A trio of gunmen stand watch at an isolated train station under a blistering Arizona sun. A locomotive chugs into the station and drops off a lone traveler; he plays a grating harmonica tune to announce his arrival. The gunmen confront the traveler. Nobody moves for a long stretch. A terse exchange of words follows. Guns are drawn. Shots fired. Four bodies lay still on the wooden platform. After a moment one man stands up: the harmonica player.
This is the intro to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, released in 1968, an instant western classic that was anything but traditional. It was Leone’s last western… but it the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s love affair with Leone’s work, who was only six years old when this film was released. Tarantino cites Leone’s ‘Spaghetti’ westerns among his favorite films, according to The Independent.
Tarantino the filmmaker has long been influenced by Leone. As he eyes the final chapter in his own Hollywood career, he’s now come full circle.
The scene described above plays out over ten long minutes, with barely a word spoken. It’s pure mood and atmosphere, it’s also beautifully shot and incredibly tense. Few modern filmmakers would dare to shoot such a sequence today… unless your name happens to be Quentin Tarantino, of course, who adapted this particular gunfight — almost beat-for-beat — in his first major film, Resevoir Dogs.
Now we’re learning more about Tarantino’s next film, which is set just a year after Once Upon a Time in the West’s release, and shares more than a little DNA with Leone’s film. The film now has a title: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and two of its leads: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as reported by Vanity Fair.
Tarantino describes the story in broad strokes:
“[It] takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood. The two lead characters are Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), former star of a western TV series, and his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt). Both are struggling to make it in a Hollywood they don’t recognize anymore. But Rick has a very famous next-door neighbor… Sharon Tate.”
The Leone connection is subtle, but you can see it in Tarantino’s synopsis.
Leone’s Spaghetti westerns were shocking for their time. They turned old Hollywood on its ear with their stylized violence, minimalistic dialog, and dynamic camerawork. At the same time, traditional Hollywood westerns were on the decline, having played out every trope and cliche hundreds (if not thousands) of times since their inception. In Tarantino’s film, Dalton and Booth are some of the last remnants of that dying genre, and they realize that the sun is setting on their careers.
This is probably not the movie that most fans (and the media) were expecting.
A ton of press has been written under the assumption that Tarantino’s film would focus upon the Manson Family and Tate’s murder. It might, no one but Tarantino really knows at this point. However, it’s becoming apparent that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is more interested in a changing of the guard in Hollywood (the death of the old contract system). A transition hastened by filmmakers like Leone, who was a maverick filmmaker, part of the European Auteur movement that flooded into Hollywood during the early 70s. (The early American auteurs included Altman, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, and Malick.)
How (or if) the Manson Family even figures into the film’s plot is unclear. Perhaps it’s just a historical element referenced in the film’s background. Whatever your expectations, be prepared for surprises, they’re the hallmarks of his films. Tarantino explains his rationale for the movie, which provides some insight:
“I’ve been working on this script for five years, as well as living in Los Angeles County most of my life, including in 1969, when I was seven years old. I’m very excited to tell this story of an L.A. and a Hollywood that don’t exist anymore. And I couldn’t be happier about the dynamic teaming of DiCaprio & Pitt as Rick & Cliff.”
Tarantino appears to be making a film about the juxtaposition of old and new Hollywood, which just happens to coincide with the Summer of Love, The Manson Family, and the Counterculture revolution. Much like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which was a similar collection of random parts that worked incredibly well together, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brings together Tarantino’s love of film history, his desire to subvert genre, and his respect for the masters, like Leone. Here’s hoping that someone plays the harmonica somewhere in this film, for old time’s sake!
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s ninth film, will hit theaters on August 9, 2019, which is also the 50th anniversary of the Tate killings.