1/27/23

Leif Enger's Off-beat Novel

 

SO BRAVE, YOUNG, AND HANDSOME (2008)

By Leif Enger

Thorndike Press, 286 pages

★★★★

 


 

 

What an odd and delightful book! So Brave, Young, and Handsome came out in 2008, when author Leif Enger was still working for Minnesota Public Radio. It often reads like a young adult novel, though it's not one—more like what you might get if you crossed YA wonderment with a Lake Woebegone tale, Huckleberry Finn, and a gentle send up of a Zane Grey Western.

 

It is set in 1915, a time in which automobiles and horses coexist, though the latter are more reliable. Monte Becket, his wife Susannah, and their son Redstart live along the Cannon River, a for-real tributary of the Mississippi in southeastern Minnesota. Monte penned a Western novel, Martin Bligh, that caught fire and his publisher is clamoring for more. Alas, Monte is having trouble capturing lightening in a jar a second time. Susannah retains faith in him, but Monte trashes draft after draft rejected by editors who want another Martin Bligh.

 

As such stories go, a mysterious stranger comes into their lives, a boat builder going by the handle of Glendon Hale. He lives in a converted barn downstream, but becomes a frequent dinner guest at the Becket household and a man Monte considers his friend. Glendon has traveled and his tales also delight young Redstart. One day, though, Glendon announces he is leaving, ostensibly to travel to Mexico to apologize to Blue, the love he left behind six years earlier. When he asks Monte if he'd like to come along, Susannah encourages him to go for a few weeks, thinking it might help him get over writer's block.

 

That's one way of looking at it. Their journey begins on water, but is abandoned when their small rowboat is nearly wiped out on the Mississippi by some rogues. Or are they pursuers? Surprise! Glendon is a wanted man with more aliases than a Russian spy. A man named Charlie Siringo is after Glendon, though he's also a cad, an ex-Pinkerton Detective who is a self-appointed freelance bounty hunter. Monte considers hightailing it back to Susannah, but he's such a milquetoast that you can convince him to do anything. Wouldn't wish to offend, after all, even if it means he has to come up with his own aliases, eat stolen food, and tell a few fibs.

 

A madcap journey unfolds in which one oddball character after another appears. There is, for instance, Glendon's friend Darlys De Foe, a sharp shooter with failing eyesight; Hood Roberts, a youngster who sells Monte a Packard and wants to ride along to a circus in Oklahoma; and Ern Swilling, an actor who will break his neck and wonder why he is seeing in back of himself. Is anyone on the up an up? Nope.

 

So Brave, Young, and Handsome is a series of comic misadventures, several of them tinged with tragedy. The latter, though, don't sting because the novel reads like a fable. Of what? Good question. It is surely the passing of one way of life with another having a difficult time being born. Sometimes it seems to be about redemption, though the lesson fails to take more often than it does. Plus, even if you were to assign some moral to it, the novel's tone is too offbeat for your judgment to stand up under cross examination. It's ultimately about how Monte finds his mojo but mainly it's a wacky road trip that ends in California. Glendon will seek out Blue–her name is actually Arãnado–but this isn't a hearts-and-coronets kid of book; it's too quirky for such things. Will Glendon reform and find peace? The book is too idiosyncratic for that as well.

 

Enger's book is also a fable in that normal logic is suspended. There's even a character who simply refuses to die. Yes, what we have here is a book in which the best odds lie with the improbable. Huckleberry Finn, of course, was Mark Twain's reworking of The Odyssey and you might recall from whenever you last read any of it, that lots of spurious things occurred in it. (If you don't remember, think the Coen Brothers' take, O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

 

I laughed aloud many times during my reading of So Brave, Young, and Handsome. I was late to the party, but they saved me a slice of the icebox cake. In all honesty, I'm still not sure whether or not I should be ashamed of myself for liking this book so much.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

1/25/23

Undine: Myth or a Gal Wronged?

UNDINE (2020)

Directed by Christian Petzold

Bettina Böler, 90 minutes, Not-rated (brief nudity, sex)

In German/French with subtitles

★★★ ½ 

 


 

 If you'd like to try a film unlike the usual fare, the German film Undine will answer and then some. But read my comments first or you might be lost.

 

Undine is the main character. The is significant. An undine (or ondine) is a mythological creature that morphed into numerous folk tales. Insofar as can be determined, the ancient Greek alchemist/philosopher Paracelsus gave us the first complete view. He thought the world was composed of earth, water, air, and fire, each of which had groupings of elemental spirits misunderstood by humans. Undines were river nymphs—Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid was based upon them—that lived for a very long time. They were ultimately doomed, however, because they lack souls. The way out was to marry mortals, which conferred souls but shortened their lives. The kicker was that undines bonded for life. Do not cross one; if she says she will kill you if you leave her, be very afraid!

 

We meet Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer) as an architecture and urban development expert lecturing at a Berlin museum. She is in a troubled relationship with Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), a married man, who tells her that he's breaking off their affair. Undine coldly informs Johannes that she will kill him, a threat he dismisses as histrionic. That seems to be the case, as shortly thereafter she meets Christoph (Franz Rogowski). He is attracted to her and convinces her to have coffee with him. Ironically, that scene involves the explosion of a giant fish tank, an event that actually happened in Berlin in 2022. A floor full of glass, water, and dead fish gets them booted from the cafe, but they begin a relationship. Christoph is an underwater welding expert and a klutz, but he is a sweet man very much in love with Undine. He is currently repairing damaged joints on a dam on the short but deep Lingese River, which he and his diving team partner Monika (Maryam Zaree) have done before. He has several times spotted a giant catfish that he dubs “Big Gunther.”

 

Undine falls for Christoph, though when Johannes tells Undine he wants her back, what's gal to do? Undine is slow-paced, but quite a lot happens. Some of it seems head-scratching but it helps to remember that this is a place where folklore and filmmaking intersect. That is to say, some things stand as metaphors rather than depictions of reality. It's a clever ruse of the part of director Christian Petzold. If you think about it, all movies are artifice, so why not blend the expected and the fanciful? Likewise, why impose normal logic or explain everything? Is Undine an actual undine, or just an angry young woman with an odd name looking for love in the wrong place?

 

This is a film whose tension derives from its relationships and the circumstances of its characters. That's another way of saying that it holds viewers in a psychological grip rather than milking cheap thrills from action sequences. Once you give up the need for the narrative to make literal sense, you can concentrate on the performances. None are better than Beer in the title role. She is one of those actors whom the camera loves, riveting and magnetic. Each year the Berlin Film Festival doles out awards for outstanding work. Its highest honor is called the Golden Bear Grand Jury prize for the best film. Undine did not win the Golden Bear, but Paula Beer received a Silver Bear as best actress. You need not speak a word of German to understand why she won.

 

 Petzold made a unique and provocative film. Don't be surprised if your first reaction is that you didn’t like or get Undine. It is the sort of project that needs to settle in and it will. You will find it rattling around in your head days after you've seen it and some (but not all) things will come into sharper focus. Perhaps the film didn't need to be quite as enigmatic as it was, but it’s not necessary to decode each frame of Undine. Any spin you put on the movie is fine. It's certainly not a cookie cutter project and of that we can be grateful.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

1/23/23

Mercury Pictures Presents Too Ambitious but a Good Read

 

 

MERCURY PICTURES PRESENTS (2022)

By Anthony Marra

Hogarth/Penguin Random House, 408 pages.

★★★★  

 

 

 

I adored Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra, though it is what I call half of an epic. By that I mean it should have been either twice as long or have jettisoned half of its plot lines because there’s too much going on to be contained in 400 pages.

 

It is a film about a Hollywood studio, though not Paramount, MGM, Universal, or Twentieth Century Fox. The 1930s into the 1950s is often interpreted as a Hollywood golden age. From the standpoint of movie quality that is perhaps true, but there were obstacles to be considered such as the impact of two world wars and a little thing called the Great Depression. It wasn't so glamorous to work in the movies either. Only stars and big companies came through those years intact, and not even they were unscathed.

 

Mercury Pictures Presents is about a second-tier studio that didn't have surefire box office stars. (One suspects that RKO was one of Marra's inspirations; it often leaned upon Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre repertory company for acting talent.) Even in its heyday Mercury was a cut-rate concern. It was owned by two eccentric brothers, Art and Ned Feldman, who simultaneously love and despise each other; lately they opt for the latter option and engage in tit for tat games. Mercury maintains a staff that ranges from disgruntled to trapped. Its best talent is Eddie Lu, who would like to do Chekhov, but as a Chinese American he is relegated to portraying Yellow Peril types such as an evil Chinaman or a Japanese villain. Maria Legana is a resident alien and Eddie's illicit lover.* She also has a couple of maddening Italian aunts who don't understand why she's not married and continues to work in the office of Mercury Pictures. Add to the wild menagerie of characters several displaced Europeans working for bargain basement wages, a major character who literally isn't who he is, and an American gangster who runs afoul of Italian mobsters. This is merely the short list of the strange characters in a novel that mixes drama, humor, acerbic dialogue, scheming, heartbreak, delusions, and sweetness and (mostly) gets away with it.

 

Mercury Pictures once did moderately well. Its current fate, though, isn't on the screen, but on a battlefield pitting Artie against Ned. In the good old days, “Artie” took care of movie making in California, and Ned stayed in New York City to write checks and keep the books. Recently, though, Ned has come to California with the intention of wrecking Mercury Pictures in a grab-the-money-and-go maneuver. Should the studio fortunes pick up, Plan B is to push Artie out of the business. 

 

To be fair, Artie is an oddball. He keeps a rack of toupees to fit every occasion and has names for each: the Heavyweight, the Casanova, the Edison, the Mephistopheles, and so forth. Were it not for the command-by-fake-obedience acumen of Maria, Mercury Pictures wouldn't be worth a roll of used celluloid. She's so valuable that even Ned will try to blackmail her rather than let her take another job. Rest assured; she’s not the only one being extorted. 

 

All of this alone would have been literary gold, but Marra adds other layers. Much of the novel's action takes place in Italy, both during Mussolini's rise to power and again during World War Two. These sections involve everything from assumed identities, a stolen car, an ever-patient Italian American mother, an accidental cameraman who wants to emulate Robert Capa, and falsehoods that become truths in surprising ways. 

 

Marra adds even other subplots, including the construction of detailed sets to be destroyed for less than noble purposes, movie razzle dazzle, an FBI investigation, an Italian policeman, and a story about Louis Harrington, a black GI whose tale parallels that of Dorie Miller, but without Miller's heroic ending.** As you can probably tell, there are so many irons in the fire that some of them seem tacked on. Frankly, some of the novel is a mess, though credit goes to Marra that he pulls out of such moments with less damage than is done to Mercury Pictures. 

 

Luckily, Marra's novel has memorable characters, inspired silliness, labyrinthine backstabbing plotting, and shifting winds that make an enjoyable read even if you get lost. If you do , my best advice is to take the lead from Vincent, he who would be Robert Capa. He made an analogy to between one of Capo's photos and Mercury Pictures: “The less you saw, the better it looked.”

 

Rob Weir

 

* Illicit because the laws in many parts of the country forbade interracial relationships.

** Miller was a black ship’s cook who manned an anti-aircraft gun during Pearl Harbor when its white gunner was killed.

1/20/23

Funny Face is a Dinosaur!

 

FUNNY FACE (1957)

Directed by Stanley Donen

Paramount, 103 minutes, Not-rated.

 

 

 

Audrey Hepburn was an icon and Fred Astaire one of the smoothest dancers and leading men in Hollywood history. Despite that, some films wear like iron and others are pieces of disintegrating tulle from bygone costume failures. Funny Face is one of the latter.

 

This musical comedy began life as a 1927 Broadway play and that's about the time that Astaire was young enough to have been involved in such a project. When it was turned into a movie 30 years later, Astaire was 57-years-old, which made his romance with 28-year-old Audrey Hepburn so creepy that not even dollops of Paris and Hollywood magic could gloss it. Nor were Ira and George Gershwin at the top of their game when they reworked songs from the show and wrote new ones for the film. Only “How Long Has This Been Going On” had much of a shelf life and it only after later being re-tailored as a smoky torch ballad. (“S'Wonderful” was popular for about half a season.) Watching Funny Face now embodies the British term naff, meaning insipid.

 

I grant that it had wonderful set design. The story revolves around Quality Magazine, a fashion rag along the lines of Harper's Bazaar or Vogue. It is simultaneously an advertisement and a lampoon of such publications. Editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) is a stand-in for Diana Vreeland and Dick Avery (Astaire) of photographer Richard Avedon. Maggie is bored by the magazine's new issue, the setup for the opening musical number “Think Pink” in which she successfully convinces American women that pink is the only color they should wear (though she hates it). Thompson's romp in the high-contrast minimalist office is visually stunning.

 

Still, Maggie thinks the magazine needs intellectual heft but her models, including Marion (Dovima, one of several actual models in the film), are airheads who wouldn't know Plato from Play-Doh. She dispatches Dick to scout locations for a makeover and he and his pink-clad female crew commandeer a Greenwich Village philosophy bookstore. They rearrange books, and make a mess over the feeble protests of mousy clerk Jo Stockton (Hepburn). Jo is appalled by the vacuousness of the fashion world and is devoted to an empathicalism worldview, especially as espoused by French thinker Professor Flostre. (It's basically empathy draped in mumbo jumbo.) Jo's life is disrupted again when Dick convinces Maggie that Jo's “funny face” is exactly what Quality needs.

 

How do you convince a beatnik intellectual like Jo to become a supermodel? A trip to Paris, of course. The magazine wants her to debut the new line of French designer Paul Duval (Robert Flemyng [sic]) but Jo relishes a chance to hang out in smoky cafes and perhaps meet Flostre. Add musical numbers, a burgeoning romance between Jo and Dick, contrivances that keep them apart, fashion runway scenes, and the illusion that Jo and Dick are ill-suited, and that's Funny Face in a nutshell. It's A Star in Born in 1950s couture blended with a bit of Romeo and Juliet.

 

Astaire was past his prime in 1957. His dancing seemed limp and lifeless, even when he pulled cool moves with an umbrella. His acting was equally flat. The less said about Hepburn's spasmodic cafe moves the better. (If you think Maynard G. Krebs on the Dobie Gillis sitcom demeaned the Beats, it's reverential by contrast.) Hepburn was, of course, cute as a button-festooned rabbit, but her dancing also invites the descriptor naff.

 

In its day, Funny Face got good reviews, with only the London Times having the courage to dismiss it as fluffy nonsense. Audrey Hepburn became a beloved screen star, which helps explain why Funny Face is often accorded “classic” status. Don’t be fooled; this fashion-driven antique is like finding an old snapshot of yourself attired in clothing you'd deny ever having worn. Aside from eye-candy sets, one of its few pleasures is watching Kay Thompson connive, throw fits, and dance. If her name sounds familiar, she was also the author of the children's book series Eloise.

 

At the risk of offending anyone in a May-December relationship, the wooing of Hepburn by Astaire is more than distressing; it's thoroughly unconvincing and could have only been made during that part of the 1950s in which a woman “needed” a man and anyone who showed interest would do. Hepburn falls for Astaire after one kiss, her first we are led to believe. Because, of course, who would want to kiss Hepburn? (Take a number!) Funny Face is an artifact from the past best left in a film vault.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

1/18/23

Brought to Life Brings Color Back to Gothic Churches

 

 

BROUGHT TO LIFE: PAINTED WOOD SCULPTURE FROM EUROPE, 1300-1700 

Smith College Museum of Art 

Northampton MA 

Through August 6, 2023  

 

Montreal--more typical than you think!

 

Sometimes visitors to cathedrals such as Notre Dame de Montréal, the Sistine Chapel, the basilica at Notre Dame University in Indiana, or Amiens Cathedral in France are alarmed by what they see. Such Gothic splendors appear gaudy, even garish, riots of sky blues, pastels, and gilding. 

 

This is because they have either visited weathered medieval churches or have seen bare stone and woodwork in museums. Assumptions of spartan interiors dance in their heads, as if somehow naked pillars directed the gazes of the faithful toward heaven and reminded them that they were to eschew the pleasures of the earthly realm. In such imagining, only stained glass windows or perhaps a fresco or painting illuminated the insides of hulking churches. 

 

If that's what you think, you're the victim of time and the changes brought by sunlight, candle smoke, dampness, mold, and ephemeral unvarnished paint. At one time, a 14th century cathedral looked a lot like Notre Dame de Montréal—except their exteriors were painted as brightly as those in Italian cities such as Orvieto.  And if you want to push things back even further, Greek and Roman statues were gaily painted as well.

 

 

 

An exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA) give us a glimpse of what medieval cathedrals might have looked like inside via woodworks that retain traces of pigment.  Brought to Life is a gallery full of wooden sculptures from the 14th through the dawn of the 18th centuries. Though these pieces have also been dimmed by time, there is enough of their original hue for us to imagine the explosion of color a medieval cathedral would have been. If you're wondering, though they are too big to go on tour or be installed and the museum, even massive Gothic columns and arches would have appeared in Technicolor. (Okay, not Technicolor, which is a film stock, but you get the picture.)  

 

 

 

In other words, Gothic cathedrals were quite the opposite of a spartan holiness scenario. For most Europeans, cities and villages would have been drab, muddy, and dark before gas lighting, street paving, window panes, and more substantial dwellings took over. In most places, little of that even began to happen before the 19th century. Churches and cathedrals were brightly adorned because they invoked thoughts of heaven, not because color stymied such reflections.  

 

 

 

By extension, there's another historical lesson embedded in the SCMA exhibit. Many North Americans are so present-minded that their view of the past is like the black and white or sepia archival photos from the pre-color film era. We all know Puritans dressed mostly in black, right? Granted their worldview was often gloomy, but many of them liked a splash of color. After all, it was easier to make fabric dyes from flowers and wild plants than blacks from tannin-tinted roots and bark. (Black dyes also degraded fabric much faster.)

 


 

 

To circle back, color was associated with the glories of Creation. It was the case that a lot of medieval public art other than paintings was left unsigned. The skilled artisans who carved figures from wood or stone and those that slathered on the paint were supposed to be conduits to God's glory, one imagined in full living color. 

 

 

 

A visit to the SCMA reveals both the ways medieval Europeans were different from us–faith was seldom openly questioned and religious symbols were ubiquitous–yet also similar. Like us, they enjoyed color and light. They liked it so much that some of their efforts strike us as a bit garish!

 

Rob Weir

 

1/16/23

Our Missing Hearts is a Masterpiece

 

OUR MISSING HEARTS (2022)

By Celeste Ng

Penguin Press, 335 pages.

★★★★★

 

 

 

 

Our Missing Hearts was influenced by Margaret Atwood, the foster care system, slavery, the removal of Native American children from their homes, the early days of COVID, Japanese internment in the 1940s, folk tales, anti-Trump protests, McCarthyism, anti-immigrant border debates, and yarn bombing. In most cases, if you pick up a novel whose list of influences is that long and varied, alarm bells go off in your head. What we can say about the latest work from Celeste Ng is that it's not a good novel; it's a great one. If it gets half the publicity it deserves, Our Missing Hearts will become The Handmaid’s Tale of this generation. Like Atwood's masterpiece, Ng's novel packs the additional wallop of feeling way-too-plausible.

 

Ng takes us to a not-so-distant American dystopia. A series of events known as the Crisis has decimated the economy. Those with resources have isolated themselves to ride out the Crisis, but so many people have lost their jobs that few have even part time work. For them, life in America has come to resemble that of places such as Chad or Haiti. The streets are a war of all against all and even basic needs such as food and shelter are day-to-day conundrums. Think squatting, contingency labor, dumpster diving, stealing copper wire, and forging survival pods with others.

 

When the Crisis finally begins to subside, leaders convince the citizenry that an external enemy, China, and its agents caused the collapse. This precipitates attacks on Chinese Americans and Asians in general, as few non-yellow Americans can (or bother to) tell the difference between them. Congress passes the Preserving American Culture and Traditions (PACT) act that most of the populace embrace as salvation. Asian Americans learn to keep a low profile and endure taunts, spitting, and random violence against those unlucky enough to stumble into the wrong place.

 

The Gardner family is at the center of Ng's drama. Nathan is a linguist, librarian, and adjunct Harvard professor from a well-to-do family. During the Crisis he marries Margaret Miu, a spirited and creative Chinese American woman. They produce a son, Bird, whom Margaret loves so dearly that she devotes a volume of poetry to him. Like those who escaped the streets during the Crisis, Margaret is too grateful to see the full implications of PACT when it ends. It is unique to say the least; a major provision guaranteed to make America “safe,” allows the government to remove children from disloyal homes to “protect” America's future. With no prompting or knowledge on her part, Margaret's poetry volume about Bird, which includes the line that titles Ng's novel, becomes an underground classic with “missing heart” iconography showing up on the streets. Margaret's parents die, her father pushed down a flight of steps by an attacker and her mother from a fall that might or might not be suicide. Margaret knows that the only way Bird–rechristened as Noah–can avoid being taken is for her to disappear. Even then, Nathan loses most of his work and his home; he and Noah are reduced to living in two rooms on the 10th floor of a dormitory.

 

The novel’s subtext is what Bird remembers–he was young when his mother left– or can piece together. He is a curious child and a lonely one because he cannot hide his mixed-race attributes, but he does have one friend, Sadie, a foster child obsessed with re-finding her biological parents. Information is nearly impossible to find. Libraries have been carefully curated, as Noah/Bird discovers when he tries to find his mother’s poetry; the very attempt potentially places he and Nathan in jeopardy. But Bird is a sensitive adolescent and he thinks he knows where his mother has gone.

 

It would be easy to overdo a novel like this, but Ng recounts horror, hope, crushed dreams, and quiet rebellion in poetic but never pretentious language that illumines detail, deepens pathos, provokes us to anger, and awakens our fear that, yes, this could happen here. It is healing in its insistence that stories are powerful and that knowledge liberates. Ng also understands that resistance and change are processes, not hokey one-offs. There's even a nod to tribalism, if you choose a clan on the side of true goodness rather than pandering sloganeering. What a beautiful and timely book! Ng writes like an angel. Maybe that's because the heavenly hosts are on her side.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

1/13/23

Once Upon a Time in the West: Bury the Legend

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)

Directed by Sergio Leone

Paramount, PG-13 (nudity, language, violence)

★★★★★

 

 

 

Did you ever notice that foreigners get American history better than the products of American schools? That's especially the case with Westerns, which American directors treat as star-studded documentaries rather than the legends they really are. Robert Altman was a rare exception, but think of how Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain or Jane Campion's magisterial The Power of the Dog surpass the cowboy junk that littered TV and theaters in the past seven decades. (Lee is Taiwanese; Campion a New Zealander.)

 

“Spaghetti Westerns” were among the first to shoot the sheen off of Westerns and few did it better than Italy’s Sergio Leone. One of the best was his Once Upon a Time in the West, a certifiable gem. It's something of a spaghetti splatter film as well, but it remains a powerful film whose subtext that the West was more about profiteering than glory is close to the truth.

 

It starts with a literal bang. Three thugs are sent to an in-the-middle-of-nowhere railway station to make sure that Harmonica (Charles Bronson), its departing passenger doesn't live to ride away. Bringing him down would take more than three! Harmonica will soon learn that the dusters they wear were designed to make others think Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is behind the attempt, though the true culprit is Frank (Henry Fonda), who is preoccupied with slaughtering Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his three children.

 

Meanwhile, enter Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), who Brett married a month earlier in New Orleans. Frank didn't find what he was looking for on McBain's land–gold presumably–and is determined to do so. Cheyenne is sniffing around as well, but he has no beef with Frank or Harmonica, so named because he uses one to unnerve those who try to kill him before he sends them to their unjust rewards. We learn that Frank is a gun for hire for crippled businessman/banker Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Not that he needs encouragement; Frank is thoroughly amoral.

 

The plot has nothing to do with gold nuggets or hearts of gold. It builds toward a showdown between Frank and Harmonica with lots and lots of collateral damage interspersed. There's also the matter of trying to figure out which side characters are on, Leone's sly way of deflating American individualism. It's one of many ways in which Leone took standard Western movie devices, turned them on their heads, and left viewers to ponder where the mythical West had gone. (Answer: It was never there in the first place.)

 

A film like this required topnotch acting from those who could simultaneously play to and against type. Claudia Cardinale made irresistible bait for such a fishing expedition. Is Jill a wronged woman or the high-class whore Frank calls her? Maybe both? Is she ready to settle into domestic bliss with Cheyenne? (Is he ready?) Or is she, in her own way, just as ruthless as Morton or Frank? She's certainly eye candy, which helps keep her alive.

 

It would be hard, though, even for Jill to be as conniving as Frank. Henry Fonda made a lot of Westerns, but he never before made one in which his blood ran as icy as his blue eyes. Frank has no redeeming qualities and he makes sure everyone he encounters knows that—if he lets them live. Is Frank on anybody’s side? He is, after all, the one who pulls the trigger on a nine-year-old boy.

 


 

 

The biggest surprise is the granite-faced Charles Bronson. He made his reputation as a B-movie hack, but he is note perfect in Once Upon a Time in the West. To call him a man of few words is an understatement. His eerie glassy harmonica notes are alone enough to induce fear, though the purest terror comes when he crinkles his eyes and his face morphs into a slow-motion Mona Lisa smile. That's the moment to make sure your affairs are in order. It was such a stunning performance that it might have garnered an Oscar nomination had it been in a more conventional film. 

 

If you've never seen this film, do so. Make sure to avoid the PG version which was sanitized to reduce the violence and cover Cardinale's body. Nothing should be kept from view in a film that will never allow you to see a John Ford or Howard Hawks Western the same way again. It took an Italian to do that.

 

Rob Weir