Hidden Netflix Gems: Once Upon a Time in the West

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968)

It’s 2012, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to discover a majority of young people have not heard of Italian film director, producer, and screenwriter Sergio Leone. After all, the man died 23 years ago in 1989. However, you’d likely be hard pressed to find someone in that demographic who hasn’t seen, or at the very least heard of the man’s work.

Leone, one of the most prominent figures of the Spaghetti Western sub-genre, released his first film, “The Last Days of Pompeii,” in 1959 and his last, “Once Upon a Time in America,” in 1984. But it was during the 1960s that a number of his most popular films, those that remain relevant to this day, were released. Firstly, there’s the Dollars Trilogy, a series of three films which Leone wrote and directed which followed the exploits of the “Man with No Name,” played by Clint Eastwood. There’s a name you’ve heard, Clint Eastwood, and I bet you’ve heard of the trilogy’s final installment as well, 1966′s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

After the Dollars Trilogy was completed, Leone decided he was done with Westerns. He’d said all he wanted to within the confines of the genre. It was only after Paramount informed Leone that he’d have access to Henry Fonda—his favorite actor, one he’d wanted to work with his entire career—that he decided to return. Leone and his fellow writers spent nearly a year watching and discussing some of the best American Westerns to date before constructing a story made up almost entirely of references to those classics.

Problem was, around the same time, Henry Fonda had decided he was done with Westerns too, and turned down Leone’s first offer to star in “Once Upon a Time in the West.” It wasn’t until Leone flew to New York to meet with Fonda in person that the actor accepted. To convince him, Leone said, “Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman’s face and…it’s Henry Fonda.” See, Fonda had spent most of his career playing good guys. But in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” he was cast against type, playing not just a bad guy, but one of the most sadistic, monstrous villains ever to grace the silver screen.

Now that all that background’s out of the way, I suppose we should talk about the film itself. Contrary to the fast-paced, upbeat nature of previous Westerns, the film includes numerous long, drawn-out shots and scenes with little dialogue and less action significant to the over-arching plot. These scenes of quiet are often interrupted by sudden outbreaks of violence. It’s the quiet, the routine, and then bam: sound and fury. The film is less a study of violence and more about the subtleties that precede it.

The film begins with the arrival of a quiet man known only as Harmonica, played by Charles Bronson (the Charles Bronson, the one from whom that other guy took his “fighting name”). “Instead of talking, [Harmonica] plays. And when he better play, he talks.” For reasons unknown to the viewer, Harmonica is on a mission of vengeance against the villainous Frank (Fonda), who works as something of an enforcer for railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). As mentioned, the first time we see Frank, he’s massacring an innocent family, the McBains, for reasons equally unknown. Frank tries to pin the blame for the killings on a local outlaw named Cheyenne (Jason Robards). When Cheyenne hears this, he and Harmonica become uncertain allies in a war against Frank. They’re joined by Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a young woman who’d travelled out west from New Orleans to marry the recently deceased McBain.

Part of what makes the film special is its twisting of the genre’s many tropes. For example, Cheyenne is one of the film’s more honorable and likable characters. The fact that he robs people for a living is irrelevant. But the biggest and most interesting of these aversions is that it’s never assured that Harmonica will be capable of killing Frank and getting his vengeance. He’s wounded in the film’s first scene, and as a result, he’s clearly far from invincible. This is not the smooth ride of the overly-lovable sheriff defeating the bank robber. Whether or not the “good guys” can win is never a foregone conclusion. It wouldn’t be in the real world, so it’s not in “Once Upon a Time” either. Furthermore, horrible as Frank may be, it’s hard not to respect him. The first parallel that springs to mind is Darth Vader. Sure he’s the bad guy, but he’s also a badass.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” is long, with a running time of 165 minutes, and the drawn-out style will no doubt be foreign to contemporary viewers. But there’s a reason the film gets all the accolades it receives. It sits at a 98 percent on the Tomatometer, and is generally acknowledged as one of the best Westerns ever made. In 2009, it was placed in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. Consistently quotable, with a number of intriguing conflicts and sub-conflicts, taking in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, is a more than worthwhile way to spend your Saturday evening.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

 

 

  

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Gary Lockwood (“The Lieutenant,” “Star Trek”)

Your frame of reference to the name “Gary Lockwood” depends heavily on what genres of TV and movies you tend to favor. For instance, if you’re a sci-fi guy like myself, then your instant reaction to hearing his name is either to think of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or, if you’re really geeky (and – shocker! – I am), to his lone episode of the original “Star Trek” series, where he played Gary Mitchell, Jim Kirk’s Starfleet Academy pal who failed to remember that with great power comes great responsibility and suffered the consequences. That one-off “Trek” appearance was actually Lockwood’s second time working with Gene Roddenberry, however, the first time having taken place a few years earlier when Lockwood starred in the short-lived series “The Lieutenant,” which has just been released on DVD by Warner Archive. Lockwood took a few minutes to chat with Bullz-Eye about his work with Roddenberry on both series, and he also touched on occasions in his career when he crossed paths with the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, and Elvis Presley.

Bullz-Eye: “The Lieutenant” wasn’t the last time you worked with Gene Roddenberry, but was it the first time you crossed paths with him?

Gary Lockwood: Yes, it was. They talked to me about doing this show, and Roddenberry was sitting there with the head of television at MGM, and that’s how I met him.

BE: That was your first time headlining a series, although, you’d at least had a little experience as a recurring character on “Follow the Sun.”

GL: Yeah, well, I was the third banana on “Follow the Sun,” but I ended up doing the most shows. It’s hard to talk about yourself, but…it’s not that difficult. [Laughs.] What I mean to say is that the audience ended up liking my character, so I did most of the episodes of the show.

BE: There’s a quote attributed to you about how being the star of a series is like being a jet pilot: you’ve got a lot of experts working behind the scenes to get the jet running, and then the pilot sits in the cockpit and makes it work.

GL: Yeah, at which point you either live or die. [Laughs.] You get the spoils, but you also get the losses. The reason I kind of make a joke about jet pilots is that you go to work and you don’t do anything, you just sit there in a chair and drink coffee and look at girls. And then they call you, and go over and fly in front of a camera for awhile, and then you sit down for awhile while everyone else does all the work. So I kind of thought it was a little bit like being a jet pilot.

BE: When you think back to the character of Lt. Bill Rice, what’s the first thing that leaps to mind?

GL: Well, I just played him. I mean, I was just an actor. Bill Rice is not somebody I would ever be or… [Trails off.] They did ask me once if I wanted to go to Annapolis, but I was a bit too much of a rogue for that kind of life. One of my best friends did go to Annapolis, but he resigned after about a year. He didn’t like the regiment. So it takes a certain kind of guy. It was very difficult for me to consider. I wouldn’t say I wanted to be like Bill Rice, but acting is all making believe, so you create a character and you just go there and play him. I think I’ve done that with every job I’ve ever had.

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A Chat with John Landis (“¡Three Amigos!”)

There’s no point in writing an intro for our conversation with John Landis when we’ve already given a perfectly serviceable synopsis of the man’s life and times on his page within Bullz-Eye’s Directors Hall of Fame – which you can find right here – but we will say that we’ve been looking forward to chatting with Landis for quite some time. Although his publicist regretfully informed us that he didn’t have time to talk when we were pulling together the Hall of Fame, we’d kept our fingers crossed that we’d get an opportunity to talk to him one of these days, and at last that time has come, courtesy of the Blu-ray release of “¡Three Amigos!,” which hits shelves on Nov. 22nd.

Bullz-Eye: First of all, in case you haven’t heard, I should let you know that we put you into our Director’s Hall of Fame last year.

John Landis: Oh, thank you very much!

BE: Our pleasure. After all, we’re a guy-centric site, and it would be fair to say that you’ve made a few movies that have been appreciated by many a man over the years…including, of course, “¡Three Amigos!”

JL: [Laughs.] So did you get a chance to watch the Blu-ray, then?

BE: I did. It looks fantastic.

JL: Yeah, I was able to restore it to the way it’s supposed to be seen. I’m very pleased with the way it looks.

BE: I was actually going to ask you about that process. I presume there’s at least a little bit of difference when it comes to restoring a comedy for Blu-ray versus, say, a full-on special effects extravaganza.

JL: Actually, no. [Laughs.] That would be an untrue presumption. I mean, every picture’s individual, and it depends on the look you were going for with that particular movie. When they made the Blu-ray for “Animal House,” I was upset. I thought they made it much too bright and clean. “Animal House” is supposed to look dirty and funky. [Laughs.] I remember the technician, when I had to check it, he kept writing on his chart, “Image degraded per director.” But every movie you make, you try – or at least I do, anyway – for a different kind of look. On “¡Three Amigos!” I was really trying to go for those beautiful westerns that Hollywood used to make in the ‘50s. The Technicolor pictures. We wanted the colors to be incredibly vibrant. You know, the old DVD wasn’t even the correct aspect ratio. So I’m happy that I got the chance to restore it.

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What A Way To Go: 25 Final Films From No-Longer-Living Legends

Everybody dies, even famous actors. Some have the common sense to phase out their careers while they’re still at the top of their game and enjoy the fruits of their retirement, others milk their fame for all its worth and work ’til they drop, which is often well past their sell-by date, and, of course, there are those who die far earlier than anyone anticipated, least of all themselves, leaving their most recent project – whatever it may have been – as their last project. Bullz-Eye took a look at the filmographies of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors and examined their swan songs, and, indeed, all three of the aforementioned categories are represented.

There were only two caveats used when citing these final films: they had to have been live-action works (i.e. no voiceover performances), and the actors had to have been playing someone other than themselves. You will no doubt find yourself asking, “Hey, why didn’t [INSERT FAVORITE ACTOR'S NAME HERE] make this cut?” If you’ve got a favorite final film by an actor that was left out of the mix…hey, that’s what the Comments section is for. For now, though, sit back and enjoy…

1. Humphrey Bogart, “The Harder They Fall” (1956): Although many tend to think of his definitive work as having taken place in the 1940s simply by virtue of the fact that it’s when both “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon” were released, Humphrey Bogart continued to offer exemplary performances throughout the ‘50s, receiving his Oscar for “The African Queen” (1951), a nomination for “The Caine Mutiny” (1954). By the mid-1950s, however, the actor’s health was failing, and he would soon be diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus…not that you’d know it from his work load: in 1955, he starred in “We’re No Angels,” “The Left Hand of God,” and “The Desperate Hours.”

Watching Bogie in his final film, “The Harder They Fall,” it’s easy to say that he looks tired and worn out, but it’s just as easy to attribute that to the character he’s playing. Eddie Willis (Bogart) is a former sports writer who’s struggling to make ends meet after his newspaper shuts down, and when he’s hired by Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), a boxing promoter known for his somewhat imprecise morality, to help promote his new fighter, a naïve Argentinean named Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), there’s little question that Eddie’s doing it for the money. Everybody knows that wrestling is fake, but you may be surprised to see the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that go on in boxing: Toro’s a pretty rotten boxer, but Eddie promotes the hell out of him while Nick and his cohorts fix the fights, enabling Toro to steadily work his way up the ranks. The ending is pretty heavy-handed, with the music soaring as Eddie sits down in front of his typewriter to hash out the boxing expose that will help to clear his conscience, but Bogart is fantastic throughout the film. Sadly, it’s out of print on DVD, but if you’ve never seen it before, you may find it worth the $14.99 it’ll cost you to download it from iTunes. Eight months after “The Harder They Fall” hit theaters, Bogart lost his own fight, falling victim to his cancer at the age of 57. – Will Harris

2. James Dean, “Giant” (1956): George Stevens’ massive adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel about ranchers and oil millionaires in the first half of the 20th century remains an especially poignant farewell, indicating the versatile actor 24 year-old James Dean would have become had he not died in an auto wreck shortly before production was completed.

At first, Dean’s Jet Rink is in line with his other roles, a rebellious, troubled ranch hand who shyly flirts with beautiful Leslie Benedict (Elizabeth Taylor) and generally runs afoul of her cattleman husband, Bick Benedict, Jr. (Rock Hudson). As a couple of decades progress, however, Rink strikes it rich — richer than the Benedicts. Wearing a mustache and with his head partially shaved to suggest a receding hairline, Rink becomes a villain of sorts as he falls for the Benedicts’ beautiful college-age daughter (Carroll Baker) and his resentments against the clan congeal into alcoholic sentimentality, jealousy, and virulent racism. Not that he’s all bad or all sad. Speaking in a mumbly Texan patois reminiscent of Boomhauer from “King of the Hill,” Dean’s Rink is highly vulnerable but full of the impish humor Dean only hinted at in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Even if the part seems artificial compared to Dean’s other roles and even if director Stevens felt it was necessary to have a key speech posthumously looped by Dean’s friend, Nick Adams, “Giant” reminds us that Dean was a lot more than a pop-culture icon or a pretty-boy emoting-machine, he was an actor. – Bob Westal

3. Grace Kelly, “High Society” (1956): Like James Dean, Grace Kelly only had to make a few films to become an immortal. Fortunately, her career wasn’t ended by death but by her “fairy tale” marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco — although she would eventually die as the result of a car accident a quarter century later.

A musical remake of the romantic comedy classic “The Philadelphia Story” with new songs by Cole Porter and co-starring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, “High Society” was a box office success and, in theory, a perfect filmic swansong. The part of romantically confused heiress Tracey Lord fit Grace Kelly very nicely, and she had actually performed the part as her graduation performance from the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Nevertheless, she was stepping into enormous shoes — the part was written for and remains forever associated with Katherine Hepburn — but Kelly, still only 26 years old, seems to effortlessly make the part her own, adding an element of wholesome sensuality that Hepburn couldn’t quite match. She even sang nicely in a duet with Crosby of Porter’s “True Love.” For all of that, the musical comedy got mixed reviews. Director Charles Walters was not one of the greats of cinema and Sinatra and Crosby arguably had better chemistry with each other than they did with their absurdly beautiful lead. Maybe the fact that “High Society” was just okay made it easier for Kelly to attend to her royal duties and charity work and leave acting behind forever. – BW

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