Last week, I rented Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West on Netflix. I had fond but vague memories of it, and I watched it and enjoyed it, then watched the commentary and enjoyed it less.
Let me say some nice things first. It was great casting to make Henry Fonda the psychotic villain Frank. There are roles against type that Fonda took in his career that didn't work very well, but he was really good as a psychotic villain. Also, there's the long scenes with almost no dialog, Leone's trademark. At the beginning of the film, three bad men are waiting at a train station. The two most recognizable are Jack Elam and Woody Strode. The train comes late and no one gets off, or so it seems. Actually, Charles Bronson got off the train, but on the other side, away from the platform.
He came to see Frank. Frank sent them instead.
"Did you bring a horse for me?" Bronson asks.
"Looks like we brought one horse too few." says Elam, smiling.
Bronson shakes his head. "You brought two too many."
Six gunshots. Three dead bad guys.
The plot revolves around the railroad. Like in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, there are three main male characters, with Bronson as the quiet hero, Fonda as the psychotic killer and Jason Robards as the comic relief not-all-bad criminal. Unlike other Leone films, there's a major role for a woman, with Claudia Cardinale as a prostitute from New Orleans who comes west to marry a man who is killed the day she arrives. The movie gives you what you want from a western; panoramic views and gritty close-ups, great movie music from Ennio Morricone. I decided to watch it again with the commentary.
That was my first mistake.
Leone died in 1989 of a heart attack at the age of 60. He isn't part of the commentary. All three of the male leads are dead as well. There are some pretentious British film historians (are there any other kind?) who start the commentary, and then it's handed off to filmmakers who were influenced by Leone. One is John Milius. No living filmmaker takes the Brave Men of Action genre more seriously. He's made some good films, but when he runs his mouth, he just doesn't know when to shut up. He recalls an anecdote about a female New York film critic who didn't care for Leone. Milius tells her, "When you are an old woman, Leone's name will be spoken in hushed tones. By young girls."
John, pay some attention to the world. The vast majority of Sergio Leone fans are men, and their average age is getting older every year.
But the commentary that sealed the deal was by Alex Cox, director of Repo Man and others. He noted that there's a scene where Henry Fonda breaks in on Claudia Cardinale, stars to rape her, then the scene goes outside to a location far from the house where Cardinale is, where Fonda tortures a railroad tycoon, then back to Cardinale where he finishes raping her, though Leone plays it like a love scene. Cox points out that this makes no sense. It doesn't even follow the rules of flashbacks. The movie has been cut and re-edited several times, with a different version first showing in the theaters, but what is on the DVD was Leone's final cut, and another filmmaker who likes Leone's work points out that it makes no sense.
There was one fun fact from the commentary. Claudia Cardinale, who looks like she made it into films on Sophia Loren's coattails the way a lot of blondes made it in Hollywood looking a little bit like Marilyn Monroe, was a Tunisian beauty queen and spoke no Italian when she was first cast in Italian films. At home, she spoke French.
In conclusion, if you like westerns, you might want to give the movie a shot. But avoid the commentary. It will just make you sad.