be bride, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).

Another image of childhood terror, the giant hand reaching in to grab you (production sketch).

Wray had already become associated with the fantastic in thrillers such as Doctor X and The Vampire Bat, as well as working with Ernst Schoedsack in The Most Dangerous Game, a macabre mystery set on a remote island and laying some of the groundwork for King Kong. In truth, her repertoire for this, her most famous film role, is not much more than having to look pretty, sitting in a ginormous hand, flapping her legs in defiance, and screaming - like blue murder! It became her forte, and although she admitted herself that her own natural reaction to the monster would be stunned silence, the cavalier Merian Cooper (and Carl Denham) exploited their leading lady to the full, for what film producers perceive to be great horror. Fay Wray was a good enough screamer for people to forget that she was also quite a good (and spirited) actress.


On watching Kong for the first time at long last (in the safety of home during the daytime), my preconceived tears of fear had given way to tears of sadness - Kong has a heart and is fallible after all, like the rest of us. As the Empire State's most famous tourist eventually plummets from the 103rd floor, the aggrieved Carl Denham (whom you secretly wish had been the one to fall off the building instead) looks on at his prize act in a moment of reflection. "It wasn't the airplanes, it was beauty killed the beast."



The viewing gallery at the top floor of the Empire State Building

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

As one generation of blockbuster follows another, this film seems to get better and better with age.

It's ironic to think of the city of Baghdad in the context of more recent troubles, when this glorious film is very much by contrast the stuff of dream-like adventure. Equally ironic is that although the height of fantasy, it was made during the darkest days of World War II, with Alexander Korda's beloved Denham Studios too unsafe for filming, so production was switched to Hollywood, and some very American rocky mountains.

Apparently it was also an utter mess of an undertaking, but a spendid mixture of the exotic, the fantastic, and the humorous production. It's fascinating to delve through and wonder which of the various directors helmed which (Tim Whelan, Ludwig Berger, even Michael Powell, and others), when ultimately the presiding genius over it was Korda.

His scheme was to adapt the epic romantic sweep of the Arabian Knights utilising his two most popular stars of the time: Sabu and Conrad Veidt. Sabu was the star of Elephant Boy and also the original Mowgli The Jungle Book, and whose popularity was rocketing skywards, for which Abu the thief became his lasting legacy, whilst Conrad Veidt had a loyal female following as the mysterious, velvet-voiced romantic hero/villain of The Spy in Black - so The Thief of Bagdad was very much designed as a way of drawing in these two audiences together into the box office.

Abu enters the enclave of the All-Seeing Eye. Arachnophobes beware...

Indeed, the film unfolds very much like two separate narratives revolving around these two figures, with Sabu's impish, adventure-seeking thief who'd probably steal from his mother if he could (and maybe he had!) but has a heart of gold which will fulfill a prophecy, and the terrifyingly magnetic Veidt trying to woo the beautiful June Duprez (as a nameless but quintessential princess) under the nose of her eccentrically oblivious father (Miles Malleson) who is much more besotted with his toy collection - and in particular Jaffar's magical flying horse.

In these days when villains have to be "justified" or given "realistic" terrorist-like motivations, there's just no need to explain Jaffar's villainy; he just is, but with a compelling undertone of devotion that prevents him from hypnotizing the princess into loving him.

Whilst the winsome romantic leads (Duprez and John Justin) are very much idealised heroes who are made for each other, it is Abu and Jaffar who have much more fun and relish - as also does Rex Ingram in one of the great film-stealing cameos. It's no surprise to learn that Ingram's characterisation of the Genie was the inspiration for the same character in Aladdin as voiced by Robin Williams.

It's a film since cherished by the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and many others. Indeed, one can see in Star Wars all the the elements of heroism that can be traced back to the Thief of Bagdad: the mysticism, the evil wizard, the wizened sage, the beautiful princess, the roguish smuggler hero, and perhaps most significantly, the magical special effects, which by today's CGI standards might seem primitive, but come with that key secret ingredient: enchantment.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

A few years ago when a group of us were putting together ideas for an experimental film, we discussed ways to convey unusual visual metaphors in the camera, and a couple of us mentioned how we'd recently seen Once Upon a Time in the West on TV, and remembered in particular a recurring scene of a blurred figure on the horizon, constantly walking in the distance towards the camera. It is one of many indelible images that Sergio Leone would use in his films, and Once Upon a Time in the West is one of his finest, quirkiest, most haunting of epics.

Leone had of course, become famous for his "Spaghetti" Westerns, a new resurgence in the genre with Clint Eastwood immortally linked to the series, but otherwise mostly Italian actors pretending to be American (and seemingly deliberately badly dubbed), and filmed in the Spanish desert pretending to be the Wild West. They made a killing at the box office, in more ways than one. For some it was a cynical, violent reproach to the good old days of the Hollywood Western, but whether or not you liked the method of film making, they had an undeniably rich stylization about them, coupled with Ennio Morricone's lyrical music.

Both Leone and Morricone pulled out all the stops for this one.

Once Upon a Time in the West was also an opportunity for Leone to actually explore these American locations for real - production difficulties only allowed him to film in certain iconic locations such as Monument Valley (used for many a John Ford epic), but in a very unusual, distinctively Leonesque style.

Just take the beginning, where for a whole TEN minutes we have the credits lazily dragging themselves in, whilst three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock) sit around at the railroad station......waiting - for someone (Charles Bronson) who isn't going to get a pleasant reception. Legend has it that Leone wanted his three original stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach - to play the three assassins, who are thereby killed off within the first reel.

Soon after that, the body count doesn't get any lower, as an Irish family are unexpectedly and ruthlessly wiped out by an anonymous gang of killers, headed by: Henry Fonda, of all people - another of Leone's quirky and darkly cynical touches, turning the Western convention on its head by having Fonda, so often the image of upstanding, dependable American values, to be the ruthless psychopathic killer. It's casting which sits uncomfortably with his other roles, although in a sense it has a perfect logic: Fonda was so often the defender of men, women and children, so naturally he also becomes their exterminator, like the fallen angel: as one critic of the time put it, who else could do such a dreadful deed but Henry Fonda?

A moment of lost maternal comfort for Jill McBain.

It's hard to tell who exactly is the leading character in OUATITW: maybe each of the four main characters (five if we include Gabriele Ferzetti's railway tycoon) cover the various aspects of the West: the frontiersman's wife/widow Jill McBain (in the very Italian shape of Claudia Cardinale), or Fonda's evil gunman Frank, or Jason Robards in fine Doc Holliday-like form as Cheyenne, or Bronson's "man with no name", usually considered the lead role but here bizarrely given fourth billing.

Watching it nowadays, it seems quite acceptable to see Charles (Death Wish) Bronson in a film where loads of people are getting killed, but back in 1969 it was an unexpectedly startling moment - and the flashback scene where the mysterious man on the horizon is finally revealed - is one of the most memorable payoffs in cinema history.

Sergio Leone intended the film as a requiem to the Western of sorts, with the coming of the railroad signalling the beginning of the end of the old ways, and most of the characters are also experiencing the twilight of their active lives. Cheyenne is a grizzled gunfighter who's trod the fiery path many times, Bronson's character is a man with an old grudge, and Henry Fonda himself was already approaching middle age. It's poignant to think that those three actors - Fonda, Bronson, Robards - have all since, indeed, died; only Claudia Cardinale is the surviving member of the four principals.


The melancholy of the film is reflected by Ennio Morricone's beautiful score, with not just one but three main themes - the stirring and startling "Harmonica" theme which covers Henry Fonda's character quite well too, the rickety banjo of Cheyenne's theme, and the beautiful main theme to the McBain family and the railroad; a very operatic Italian perspective on the classic American Wild West. Long, violent, elegiac, and utterly absorbing.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films