Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Western? No harmonica, please!

Once Upon a Time in the West (Special Collector's Edition) "Let's watch Once Upon a Time in the West."

If I still had the heart to utter those words, they would strike dread into the heart of my husband. If you have ever seen the film, you remember there's a lot of harmonica playing, spitting in the dirt, hard stares, and men posturing in filthy dusters and low slung gun belts - oh, and one solitary, beautiful woman with coal black eyeliner scraped around her eyes. My husband has never made it pass the first twenty minutes of the opening scene at the railway station where I believe the fly was given the biggest part. Anyway, Charles Bronson's persistent harmonica playing, though vital to the story, drives him crazy, and the story unravels like a fishing line being reeled in 'bout an inch an hour across a broad polluted lake.

We were transferring all our movies from an old entertainment center to our new one when I discovered that operatic Western. I was a little shocked; I thought it was long gone, that I had given it to some hard core Western lover or another. I would have given it to my dad or brother, of course, if they didn't already own it. They are the reason I tried to introduce my husband to it, for they have always lauded Sergio Leone's masterpiece as a great man's movie. I used to watch it with them out of deference to their sensibilities, and I mean, truly - Henry Fonda is superb in it as the evil bastard, and Charles Bronson's character is subtle, patient, and silent mostly, but his revenge, when it comes, is sweet indeed.

So the story is great; doesn't matter. It's the getting there that done My Man in. While watching it that first time, he struggled between a strong desire to fall asleep and an irrational urge to scream for someone to annihilate the harmonica playing fool so central to the story.

I tried to fast forward to something interesting Matthew might latch onto, but every time there was a hint of harmonica keening, his eyes glazed over, and his head lolled to the side, his brain temporarily stupefied.

So that was that, and why should I even care? I'm no man. Pshaw!

Still, you can imagine what a risk it was for me to come home from the library with another Western film in my hand, expecting to be blessed with My Man's company for the viewing of it. This time I had Open Range with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. Again, it came with my dad's strong recommendation, and I had wanted to see it for years because of that.

When My Man graciously consented to watch it with me, it became quickly apparent that Open Range is a quiet Western. I wasn't sure this boded well as I kept glancing round at my husband. Each time he gave me a bland smile I couldn't tell if it was a display of boredom or an approval of the absent harmonica. The movie uses no music whatsoever, in fact, to manipulate the viewer (the new Pride and Prejudice is one of the worst movies ever for that kind of heavy-handedness), so there's a lot of awkward silence as if you're watching real lives unfolding. Sure, there's a good amount of violence, but the laconic characters don't feel the need to communicate much before they spring into action, and, honestly, that feels true to those characters. When they do start revealing secrets, thinking death is becoming likely, the audience (me) almost feels as if we're invading their privacy.

The love story? Old-fashioned. Oh, that's not an insult. Personally, I find it refreshing in the current entertainment climate which seems to promote fast and loose relations between men and women as well as advocating pornography as a healthy pastime and adhering to the general idea that bearing children willy-nilly into the world without any kind of commitment between the man and woman involved is the normal and correct evolution of society.

I prefer heroes who are honorable, and heroines who are intelligent and feminine. Obviously, they are more interesting if they are imperfect, haunted by past decisions even, but they must have some standards. Also, it helps if they don't think marriage is for idiots.

The romance between Sue (Annette Bening) and Charley (Kevin Costner) develops gradually and subtly. Again, there is very little conversation, though there are many significant looks. She is not a weak woman; he is not a completely whole man. The scene where he bends down in her home and picks clods of mud off her rug and deposits them in his hat is both funny and moving.

Robert Duvall's Boss and Kevin Costner's Charley mesh very well together - especially as they're sitting eating expensive chocolate and smoking expensive cigars before the big gun fight, discussing how they two alone, with the help of a town sympathizer, will attempt to outmaneuver the gang of a rich rancher's hired guns.

That scene lives up to every great Western shootout scene, and I am not impervious to the lure of epic gun battles on screen. But what happens between Charley and Sue at the end of the movie, the redemption for both of them and especially Charley, is what gives the viewer, at least this one, the most satisfaction. And that's where I thought most of my Dad, and why he would so like this film - when Charley, looking out for the woman he loves, says one of the last lines of the movie to Sue. In those last few words I was reminded of my parent's relationship, and it made me smile.

When the credits rolled, I was pleased to see Matthew was still awake, and I was gratified when he said to me, "That was a really good movie."

"It was a little slow," I said, playing devil's advocate. "And there was very little dialogue."

"Yeah, but that felt right," he pointed out.

I agreed wholeheartedly and smiled approvingly. Thanking all that is good in big sky country - the Western is not dead!


  1. I have to admit I've never quite 'got' westerns. That said, the beloved made me watch Shane last weekend, and I found myself quite absorbed - Alan Ladd was, indeed, quite absorbing...

  2. I've never seen Shane, Sharon. I'll have to check it out. And with Westerns...well, you either love them or eschew them.


I love your comments!