Film Review: Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Also known as: C’era una volta in America (original Italian title)
Release Date: May 20th, 1984 (Cannes)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Jennifer Connelly, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, Darlanne Fluegel, Mario Brega, Estelle Harris, James Russo, Louise Fletcher (only in 2012 restoration)

The Ladd Company, Embassy International Pictures, PSO Enterprises, Rafran Cinematografic, Warner Bros., Titanus, 229 Minutes (original), 139 Minutes (original US release)

Review:

“Age can wither me, Noodles. We’re both getting old. All that we have left now are our memories. If you go to that party on Saturday night, you won’t have those anymore. Tear up that invitation.” – Deborah Gelly

I tried watching this about fifteen years ago but if I’m being completely honest, it bored me to tears. And I’m speaking as a guy that has a deep love for the films of Sergio Leone, a man who sits among the best in my Holy Trinity of Motion Picture Directors. The other two being Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick, naturally.

So years later, I felt that I really needed to revisit this, as maybe I wasn’t in the right head space and because I generally have a hard time sitting through movies that feel like they could take up an entire day. Well, this took up an entire afternoon and I did have to take a halftime break and make a ribeye.

But regardless of that, I really enjoyed this picture and I can’t deny that it is one of Leone’s best. In fact, I may have to edit my rankings of his films, as I would now put this third behind The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In the West.

What’s interesting, is that this movie has more in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy than Leone’s own pictures, which were mostly top tier spaghetti westerns. But like his westerns, he also employs the talents of musical maestro Ennio Morricone, who gives real life to the motion picture full of mostly understated performances.

This movie is incredibly slow paced but it’s that kind of slow pace that is more like a slow simmering stew of perfection than the chef accidentally setting the burner too low and walking away.

As far as the acting goes, this is a superb film. Robert De Niro and James Woods own every scene that they’re in. However, the supporting cast is also stupendous, especially the child actors, who play the main characters in lengthy flashback sequences.

This is also compelling in that it is full of unlikable, despicable characters yet you are lured into their world and you do find yourself caring where this is all going and how life will play out for these characters. You never like them but that’s kind of what makes this story so intriguing. With The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, there were things you could connect with and respect about the man, despite his crimes. In Once Upon A Time In America, you don’t really have moments with these characters that humanizes them all that much, in fact it does just the opposite of that. I can see where that might be bothersome to some people but we also live in a world where people saw Walter White from Breaking Bad as some sort of hero.

Once Upon A Time In America also shines in regard to its visual components. It’s a period piece that covers different periods, all of which come off as authentic, even if the city sometimes looks more like it was shot in Europe (some of it was) than truly being Depression Era New York City. But the sets and the location shooting all worked well and this picture boasts some incredible cinematography. It should be very apparent to fans of Leone that he’s taken what he’s learned making fabulous movies and found a way to perfect it, in a visual sense, even more with this, his final picture.

There’s not a whole lot I can pick apart about the movie, other than the pacing being slow. But again, it’s not a painful slow and it certainly isn’t full of pointless filler and exposition. Every frame of this movie needs to exist. But maybe take some breaks or just approach the film like you’re binge watching a short season of a TV show.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Sergio Leone’s other films but this has a lot in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films.

Film Review: The Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966)

The Dollars Trilogy, also known as The Man With No Name Trilogy, is one of the best film series there has ever been, capped off by the greatest film ever made.

These films also featured the best soundtracks ever created by the legendary Ennio Morricone.

But let me talk about all three of Sergio Leone’s masterpieces on their own.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964):

Also known as: Per un pugno di dollari (Italy), lit. For a Fistful of Dollars
Release Date: September, 1964 (Italy)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Víctor Andrés Catena, Jamie Comas Gil, Fernando Di Leo, Sergio Leone, Duccio Tessari, Tonino Valerii (all uncredited), Mark Lowell, Clint Eastwood (English version)
Based on: Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa, Ryūzō Kikushima
Music by: Ennio Morricone (credited as Dan Savio)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Marianne Koch, Josef Edger, Wolfgang Lukschy, Gian Maria Volontè (as John Wells)

Jolly Film, Constantin Film, Ocean Films, Unidis, United Artists, 100 Minutes

Review:

“To kill a man you shoot him in the heart. Isn’t that what you said, Ramon?” – Joe (The Man With No Name)

The first film in the series is the smallest in scope. The story is very straightforward and compared to its sequels, it is pretty basic. It is still a fantastic film on its own and is one of the best westerns ever made. Had Sergio Leone just made this film and not the other two, it may have had the same level of love and admiration that accompanies The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

It introduces us to the character referred to as “The Man With No Name”. In the film, he is casually referred to as “Joe” but it isn’t the true name of this stranger who wanders into town and changes things for the better before leaving.

This film is a template for the ones after it and that isn’t a knock, as it was executed greatly and fits well within the series that this trilogy became. You can tell that Sergio Leone is getting his feet wet with the western genre and for a first effort, this is a magnificent work of art.

It is also a lose remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. It turns the samurai wandering into a Japanese village and switches it to a gunslinger wandering into an Old West town.

Clint Eastwood truly owns the character and the villainous Ramón (played by Gian Maria Volontè) is a perfect foil for the hero.

The movie ends with one of the greatest and imaginative gun duels in film history. In fact, it would go on to be seen in Back to the Future, Part II and would inspire Marty McFly when he had to face his evil foil in a gun battle in Back to the Future, Part III.

Plus, the opening sequence of this film is absolute perfection and maybe my second favorite sequence in any spaghetti western, only surpassed by the finale of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. But those two scenes were incredible bookends to this film series.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Any Leone spaghetti western.

For A Few Dollars More (1965):

Also known as: Per qualche dollaro in più (Italy)
Release Date: December 30th, 1965 (Italy)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Sergio Leone, Fulvio Morsella, Enzo Dell’Aquila (uncredited), Fernando Di Leo (uncredited)
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volontè, Luigi Pistilli, Aldo Sambrell, Klaus Kinski, Mario Brega

Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA), Arturo González Producciones Cinematográficas, Constantin Film, United Artists, 132 Minutes

Review:

“Alive or dead? It’s your choice.” – Monco (The Man With No Name)

The first sequel expands on the world of the first film. It feels bigger, the plot has more meat to it and our hero gets to team up with a bounty hunter named Col. Douglas Mortimer (played by the always spectacular Lee Van Cleef). The villain, El Indio is played by the previous installment’s villain actor, Gian Maria Volontè.

The two heroes work together and sometimes against one another in trying to take down El Indio and his gang. There are a lot of twists to the story and there is a lot more depth and layers than the plot of A Fistful of Dollars. Leone really found his stride in this film but it still wasn’t absolute perfection – that was yet to come.

This installment is also a bit more humorous than the previous film, in that the relationship between “The Man With No Name” (referred to as “Monco”) and Col. Douglas Mortimer is pretty chummy and entertaining. But this was Eastwood and Van Cleef in their prime, if you ask me. Both are magnetic, charismatic and each brings so much gravitas to any role that the cup was overflowing with masculine intensity.

As the story unfolds and the relationships build, you are left with a pretty lovable tale. Albeit a pretty badass lovable tale.

And as incredible as Ennio Morricone is as a composer, each chapter in this trilogy sees him evolve into something even greater.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Any Leone spaghetti western.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966):

Also known as: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (Italy)
Release Date: December 23rd, 1966 (Italy)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Leone, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Giuffrè, Mario Brega, Luigi Pistilli

Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA), Arturo González Producciones Cinematográficas, Constantin Film, United Artists, 177 Minutes

Review:

“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” – Blondie (The Man With No Name)

In my opinion, this is the greatest film ever made. It is perfect and truly has no flaws. Sure, westerns aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but some people eat laundry detergent because the Internet tells them to.

Clint Eastwood (The Good) is back, as is Lee Van Cleef (The Bad) who plays the evil Angel Eyes. Eli Wallach (The Ugly) joins them and becomes one of the best characters in cinematic history.

This is a three hour epic and not a single moment of film is wasted. Each segment serves the story well and fleshes out these dynamic characters. Everyone is given a chance to play off of each other and each exchange between characters drives the story forward and strengthens the relationship between all three men.

Even though Clint Eastwood’s “The Man With No Name” is the hero of this series, it is Eli Wallach’s Tuco Ramirez that is the actual star of this picture. He goes from annoying but funny bandit to a lovable and tragic character that you find yourself cheering for by the time this thing is over.

This film is a perfect example of how to develop characters well but with a minimalist approach. Their backstory doesn’t need to be spelled out in every detail. You can hint at their past, drop clues and come to conclusions based off of the emotion the actor wears on their face at certain points. Eli Wallach really gave an Oscar caliber performance here but these sort of films are ignored by elitist Academy snobbery.

The cinematography, the geography, the interiors – all are perfect. This film takes place in a massive and dirty world and it really feels like the American West, even though it was filmed in Europe in 1960s spaghetti western fashion.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly plays like an old opera in its level of scope, story and violence. While the violence isn’t over the top, it serves a real narrative purpose and has a gritty authenticity about it that no other director has been able to capture since.

There isn’t a single thing about this movie that I would tweak, edit out or even try to expand on. I keep saying “perfect” and “flawless” because those are the only words I can even use to describe this untouchable film.

This is Sergio Leone’s magnum opus and the man was one of the greatest directors to ever live.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Any Leone spaghetti western.

Film Review: Death Rides A Horse (1967)

Also known as: Da uomo a uomo, lit. As Man to Man (Italy)
Release Date: August 31st, 1967 (Italy)
Directed by: Giulio Petroni
Written by: Luciano Vincenzoni
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law, Luigi Pistilli, Anthony Dawson, Jose Torres, Mario Brega

Produzione Esecutiva Cinematografica (P.E.C.), Sancro International Film, Titanus Distribuzione, United Artists, 120 Minutes (Italy), 114 Minutes (USA)

death_rides_a_horseReview:

I know I’ve been reviewing a lot of spaghetti westerns lately but that’s where my heads been at. And honestly, there are several that are considered classics that I am trying to get my hands on and see.

I have seen Death Rides A Horse. However, it has been a really long time. The reason being, is that I used to own it on VHS but I no longer have a working VCR. I’ve tried to track down a good quality version on DVD or Blu-ray for awhile, to no avail. I had to settle for the crappy quality DVD, as there doesn’t seem to be a remastered edition in the US. The visual quality of the trailer linked below is infinitely better than any copy of the film I have been able to find on DVD or streaming online.

The reason I bring up the quality issue is that it has a very negative impact on the film. Luckily, I have the patience to sit through it but the average film viewer wouldn’t have gotten through the opening sequence. Additionally, the audio is atrocious. I hope someone remasters this thing or releases a better quality version in the States.

In regards to the movie itself, Lee Van Cleef is perfection. John Phillip Law is good as the vengeance seeking Bill. The cast is rounded out with Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega (both from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly).

Death Rides A Horse follows a young man (John Phillip Law) seeking revenge against the gang that raped and murdered his family. He confronts them one-by-one and finds an unlikely ally (and rival) in Lee Van Cleef’s Ryan.

The film is accompanied by the most recognizable Ennio Morricone theme song not associated with a Sergio Leone picture. It was one of the many great Morricone themes recycled by Quentin Tarantino over the years.

Ultimately, this is a really good spaghetti western. It is severely hurt by the poor quality of the DVD and streaming releases. It is a classic in certain respects but it is unfortunately, almost unwatchable.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: The Great Silence (1968)

Also known as: Il grande silenzio (Italy), The Big Silence (UK)
Release Date: November 19th, 1968 (Italy)
Directed by: Sergio Corbucci
Written by: Vittoriano Petrilli, Mario Amendola, Bruno Corbucci, Sergio Corbucci, John Davis Hart, Lewis E. Ciannelli
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Jean Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Mario Brega, Marisa Merlini, Vonetta Mc Gee

Adelphia Compagnia, Cinematografica, Les Films Corona, 20th Century Fox, 105 Minutes

the-great-silenceReview:

Sergio Corbucci is the lesser known Sergio between himself and Leone but he was also an accomplished spaghetti western director. I’ve been a huge fan of his film Django for years. I haven’t ventured too far into his catalog outside of that though. Not until recently anyway.

I’ve wanted to watch The Great Silence for quite some time. It is hard to track down and actually wasn’t even released in the United States until ten years ago on DVD. No store I have ever been to has sold it. I was able to find it on Amazon but my previous attempts at buying it always showed it as “out of stock”. In any event, I finally got my hand on it.

The Great Silence is epic. And that isn’t an overstatement, as I hate casually throwing the word “epic” around. From what I’ve seen from Corbucci, this is his magnum opus – even more so than the near perfect Django.

The film takes place in Utah but was filmed in the Italian Dolemites, giving it a distinct look in comparison to the typical spaghetti westerns of the era. The landscape is lush with forests, mountains and snow. It is a complete departure from the desolate and barren wastelands of Leone’s films.

The film stars French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant in his only western role. He plays the silent hero simply called “Silent”. A man who, as a boy, had his throat slit – rendering him permanently speechless. He seeks revenge over the corrupt officials and bounty killers who murdered his father and took his voice.

The always sinister German actor Klaus Kinski plays the head bounty killer Loco (Tigrero in the original Italian language version). Kinski is chilling in this film and I would put this in the upper echelon of his superb performances.

The film also features a slew of other well-known spaghetti western actors and it is also the debut of Vonetta McGee, who would become more famous for being featured in several well-known blaxploitation films a few years later.

The Great Silence is actually an anti-western, as it establishes several common tropes in the genre and then turns them all on their head. It takes social and political risks unlike any other film of its time. The film in certain respects was inspired by the deaths of Malcolm X and Che Guevara, as noted by the director himself.

Stylistically, it has gone on to inspire several films after it. It is hard to see this film and not notice the environmental and tonal influences that helped to give life to Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film The Hateful Eight. In fact, between this film and Django, Corbucci has been a huge influence on Tarantino’s critically acclaimed work over the last few years.

The Great Silence isn’t perfect but it is damned good. It is probably the best spaghetti western not directed by Leone and is as good as some of his work. In fact, it makes me want to explore Corbucci’s catalog even deeper.

Also, the score by Ennio Morricone is great and adds a level of authenticity and a superb musical quality to the movie.

If you are a fan of the spaghetti western genre and haven’t seen this or added it to your collection, you really need to.

Rating: 9.25/10