Once Upon A Time In The West (DVD)
As much as anyone, with the possible exception of Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda was the face of decency in American cinema–a gentle, blue-eyed beanpole who exuded a quiet authority that was never imperious, perhaps because his plainspoken drawl identified him as a man of the people. The Grapes Of Wrath, The Lady Eve, and Young Mr. Lincoln paint him as an unusually sturdy and even powerful figure, but with a trace of naïveté, unsullied by knowledge of corruption in the world. All of which helps make his shocking appearance in Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West one of the great introductions in film history. Hovering over a little boy after his henchmen slaughter the kid's entire family, Fonda not only knows evil, but also embodies it in every inch of his towering frame. Unmoved by compassion or pity, he considers sparing the harmless boy, until one of his men reveals his name, which makes squeezing the shotgun trigger a cold-blooded practicality. But in Leone's epic story of growing pains in the Wild West, Fonda is merely one of four larger-than-life figures who stand literally at the juncture of progress, fighting over a train line that stands to drag the lawless frontier into civilization. Though Clint Eastwood popularized the stoic "Man With No Name" hero in Leone Westerns such as The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, the compact Charles Bronson plays the role like a coiled snake, potent in his seeming tranquility. ("He's whittling a piece of wood," goes one of many memorable lines. "I have a feeling that when he stops whittling, something's going to happen.") Blowing a five-note theme on his harmonica, Bronson and escaped bandit Jason Robards team up against Fonda, who has plans to seize lucrative property around the new railroad being laid outside a burgeoning Arizona town. After killing an entrepreneur with the foresight to know where the tracks will run, Fonda contends with the man's widow (Claudia Cardinale), a luscious New Orleans whore who proves tough to pry from her inheritance. The slow-burning plot, with major elements stolen from Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar by such high-grade thieves as Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, leads to a classic showdown between Bronson and Fonda. As biographer Christopher Frayling notes in the audio commentary, the violence in Leone's work happens at the speed of a lightning draw–unlike, say, the slo-mo bloodletting in Sam Peckinpah films–but the buildup moves at a tense crawl. Without seeming overly deliberate, Leone lingers over the sensual elements in a scene, from the contours of Cardinale's face to the symphony of natural sounds (a creaky windmill, a buzzing fly, water dripping on a cowboy hat) in the famous opening-credits sequence. Working from his memories of American Westerns (according to photographer Tonino Delli Colli, he divined precisely where John Ford placed his camera in Monument Valley), Leone infuses borrowed ideas and images with an overwhelmingly cinematic, dreamlike intensity. The long-awaited DVD honors his best film with a superb, well-organized tag-team commentary that includes Leone experts Frayling and Sheldon Hall, collaborators like Bertolucci, and accomplished admirers such as John Carpenter, John Milius, and Alex Cox, who each discuss a certain sequence or series of scenes before passing the baton to someone else. It's too bad that the innovations don't bleed into the other supplements, which basically reuse the same talking heads for three interchangeable featurettes. Yet while it's never good for DVDs to have extras for the sake of extras, the excess seems right for Once Upon A Time In The West, which deserves all the reverence it can get.