Once Upon a Time in the West: Spaghetti or toast
Review by Paul Rennie oct 28, 2008 at The Guardian
The European western
During the 1960s, the Italian film industry re-invented the American western. The genre was attractive for a variety of reasons.
For many Europeans, the western was widely acknowledged as a quintessentially American form of film storytelling. The pared-down circumstances of the American west allowed for an operatic intensity of drama.
Plus, the films were alluring to producers because of their relative economy. These movies became identified, because of their Italian origins, as spaghetti westerns.
Spaghetti in the desert
Italian film-makers drew on their familiarity with the genre to re-cast the western in a more cynical light than their American contemporaries. Film-makers in America had generally mythologised the west in terms of the harsh moral certainties of biblical teaching. American films were shot against the conveniently close backdrop of Monument Valley and the Arizona dessert.
The ironic re-invention of the genre became a global phenomenon through the success of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy. Clint Eastwood was cast as the man-with-no-name bounty hunter, Blondie, and launched toward global superstardom.
The success of these films encouraged the producers to give the director, Sergio Leone, carte blanche for his next project. That project became Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In the beginning, the script was fleshed out by Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci – whose collaboration <produced a story with a conceptual and philosophical sophistication unusual for cinema.
Marx in the west
The story of Once Upon a Time is set against the land-grab associated with the building of the trans-continental railway. So the drama is played out against a background of money and technology that provides a determining force for the characters’ actions. The foregrounding of these powerful themes lends the film a historical, sociological and psychological realism.
In the 1960s, the critical understanding of human behaviour was advanced through the development of social-science methodologies. The revelation, in detail, of the complex workings of modern society was generally understood as informed by Marxist theory and the pop culture sensibility of the Frankfurt School intellectuals. So, the film provides a watershed by acknowledging and foregrounding the complexity of the systems that determine our behaviour.
This poster for Once Upon a Time in the West is unusual to both British and American eyes. The narrow vertical format suggests that it was printed, as a stock-poster, for display in the doors of the local bars surrounding the cinema. This form of local display is quite usual in France and Italy and has resulted in a particular, and quite specific, form of poster. The addition of a coloured paper sticker with the exact date and time of the presentation would finish off the display. The coloured paper stickers were usually printed locally in letterpress.
The simplification of the design into two, related, elements is daring. The poster comprises the title of the film in a playbill form of typeface. In addition there is a pictorial element derived from the opening gun battle sequence. The figure is conspicuous for his distinctive duster style coat. Let’s look at these things in detail.
Bar-room playbills and thrifty typefaces
The playbill typeface was designed in the 19th century as a display type for the semi-literate communities of the American west. Display types were first originated in the 18th century as part of a growing demand for large sized typefaces that could be read, or at least recognised, from a distance. Typically, these letterforms were used on shop fronts and in letterpress poster design. So, they are entirely associated, in historical terms, with the emergence of organised commercial entertainments. This playbill typeface has a compressed form that, allowing more letters per line, is implicitly associated with the solid western value of thrift.
Display types are immediately recognisable. In order to catch the eye, they use exaggerations of scale, form and perspective. The solid black printing associated with these letters is a historical reference to the ancient black-letter typefaces of early wood-block printing. The solid and exaggerated black serifs produce a distinctive optical dazzle and visual punch. This pattern can be recognised and, by association, linked to the various entertainments.
For many people these letters, spelling out saloon or the names on a wanted poster for example, are an immediate and powerful reference to the Wild West.
The duster was a long, loose coat made of canvas or linen. It was designed to be worn by horsemen and to fit over their normal clothing and to protect it from trail dust. For practical purposes the coat had an exaggerated vent that allowed the coat to be worn comfortably whilst riding. On foot, the coats had a particular flapping gait. In addition the long, loose, coats allowed a variety of guns and weapons to be concealed. Just like the poncho, the coats allowed for the ready and speedy use of firearms. So the flapping duster was associated in the popular imagination, and from its very beginning, with violent and itinerant groups of horsemen.
These specific associations help explain why the duster was rarely seen in the traditional western. The hero, individually isolated, could ride long distances without requiring special clothing except in the most difficult circumstances. Furthermore, the moral integrity of the hero would be fatally compromised by the use of a coat to hide a gun. Lastly, the action of most westerns is played out against the civilised backdrop of town and community. Even the saloon bar setting of many westerns required the protagonists to fight it out in their Sunday best.
The fight scene
The poster image comes from the railway station shoot-out that provides the climax of the long opening, and credit, sequence of the film. Three men, wearing trademark dusters, await the train and form an intimidating welcoming committee. After a long wait, the train arrives. The men are surprised when no one appears. It is only as the train departs that they become aware of the visitor. After some discussion, a gunfight takes place and the newcomer rides away. The sequence is constructed as a reference to the station scene in High Noon.
The duster coats are recognised as belonging to a local gang. In fact the agents of railway speculator, Morton, wear the coats as a form of disguise. The ruthlessness of Morton is based on a number of personalities associated with the American railway boom and its associated frauds, scandals and mayhem. The underhand and double-dealing of the railway speculator provides the framework for a film about violent duplicity and revenge.
This is my all-time favourite film. I’ve watched it many times and I’m still amazed by it. It’s big and clever and beautiful. The poster’s great too.