Adam’s final day at the festival is a go big, and go home proposition as he watches Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West on the biggest damn screen possible, made all the more unique by the John Sayles introduction.
Parting is such sweet sorrow as the saying goes.
Another wonderful year for the TCM Film Festival. 2018 felt crowded, in a way that the festival has never been before. It does account for missing a few of the screenings I did. Though this is not a complaint, merely an observation. This is the reality of a growing Film Festival. The “to capacity” screenings become more prevalent. The TCM Film Festival is one of the films that I do love to see grow and will take these as a happy consequence. The growth means more people are seeing classic films. It also means that TCM is able to acquire more films, possibly films that they were not able to in the past. Films like the one that I had closed my festival experience with.
Once Upon a Time in the West
To ensure I had my seating preference, I showed up well before the 9:00 am start time. This was the film of films for me at the festival. There is always one film no matter what else happens you are going to make that film no matter what the cost. This was that film for me.
John Sayles introduced the film. Some of his talking points were; the impact the film had on Cinema as a whole, how Leone was offered a huge budget by Paramount to direct another western, and how this was his favorite western. A film he has seen influence so many others including The Quick and the Dead which Sayles wrote a few drafts of for Sam Raimi.
Few films have the majestic pageantry of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. In the film, Leone found the perfect direction, writing, acting, and score. Building on the experimental work he did in The Dollars’ Trilogy, this is the evolution of Leone. This is his thesis statement not just on the Western but Cinema itself. Many will argue other films are Leone’s best, which simply isn’t the case. None of his films feel as perfectly formed as Once Upon a Time in the West. It stands above and beyond reproach and is the purest distillation of cinema the director ever produced. The control and understanding that Leone exhibits in the film rivals that of Hitchcock, Ford, Kurosawa, or Spielberg’s finest work. To watch Once Upon a Time in the West is to watch a director in complete control over his medium.
The film tells the story of revenge, greed, manifest destiny, westward expansion, and its ultimate cost at the end of the West. Frank (Henry Fonda), Harmonica (Charles Bronson), Cheyenne (Jason Robards), and Jill (Claudia Cardinale) swirl around one another all trying to achieve different levels of nefarious goals each has. Leone takes simple archetypes of The Black Hat, The Gunslinger, The Rogue, and The Whore, upending them to the story’s need. It is not that you haven’t seen these tired and true characters-types, its that Leone gives the heft and weight of a story from the Old Testament. They are almost mythic. Playing out their roles with a sense of inevitability that gives everything a larger than life quality. The story of Cain and Abel played out with six shooters.
As the story unfolds Leone makes one feel as though this is a myth beyond time. A time, a place, people that never existed. A West of Leone’s dreams. The West of Cinema, not the history of the West as many directors now attempts to achieve, Leone’s own commentary on what he himself aggrandized years earlier. Once Upon a Time in the West is as much a spiritual cousin to Ford’s The Searchers as it is a rejection of the John Ford West. In fact, Ford and Leone succeed at exactly to that end… the rejection of the Cinematic Western of the time.
The film was not Leone’s last Western, Duck, You Sucker would have that distinction, but it feels as though it was the director’s final say on the matter and cinema as a whole. In some respects Once Upon a Time in the West was the final moment that Westerns mattered. The film ending with modernism and western expansion winning over the dream and myth of the Cowboy. With little dialog and sumptuous visuals, in its final moments, the film feels like Visconti’s The Leopard. Showing us the slow death march of a society, men, and women outmoded, unable to adapt to the changing tide.
Nothing could be more fitting to end with. Until Next year I hope some of you consider going to the festival. Maybe my reports helped convince you to dare to be great. To come to the Festival and revel in the beauty of Classic Cinema in all its forms. It would be the perfect festival to begin with as TCM will be celebrating it’s Tenth Anniversary. Until next time…