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Once Upon A Time In West London: Empire Learns The Harmonica

Posted on Friday September 9, 2011, 16:49 by Phil de Semlyen in Empire States
Once Upon A Time In West London: Empire Learns The Harmonica

Many bourbons have been slugged debating the Greatest Western Moment. Is it Shane’s final shot of Alan Ladd disappearing righteously towards the horizon? That first iconic shot of John Wayne in Stagecoach? Clint’s graveyard showdown in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly? High noon in, um, that film with Gary Cooper? Mungo’s candygram in Blazing Saddles?

For me, it’s got to be the cool-as-iced-cucumbers introduction of another Man With No Name: Charles Bronson’s harmonica-playing gunslinger at the beginning of Once Upon A Time In The West. Sergio Leone’s revenge epic has been my favourite Western since boyhood, a perfect storm of my favourite things (Bronson, Jason Robards, Ennio Morricone, trains). My Darling Clementine and The Wild Bunch run it close, but neither have a Mexican stand-off with a six-minute opening sequence that ends with the some of the greatest dialogue ever uttered on the silver screen (“Looks like we’re shy one horse!” “You brought two too many”) and a draw so quick you’d need a Hadron Collider to recreate it. Neither have Claudia Cardinale looking smoking either.

With Once Upon A Time arriving in bullet-enhancing 1080p, I was given the chance to continue my life goal of Being A Bit More Like Charles Bronson by taking a harmonica lesson. Bear in mind that I'm working off an incredibly low base - in every sense. The only musical instrument I’ve ever played is the recorder, and I was bad at that even by the standards of primary school aural terrorism, but I had high hopes of being able to master that Morricone harmonica theme – or failing that, blag a harmonica and go practice at the nearest train station.

“So what would you like to take away this lesson?” asks the harmonica maestro charged with educating the assembled hacks in the ways of the mouth organ. We’ve assembled in the basement of a Mexican restaurant nursing sparkly new Suzuki diatonic harmonicas and debating whether 4pm on a Thursday is a bit early in the weekend for a margarita. “Well,” I venture, “I want to play the harmonica like Harmonica”. Silence. “That would take until Saturday afternoon,” Maestro smiles indulgently. He doesn’t specify which Saturday but I'd hazard a guess that it’s not this one.

As it turns out, even approximating Morricone’s mouth-organ motif requires not only the talent I palpably don’t have but also a chromatic harmonica, a whole different beast from the standard mouth organ you may once have received from Secret Santa. As our teacher puts it, the chromatic is “a harmonica on steroids” - a big bruiser with a sliding bar that gives its player access to two sets of scales and similar range to a flute. If you want to play Harmonica’s motif - or John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy theme for that matter - you’ll need one of these.

Maestro cues up his playing partner, Philip Achille, to show how it’s done. Achille is one of the world’s most accomplished harmonica players – yikes, he’s played at the Proms! – and he makes it look ridiculously easy, sliding through the scales and sending us all back to the Old West with “the most exotic notes on the blues scale”. When we try to reproduce it, it sounds like a polecat being pulled through a sieve. Lowering expectations, our teacher coaxes us through another, much easier tune, ‘the Chicken Shack’, which he promises will wow allcomers at our next party. This sounds good (the party trick, not the playing). Sure, it's probably a little jaunty to intimidate cold-eyed gunslingers in dusty locales, but it could rival my colleague Ali’s ability to pull himself through a coathanger.

Sure enough, it does. I’m also weirdly relieved to discover that Bronson was probably a Chicken-Shack-level player himself. In fact, as we discover, not only was that diatonic harmonica his character carries incapable of playing his motif, the chromatic harmonica wasn’t even invented until 1920, a few decades after Once Upon A Time In The West. This being one of my favourite films, this anachronism slides gently by. Besides, as Maestro points out, playing the chromatic is “like trying to play the piano blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back”, a complex business when you’re already relentlessly pursuing Henry Fonda.

The man behind Harmonica's iconic motif, we learn, was an Italian harmonica maestro called Franco De Gemini, and there’s a lovely story about De Gemini’s first meeting with Ennio Morricone. At one of the score's early recording scoring sessions, the mouth organist explained to his composer that he couldn’t possibly play Harmonica’s very low bass note first thing in the morning. Morricone, sympathetic, went away and changed the note in his score. A few weeks later De Gemini was faced with the same note and offered the same excuse. This time Morricone fixed him with an inscrutable gaze, pulled out his own harmonica and played the note perfectly, before nonchalantly remarking: “Once, you can get away with it, but twice no…”. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what’s known as a burn.

So what's your favourite Western moment? Any takers for Blazing Saddles?

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1 calumnorth
Posted on Wednesday September 14, 2011, 00:53
I think The Good The Bad And The Ugly just tops Once Upon A Time In The West.. However. if it were my favourite moment it would either be "If you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk." or "Only at the point of dying."

2 filmburner30
Posted on Wednesday September 14, 2011, 09:11
The opening of the Wild Bunch is perhaps the greatest using of editing ,during the robbery and of course "If they move Kill em "

Slim Pickens dying from a stomach wound while Bob Dylans Knocking on Heavens Door plays on the soundtrack of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid.

The end of Unforgiven.

The exit of John Wayne in The Searchers

3 loafroaster
Posted on Wednesday September 14, 2011, 13:25
Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We're gonna have to earn it.

4 lisamoorish
Posted on Wednesday September 14, 2011, 14:31
"There're two kinds of people in this world, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig."

5 kickpuncher
Posted on Thursday September 15, 2011, 00:54
"Hell of a thing, killin' a man."

6 Cynric
Posted on Thursday September 15, 2011, 08:35
"You know who your father was? Tou don't, I do, everybody here does! You're the son of a thousand men, all bastards like you!"

Probably the oldest and best "Yo Momma" ever recorded.

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