3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Mixed feelings, but I may be wrong,
This review is from: A Fistful Of Dynamite (Special Edition) [DVD] (DVD)
Sergio Leone is arguably my favourite director and I regularly re-watch his films... except for A Fistful of Dynamite (or Once Upon a Time... the Revolution, OUTR, as I prefer to think of it). Indeed it's been so long, the last time was on VHS!
The reason for this is that it never quite feels like a Leone film for me. It is neither a western nor does it hit the heights of Once Upon a Time in America; instead it feels like a confused hybrid. All his western trademarks are there - the sweaty FBCUs, wind-hissing wild track, bank robberies, bridges blown-up, Almeria setting, Morricone score etc - but somehow they seemed half-hearted as if Leone was just going through the motions. Things like pace and tension are, in my opinion, sorely missing.
These problems are compound by the plot. I've always been impressed by how Leone made his narratives appear simple while they are actually convoluted and complex. But with OUTR the plot lacks coherence. In many ways it's a series of picaresque set-pieces with tenuous connecting strands - most notably when we move from the carriage/motorcycle opening sequence to the bit when Juan blows up the church. How have we got here? What's going on? I still don't understand. Similarly [spoiler coming next] the scene where's Juan's family is killed. There's no foreshadowing - we just lurch into it. One could argue this is demonstration of Leon's audacity as a director (ie effectively to play the punchline of the scene backwards) but I find it emotionally unsatisfying.
On top of the plot issues are the characters. It's difficult to understand what motivates them. Juan is simpler, but Sean remains an enigma. Why, for instance, does he abandon Juan as the train passes... but waits for him at Mesa Verde? The explanations seem thin and unconvincing. Complex motivation may be lacking in Leone's Dollars Trilogy but that's because the characters are driven by money; their motive is so intrinsic to their characters that it becomes invisible. In OUTR the motivation feels self-conscious - either in explanation or absence of. I also think that Steiger and Coburn (in this picture at least) lack presence and chemistry. They are like a watered down version of Tuco and Blondi with none of the latter pair's outrageous wit or duplicitous energy. One thing I love best about Leone is how he can take minor characters (think of the innkeeper and his wife in Few Dollars More) or even non-speaking extras and make them so vibrant and arresting. Again, in comparison, OUTR seems much blander.
Talking of bland I'm not much impressed with Morricone's score here. It's almost `effeminate', too soft and trilling for the harsh setting of the Mexican Revolution. Perhaps this reflects the softness of the characters. I can't imagine a theme like Harmonica's working for Juan or Sean. As for the `Sean, Sean, Sean' song - maybe I'm missing some subtle point but I think it is unintentionally and inappropriately funny (when it's not being annoying). In fact the score often seems at odds with the action - think again of the scene when Juan finds his family slaughtered.
Having said all the above there are still some wonderful Leone touches: the scene where Juan rips through the eyes of the poster; the look on his face as he opens the bank vaults; the chicken `stroking' scene. The mass execution tracking shot on the roof tops is one of the most powerful in his oeuvre. There are also some fantastic explosions - keep your eye out for the one as Sean blows up the carriage and walks away as a ball of flame rises behind him. Leone is having his most fun with the picture here! I pity the poor camera man though...
All of which brings me to the `packaging' of this version. The film transfer is decent enough, though in places the dialogue track is poor; I assumer this is a problem with the master reel or it may have to do with the post-synching (something discussed in the commentary - more of which in a second). There are also some decent featurettes on the second disc, including a particularly interesting one about the different versions.
The standout highlight though is Christopher Frayling's commentary. This is worth the price of the DVD alone. It is erudite, engaging and will definitely make you look at the film anew. For this reason alone I would recommend you buy a copy.
In conclusion I'm left with very mixed feelings. Leone is undoubtedly a genius but I find this a confused and unsatisfactory film... though I will happily admit to being in the minority, so maybe I've got it wrong; Frayling is certainly a big fan! Part of my problem is that it's impossible to view it without comparing it to his previous - and in my opinion - vastly superior westerns. Nevertheless I would recommend anyone with a passing interesting in the spaghetti western or Leone to buy this version, listen to what Frayling has to say and make up your own mind. 4 stars: more for the overall package than the movie itself.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Jun 2011 11:42:33 BDT
Last edited by the author on 13 Jun 2011 11:44:49 BDT
D. Milne says:
An impressive review. I agree with almost everything you say. I too found it a strange mix of high quality and sometimes confusing editing - particularly at that church tower explosion. I disagree about the music: I too used to find it strange and perhaps annoying compared to my much loved Dollars themes, but I happened to have it on an Ennio Morricone compilation CD set, and after hearing it a few times I now consider it one of the most beautiful things he's written. Certainly the most beautiful use of Edda Dell'Orso's magical voice. I urge you to give it a second chance! One thing you didn't mention is Rod Steigers "Mexican" accent, which I found pretty awful, even offensive at times. People wryly comment on Tuco's incongruous Brooklyn Jewish accent, but Steiger shows us that the alternative is infinitely worse!
In reply to an earlier post on 13 Jun 2011 23:17:15 BDT
Mr. R Robertson says:
Thanks for your comment and I'm glad you liked the review.
I didn't mention Steiger's accent because a) plenty of other reviewers had b) I thought the less said about it the better!
Interesting you should mention the score. It's actually been playing in my head quite a lot since I saw the film and I'm starting to come round to the idea that it's much better than I initially gave it credit for. I'm not 100% sure yet - but will continue to keep an open mind.
I do agree, however, that Dell'Orso voice is magnificient here. Perhaps that was my problem with the score - her soaring soprano being overtaken by 'Sean, Sean'. I wanted more of the former.
In reply to an earlier post on 11 Dec 2011 23:00:07 GMT
BS on parade says:
Great review. I agree with all that you said.
In reply to an earlier post on 29 Dec 2011 09:42:28 GMT
Mr. R Robertson says:
Glad you liked the review. Just read your own review of the film and have added a few comments to yours.
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