Leone’s opening: A poem and a lesson for the ages:

There is truly endless character drama to be found in all people, even silent, stony faced, steely eyed killers who say little or nothing – and bringing any player to life, sometimes by examining details seemingly unrelated to any obvious storyline, forms the spine of the story being told.

Sergio Leone puts the proof to all this during the opening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, spending over 10 minutes dwelling on the most minute details of life, slowly bringing his three three reptilian assassins into focus as very recognizable human beings, each battling against particular, mundane, existential threats – chattering telegraphs, aggressive flies, drip-drip-dripping water and un cracked knuckles – when the angel of death (Charles Bronson) finally arrives, he seems to bring the others spiritual relief…Leone’s joke is so grand, and his key tools (a clear vision of both pacing and caricature) so obvious, that a child can learn from them.

The rest of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (Henry Fonda and all) is terrific, with many brilliant sequences, but it never quite recaptures the sheer genius of the opening minutes; this is both entertainment and an autopsy of “storytelling art” :

With a friend like Harry (who needs enemies)?

Lately I’ve read that the American remake of (2000 / French) Strangers- On – A – Train – while on vacation- thriller, WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY, has been re-activated — which brings back a (hopefully amusing) story about how the film business can works:

11-12 years ago, a short time after the original WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY first played in the the United States, I got a late call from a successful screenwriter pal -at that moment in LA -who asked me if I’d seen the movie.

ME: NOPE.
HIM: There’s a courier from Maramax bringing a VHS to your house.
ME: OK.. What’s up?
HIM: I’m supposed to pitch them my American re-write at 10 tomorrow morning NY. It’s hot. They’ve got Wes Craven attached. I’m going to be on the plane all night. I don’t like to write in flight so I need some help with the changes. Can you watch the movie as soon as it gets there?
ME: ..It’s kind of late.
HIM: 300 bucks

(beat)

ME: Ahh right.

Cut to:

The courier arrives at my door.

Cut to:

I’m watching the movie. (probably drinking something)

Fade out – fade in: I’m back on phone w/ successful screenwriter:

ME: ..So I thought it was pretty good. Did you watch it?
HIM: Yeah.
ME: So what did you think?
HIM: I thought it was pretty good.
ME: So what do you think needs to be changed?
HIM: Nothing. It was pretty good.

(beat)

ME: OK.

(beat)

HIM: Listen, Ray, we gotta change some things – that’s what they’re paying for – my agent says gig is like, like 200k, just for the 1st draft!
(beat)

ME: OK.. so you want me to change some stuff ?
HIM: Yeah. Just go in there and change a bunch of things around .. but still make sure it’s still good or don’t make it much worse.

(beat)

ME:.. ok.

Fade out.

**

I can’t remember much of anything of what went on in the original movie, much less what I did to it that night but the next morning my buddy stopped by to pick up my treatment, gave it a fast read @ the corner coffee shop,  handed me some bills and seemed happy as he rushed off. As far as I know, an hour later, he pitched exactly what I gave him. I don’t think he actually got the gig in (he was up against a bunch of other A-listers) – or – since my pal was always working on 3-4 things at once .. maybe he did and never bothered to mention it again(?)  — and so just maybe my “re-conception” of the film, which took not much longer to create than it took to actually watch the film, has remained intact and is what they’re working with to this day ?? .. Should I find the notion funny or sad?

ME: I don’t know.

Notes: Brilliant establishing scene / set-up: WAR GAMES (1983):

We never see these characters again in the movie after this ultimately HAIR-RAISING pre-credit sequence — the scene exists to set up the central conflict (later faced by hapless high school kid Matthew Broderick) that the military has become distrusting of “human control” – and so, has put a computer in charge of the nuclear defense system.

What’s so clever here is the way in which the two (nameless) characters are established through mundane, personal interaction, distracting us from what is about to occur, even as the film is establishing the nuclear silo setting around them — By the end of this sequence we understand  the dire importance of the forces at play, even though we will will not come back to this location or to these particular characters. After the credits (which begin immediately after the last moment here) the story will pick up on a character who has absolutely nothing to do with what we have witnessed — and then, very slowly, will work its way back into the nuclear threat, as the issue slowly worms its way into the main character’s life — A very sound / cleaver setup and recommended for close examination by anybody who wants to establish crucial and complicated info in a compelling and mysterious fashion and/or start a slow boil story with a BANG:

Full movie (runs out of steam @ about 2/3rds of the way) :

Notes: THE WARRIORS (1979) – ALTERNATE OPENING:

For the finished film, Hill obviously decided re-shoot the opening with the characters in shadow, using roughly the same dialogue, against much more exciting cuts of the onrushing subway tracks and glimpses of the other gangs The Warriors would eventually face. In the deleted footage here: The first minute establishes Cleon, the leader, in a different way than the finished film – giving us a much more personal attachment – but since Cleon gets killed almost immeadiately, not of necessity (and so wisely cut) – still very interesting and informative look into what became the final cut.