Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Alternate Best Actor 1968: Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in The West

Charles Bronson did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.

I must admit Charles Bronson's work in this film, which is one of my all time favorites, is something I've perhaps taken too much for granted given what he offers to the film. Bronson to begin with had some large shoes to fill in the form of Clint Eastwood as the man with no name in the dollars trilogy. Eastwood was the original choice for Harmonica in this film but turned it down leaving Bronson to fill the role of the man with no name only one given by someone else. Now in terms of the most straight forward sense Bronson proves himself capable of taking over from Eastwood from the very first scene of the film. That first scene being the greatest opener in any film where three thugs await Harmonica's arrival to the town at an almost deserted train station. Bronson appears in one the greatest character entrances of all time, though the film has three of those anyways, as the man with no name is announced through the playing of the instrument that becomes his moniker. Bronson makes himself known as well through his steely gaze that commands such a powerful presence. This leads to a truly unforgettable exchange where every moment of Bronson's performance may as well be of legend, as the man inquires about the amount of horses the thugs have who reply that they seem to be one short for the man. This leads to Bronson's head shake that may as well be a visual definition of badass followed by the verbal definition of it through his flawlessly, well for a lack of a better word, cool delivery of "You brought two too many" leading to a shoot out where the man is victorious.

From that opener alone Bronson proves that he will be as much if not more of the commanding hero than Eastwood. Bronson meets and surpasses the quota in that regard, but that's not all there is to a good man with no name. The man with no name is notable here as he's the only one of the principal characters to interact with the other four those being the newly arrived widow of a murdered family with important land holding Jill (Claudia Cardinale), the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), the black hat killer Frank (Henry Fonda) and the underrated railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). As he stands in the middle, making the most pivotal moves perhaps, Harmonica though does not stand as this stoic uninterested hero and goes further with the role by doing so. The relationship that perhaps gets the most screentime is between Harmonica and Cheyenne the bandit, who actually names Harmonica in their first meeting at a trading post after Cheyenne has just escaped, violently, from his captors. Robards and Bronson together is one of the highlights of the film, which has many of those, as they make such strong use out of every single second they have together.

In that initial meeting scene there is an underlying intensity there due to Cheyenne's situation but Bronson and Robards make it a humorous meeting of two similar spirits who just are not aware of their similarity yet. Robards is great by playing with Cheyenne as calm and collected yet quietly frustrated by Harmonica which Bronson is brilliant at with his perfect smirks as he plays Harmonica slightly trolling the bandit while uncovering a bit information he needs. Their relationships grows so naturally in each successive scene, as the two help each help Jill, and a reason that this is convincing is the chemistry between Bronson and Robards. I love the way the two are when they meet again striking up just this understanding that is given this striking warmth, that is never stated even once, the two exude it in again expressing this mutual spirits. The two from then on, every scene they share, have this sort of rhythm to their performances that is such a delight to watch while establishing such genuine camaraderie between the two. They are fun simply to be around such as in the scene where Harmonica essentially explains the land plot in large bit of exposition which never feels dull through their flawless timing with one another.

My favorite moment in that scene being Bronson's encouraging delivery of Harmonica's addition of "They call them millions" as Cheyenne ponders on the money that could be made from the land deal. I could go on and on with those and two, and you know I will a little more. The two just have such an ease that makes their moments so enjoyable such as the little smile Bronson gives towards Robards when Cheyenne is rescuing Harmonica in a most curious fashion, or one of the best moments in the film when the two save Jill's home from a fixed auction by Harmonica turning in Cheyenne for the reward money. Again the two are just pitch perfect with Bronson offering the right smug satisfaction playing purposefully the jerk as he offers Cheyenne up. I have particular affection for Bronson's sardonic delivery of "They didn't have dollars in dem days" when Cheyenne mentions that Judas betrayed Jesus for a lot less money. Everything with those two is pure gold and those scenes belong to both Bronson and Robards. Neither overshadows the other the two just work in such beautiful harmony with one another as they make Harmonica and Cheyenne such an engaging and endearing pair.

Now having great chemistry with his scene partner was actually found in Eastwood's latter two collaborations with Leone as well, but there is more as the character expands beyond even what we saw from Bill, Manco and Blondie. Although Harmonica is a man with no name he is not a man without a purpose or a past. The purpose is found in helping Jill but also found in thwarting Frank's and technically Morton's plans. The pivotal factor in this is Frank which is very interesting. In much of Harmonica's interactions with these three Bronson brings effectively, very effectively, that badass cool but with a humorous bent as though Harmonica doesn't mind having a bit of fun while also saving the day. Bronson pulls that off with such ease but goes further with actually. In that he has that clever smile so often portraying this way Harmonica seems to get under the skin of his opponent Frank by seeming some how beyond the man in that way he seems to laugh whenever he messes with their plans. That is the front that Bronson often shows Harmonica has, which makes him an incredibly appealing hero, but again Bronson offers even more depth to Harmonica by going even further with the role.

Bronson's performance though is incredibly subtle in this regard yet so remarkable. Watching the film again Bronson proves to be so able in such minimalist circumstances given that Harmonica doesn't say too much. When Harmonica first meets Frank face to face again there is a moment, just a moment, before he attains his usual cool where Harmonica's face express a haunted man, an emotional pain that has laid there for some time. This is an idea that he keeps within his work that grants a greater poignancy to Harmonica's quest, that doesn't even quite seem the simple revenge it could be. That is found in a few later instances where Frank asks Harmonica who he is and Harmonica gives a different name every time, the connection between the names being that they are all men Frank has killed. When he says these names there is certain incisive sadness in Bronson's eyes as though Harmonica starring to Frank soul as he says the name as though his path for vengeance extends far past himself. What I love about what Bronson does with this is that he adds a honest vulnerability even while still being a proper badass.

He  alludes to that deeper trauma within his intention for Frank right until the final duel where he reveals it fully though silently. Bronson is brilliant in this scene though in his portrayal of this as just before the duel begins completely he has that smirk again with Harmonica happy in getting Frank just where he wants him, but when it is finally time for the act Bronson reveals a change. The scene depicts the flashback of when Frank killed Harmonica's brother, but Bronson also reflects this memory in his performance. The smile is gone as he looks into the void of the past, and Bronson expresses without a word the hole that loss left in Harmonica. This is a great performance by Charles Bronson because he manages to reveal this more emotional undercurrent throughout his work which never for a moment compromises his character. It only amplifies the hero and makes such a stronger impact through it which amplifies the power of the film. There is such poignancy he finds in smallest glance such as in his final scene with Robards. Harmonica doesn't say much in the scene, he doesn't have to Bronson's eyes as he sees Cheyenne's wound says it all and it is heartbreaking. This is outstanding work from Bronson as he manages to take what Eastwood did in those earlier films, which was impressive in itself, and takes it to even greater heights.

61 comments:

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

He's winning this without a doubt.
Louis: Your top ten performances by actors playing badass characters.

Charles Heiston said...

He's astounding. Every one of his scenes are magnetic. I'd say he surpasses Eastwood's 60's work with this performance.

Calvin Law said...

Without a doubt, my favourite Sergio Leone performance.

Calvin Law said...

Also, Louis, what do you think of the scene where Cheyenne and Harmonica first meet in terms of the technical aspects? It's such a beautifully lit scene.

Calvin Law said...

And lastly, what's your rating for Cardinale now? I give her a strong 4.5 as well as considering her co-lead with Bronson and Fonda (who I've moved to lead).

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Is Fonda Co-Lead.

Charles Heiston said...

My favorite Leone performance would be between Bronson and Wallach.

Luke Higham said...

Charles: Wallach for me. :)

Luke Higham said...

I'm seeing Wonder Woman tonight.

Anonymous said...

Murder On The Orient Express trailer is out, what does everyone reckon?

Luke Higham said...

Anonymous: I'm actually looking forward to it. I'm so glad Depp's the victim, won't have to put up with him for long. :)

Branagh should do a great job. Based on Wallander, Detectives are in his wheelhouse.

RatedRStar said...

Luke: Casting Depp as the victim is quite amusing, I quite liked the trailer minus the out of place song at the end, could it be an Oscar contender, it might be I am not sure, November is a clever time to release.

Kenneth Branagh looks quite good, yes detectives are in his wheelhouse. He pretty much carried Wallander.

Calvin Law said...

I think Branagh sounds okay but looks awful. The rest of the cast look great though, especially Dafoe and Gad.

Charles Heiston said...

The cast seems good, i'm not that big on Branagh past Hamlet but he seems like an alright choice.

Anonymous said...

Could it be an Oscar contender? has an awards friendly release date, plus potential for acting, the original did so well.

Louis Morgan said...

Tahmeed:

Ask me again in the results.

Calvin:

That scene is brilliant in terms of the lighting from Cheyenne's own shadowy entrance to Harmonica being revealed through the lantern, and perfect in terms of playing with whether or not either of the men's intentions are noble or not.

4.5.

Luke:

Funny enough on this watch I thought he was supporting.

Anonymous:

Were those more contacts on Depp? He needs a restraining order from them. Aside from that I didn't care for the trailer as a trailer just in terms of that extremely ill-fitting song and that VR shot. The material though should fit Branagh's strengths as a director, and I'm glad it seems like he won't be going too big as Poirot, well other than in terms of the mustache.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the story will be exactly the same, because lets face it pretty much everyone knows who did it so it would be clever if they actually changed it otherwise why remake a murder mystery?

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

As much as I actually enjoy the music of Imagine Dragons, I am pretty sick of their work being overused in trailers and TV shows.
Louis: How close is Clark Gable to being your win for 1939?

Calvin Law said...

Louis, what are your thoughts on Michael K. Williams in The Night Of, and Joe Keery in Stranger Things?

Charles Heiston said...

I'll admit that i quite liked Finney in the original.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Your overall thoughts on the Emmy system for acting awards (the episode/tape submission system). Also, what do you think could be an alternative?

Michael McCarthy said...

Fonda's pretty easily supporting for me, though I might need a re-watch in order to place Cardinale.

Michael McCarthy said...

Also I just wanted to throw in that in regards to the scene Calvin mentioned, Cheyenne swinging the lamp at Harmonica is one of my favorite shots of all time. The last time I watched it it almost made me cry with how good it was.

Louis Morgan said...

Tahmeed:

I'll say it's a either or between him and Laughton.

Anonymous:

I don't think they will given it's Branagh and he tends to stick to the source material.

Calvin:

Williams - (It is the role he basically is typecast as but hey he's great at it. He offers such a charismatic presence that he makes it absolutely believable that he is basically the king of the prison. He's good in the way he brings really a certain warmth in his performance creating this sense of sincerity that he wants to help him. Williams though is so elegantly, without raising his voice or doing much of anything violent, to convey the menace even in his particularly graceful criminal. It's great work from him even if it is in his usual wheelhouse.)

Keery - (He is properly obnoxious in his charm that is no way convincing probably to most viewers including myself, but in the right way in that you can see how his routine might work with say less mature crowd. Keery though actually does do fairly well not to become ridiculous either when his character reveals his true colors, portraying mostly as an overdone bluster, which allows his transition to a better side feel rather natural.)

Tahmeed:

Where it is quite possible to view the majority of Oscar contenders in a given year it is impossible to watch every television performance of merit properly. I don't think the submission really works even for sitcoms it offers such a narrow view that benefits flashy or even simple performances that you can understand fully from a single episode. For dramas though it is even worse in that performances working with a season arc will not be in play, which is probably why Giancarlo Esposito could not win since you needed to see multiple episodes to understand what he was doing with the role.

I will say it was better when the voters had to sign off on viewing the tapes since at least then it wasn't just the popular name that won now it's even worse though.

I don't think that is a fair system but I also don't see how you could do it any other way. There's a reason the Emmy's are less prestigious and the winners are so often forgotten. It just is impossible to watch everything making them sort of pointless.

Michael McCarthy said...

T -20 minutes until Wonder Woman.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on Frank Welker's Galvatron and Dick Gautier's Rodimus Prime.

Luke Higham said...

Saw Wonder Woman, I enjoyed it quite alot, especially it's First Avenger-esque second act.

Gadot/Pine - 4 (They have such fantastic chemistry together. As with Dawn Of Justice, Gadot makes for a very convincing badass & carried the film very well and Pine delivered some great character work as well, he also would've been a great choice for Pitt's role in Allied)
Nielsen - 3
Wright - 3
Davis - 3
Huston/Anaya - 2.5
Thewlis - 3.5

Luke Higham said...

*Gadot - 4.5

Anonymous said...

Luke: A 4,5 for Gadot, huh? I gotta see this movie.

Luke Higham said...

Anonymous: It's a weak 4.5 and I'm probably gonna go back and forth on the rating. I really enjoyed her performance.

This film, as much as I enjoyed it, made me hate the first three DCEU films even more.

Matt Mustin said...

So basically anybody other than Brad Pitt should've been cast in Allied?

Anonymous said...

Matt: That's right.

Luke Higham said...

Matt Mustin: Not everyone, Ansel Elgort would've been far worse as well as being completely out of place.

Matt Mustin said...

Luke: Well, fair enough.

Matt Mustin said...

Louis, what are your thoughts on the song "Save Me" from Magnolia?

Calvin Law said...

Luke: what about Bremmer, Taghamoui and Rock?

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: 2.5 for Rock and 3s for Bremner and Taghamoui.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Are you gonna watch O Lucky Man! before posting McDowell's review.

Michael McCarthy said...

Just saw Wonder Woman, it was actually pretty great.

Robert MacFarlane said...

I also saw Wonder Woman and was impressed. It's been a while since I saw a comic book movie so earnest and devoid of snark.

Charles Heiston said...

Saw it too. I think it was very good. Quite a clever movie with an alright cast.

Robert MacFarlane said...

I did thinking Huston was kind of awful. Somehow managed to be cartoonish yet entirely lethargic.

Charles Heiston said...

Eh, he was the only one i wasn't impressed with was although he didn't bother me too much.

Anonymous said...

I think Save Me from Magnolia should have won the best song Oscar over Phil Collins for one of his worst singles.

Calvin Law said...

Aw, I admit I love Phil Collins and his Tarzan tunes. But Save Me is indeed the superior song.

Luke Higham said...

Charles: Your ratings on the Wonder Woman cast.

Luke Higham said...

What I really like most about Wonder Woman, is that it didn't feel like it had any connection to prior DCEU films like Dawn Of Justice. I could just view it as it's own film rather than an advertisement for Justice League.

Calvin Law said...

Saw The Other Side of Hope. It has a few slightly off moments, but on the whole I found it quite funny, engaging and interesting.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: If you're seeing Wonder Woman tonight, could I have your ratings/thoughts on the cast and the film overall.

Charles Heiston said...

Luke: Everyone except Huston and Anaya were decent. I preferred Pine to Gadot.
Gadot - 4
Pine - 4
Huston/Anaya - 2
Thewlis - 3.5
Rock - 2.5
Nielsen - 3
Wright - 3
Davis - 3
Bremner & Taghamoui - 3

Anonymous said...

Just finished watching Wonder Woman. Wow, just wow. I'm with Luke. Watching this film made me hate Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad even more.
Ratings:
Gadot: 4
Pine: 4
Huston and Anaya: 2 for Huston and 2,5 for Anaya.
Thewlis: 3,5
Rock: 2,5
Nielsen: 3
Wright: 3
Davis: 3
Bremner & Taghamoui: 3

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the final shootout of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Luke Higham said...

I think we can all agree, Justice League will be the worst comic-book film of the year.

Anonymous said...

Luke: Yeah, and that's a shame. DC should just fire Snyder.

Charles Heiston said...

As long as he's bringing in the big bucks they won't ditch him.

Anonymous said...

Charles: You're right, but DC won't get better because if they don't fire him.

Charles Heiston said...

Anonymous: And you're right about that, but DC could care less if he's bad or not as long as they're making money.

Alex Marqués said...

Louis: what did you think of the last episode of Fargo?

Luke Higham said...

It appears that Game Of Thrones: Season 8 will likely be pushed back to 2019. I'm not happy about this.

Charles Heiston said...

Luke: i know right? Not happy about it either.

Louis Morgan said...

Matt:

I'd say I prefer how the song is used in the film over the song itself not that I dislike it by any means. I don't think it's great though in its extremely repetitive chords and lyrics with just some random flourishes thrown in there, like the occasional scale. It doesn't really build nor is it so good that it should be as static as it is.

Anonymous:

Cinematic perfection and the testament to what makes Segio Leone such a master. The scene in terms of what happens is the good guy shoots the bad guy, but through Leone's direction it is a work of art. His work in using editing to create palatable tension, the use of such specific shots that add to that tension along with create the emotional context of the scene, and of course with the perfect use of Ennio Morricone's score which altogether makes the long sequence absolutely mesmerizing from beginning to end.

Luke:

I'll have to imagine it will essentially be a six or more hour film in terms of scale then.

Alex:

I thought the episode was fine as a table setting episode overall. I did particularly enjoy Stuhlbarg's breakdown of his "betrayal" though and loved the return of a familiar face at the end.