Sergio Leone's epic Western Once Upon a Time in the West will be screened as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Gold Standard screening series on Friday, June 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
The screening will mark the West Coast premiere of a new restoration, courtesy of Paramount Pictures, and the 40th anniversary of the film's Italian release. (The Italo-American Once Upon a Time in the West hit U.S. screens in May 1969.)
I'm no fan of Spaghetti Westerns, and Once Upon a Time in the West is no exception. Had I been Mr. Average Filmgoer back in the 1960s, Clint Eastwood – with whom Leone worked on A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – would never have become a star.
That said, the mammoth Once Upon a Time in the West merits a big-screen look. For starters, Clint Eastwood is not in it. Former villain Charles Bronson plays the laconic hero, while former hero Henry Fonda plays the most vicious villain west of the rising sun. Rounding out the prestigious cast are Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, and veteran Lionel Stander.
Leone approaches the film, from a story by himself, Dario Argento, and Bernardo Bertolucci, in a manner that both builds upon and demolishes the myth of the American West. There are the frontier towns, the brawls, the hangings, the murders, the railroad, the lone ranger, the vistas – all in widescreen. And there are also tons of dust, grime, dirt, blood, and blinding sunlight – all also in widescreen.
The characters – whether hero or villain – look ugly, unkempt, coarse, heartless. Bloodlust, power, greed, revenge, fear are what motivate them. Progress (or what passes for it) will apparently come in spite of those pioneers.
And then Ennio Morricone shows up to transform all that ugliness and nastiness into poetry by way of the most haunting score ever composed for a film.
The restoration of Once Upon a Time in the West was made possible by The Film Foundation and the Rome Film Festival (whose budget may be slashed by Rome's newly elected right-wing mayor) in association with Sergio Leone Productions and Paramount Pictures. (I do hope they've fixed the poor dubbing that rendered some of the film's dialogue incomprehensible.)
Tickets to Once Upon a Time in the West are $5 for the general public and may be purchased online at www.oscars.org, in person at the Academy box office or by mail. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The Samuel Goldwyn Theater is located at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. All seating is unreserved. For more information, call (310) 247-3600.
Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library.