I’ve told the story here, at least a couple of times, about how I first saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST by accident as the unexpected half of a double feature, and how it so unexpectedly and completely moved me in ways to which my 12 year old self was accustomed that I left afterwards without seeing the Elvis Western I’d come to see. I knew Elvis couldn’t possibly compete with what I’d just experienced, so I picked up my coat and I left. I look back on this moment as the first adult decision of my life.
I was moved by a lot of different things about the film, but I now realize that its female lead Claudia Cardinale - who turned 80 yesterday - gave what was probably the first truly dimensional, empathetic portrayal of a woman I had ever seen in a film. Jill McBain is introduced as a New Orleans hooker who had the good fortune to catch the eye of a rich, romantic widowed landowner. She moves to join him and steps off the train to find him and his three children massacred for standing between some dangerous men and a goal they cravenly coveted - the raw lumber and iron necessary to build a town called Sweetwater, which Jill had somehow inspired in a heart no longer beating.
Jill is not your usual heroine; she is more of a look behind the scenes of a traditional western heroine’s life as she fights to survive and claim what she has earned. Throughout the film she is attended by three different men, each of them vultures of a kind and, in addition to whatever else the story eventually settles, the film is about how these three men interact with her and how her heart finally settles on one of them, who isn’t the worst one but really isn’t the right one either. When we meet her, she is one kind of illusion, the kind of woman whose promenading glance and well-turned ankle that might inspire a man to look at a handful of dust and dirt and believe in a place called Sweetwater. Then her life is blindsided by tragedy and the need to understand what has happened to her dreams and why. To learn the answers, she must navigate her way through the mysterious intersecting motives of these three men. By the end of this journey, she has gone from being confused by the name Sweetwater to becoming a literal waterbearer for the town springing up around her and the first train rails to connect the two halves of America from east to west.
Jill wasn’t the first woman of her kind in a western, but she was the first one I ever encountered. What she taught me that day at the movies, some men never learn.
Auguri e grazie, Claudia Cardinale.
(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.