P.O.V. No.24 - The Western

Jack Elam and the Fly
in Once Upon a Time in the West

Richard Raskin

... a stakeout at a deserted station, Jack Elam and a fly - the most audacious credit sequence in film history.
Review in Time Out

One of the scenes most often singled out for special mention even in the briefest discussions of Once Upon a Time in the West, involves a fly and the legendary character actor Jack Elam, the wall-eyed heavy who was aptly described as:

grizzled and stringy-haired and one of his eyes always seemed to be trying to roll around so it could look behind his head. He was the sort of shifty character who might shoot the family dog or dunk a bawling baby in hot water just for kicks. [1]

In this film his character's name is "Snakey," which suitably evokes the reptilian quality of the part.

The extraordinary set-piece with the fly begins about six minutes into the opening credit sequence after the three gunmen, played by Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock, have taken over an isolated railroad station and are waiting for a train to arrive.

Elam is seated in a rocking chair on the porch of the station. His face looks chronically unwashed and is covered with beard stubble. Having just been annoyed by the ticker-tape noise of a nearby telegraph, he has reached over and ripped the wires out of the machine to silence it for good, and has now pulled his hat down over his eyes, trying to take a nap. Standing under a water tower and with his hat removed in order to fan himself with it, Woody Strode ("Stony") feels drops of water landing on his head, each drop making a loud splash as it hits his pate. He replaces the hat on his head, so that the drops that continue to fall now land just as audibly on his hat. And not far away, under the open sky, Al Mulock ("Knuckles") passes the time by cracking his knuckles as he waits for the train.

It is at this point that a fly lands on Elam's neck and Elam opens his eyes and tries unsuccessfully to blow the fly away, by directing his breath in its direction. After it has resettled near his lip, he finally shoos it off his face with a wave of his hand. He then turns to see where it has landed - on an adjacent wooden surface. With pistol now in hand, Elam slyly waits a moment, then rapidly turns and slamming the muzzle up against the wooden surface, captures the fly in the barrel of his gun. With an index finger blocking the muzzle so that the fly can't escape, Elam is visibly pleased with his exploit and holds the gun up to his ear, listening to the fly's desperate buzzing. He then looks down at the barrel of the gun with his one good eye, opening it exceptionally wide. And after holding the gun barrel to his ear once again to hear the buzzing of the imprisoned fly, he finally lets it go as the train approaches, by removing his finger from the muzzle and waving the gun in the air.

It is after this bit of action that the last of the opening credits appears on screen as the train pulls into the station, and "Snakey" soon has his often-quoted dialogue with Harmonica (Charles Bronson):

Harmonica: Where's Frank?
Snakey: Frank sent us.
Harmonica: Did you bring a horse for me?
Snakey (laughing): Looks like we… Looks like we're shy one horse.
Harmonica (shaking his head no): You brought two too many.

This is followed by the shootout that leaves all three gunmen dead and Harmonica slightly wounded.

In order to complete the contextualization of the fly scene, the events preceding it should also be briefly summarized. At the very start of the film, when Elam, Strode and Mulock appear at the railroad station wearing their long "duster" coats, Elam soon grabs the toothless old station agent by the neck and pushes him into what is presumably the w.c., making a "shhhh" gesture with index finger and mouth, then signaling to Mulock to close the door. As that door slams closed, the screen goes black and the first credit - A SERGIO LEONE FILM - appears. Many of the remaining credits appear as the three gunmen take up their respective positions while waiting for the train to arrive.

The entire opening sequence, which was clearly inspired by the start of High Noon as has often been pointed out, runs about 12 minutes up to the end of the gunfight, and was shot in Spain. The scene with Jack Elam and the fly was first attempted by placing a fake fly on the actor's face. When that didn't work, better results were achieved by smearing honey or jam on Elam's beard to attract flies kept in a jar just out of view and released one at a time. [2]

The origins of the fly scene
The treatment of Once Upon a Time in the West was written by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone. However, the idea for the fly scene was not conceived until a later point and by Sergio Donati when he and Leone held brainstorming sessions prior to the writing of the screenplay. In response to my questions about the origins of the fly scene, Sergio Donati graciously replied:

forty years have now passed since Sergio and I, locked in a room, "told" each other images for the film. The fly episode was certainly born during those days and in effect, I believe it was my idea; Sergio had Jack Elam in mind, and the idea of those wall-eyes fixed upon the barrel of the gun with the fly imprisoned, appeared to me very ironically "Leonesque"! [3]

This recent statement is a perfect supplement to an earlier interview in which Sergio Donati is quoted as saying:

So I stayed with Sergio [Leone] for two weeks, together, to make the skeleton, the outline, to tell each other the scenes very clearly. […] I never met Bertolucci and Argento at that time. The story they produced was not so gigantic. It was eighty pages. Then I wrote the whole script in twenty-five days, I think. Working like hell, scarcely getting up from my seat. And I had to rewrite just two things. If you read the shooting script, everything was shot exactly as in the script. Including the fly at the station.

And as the interviewer explains: "The reason Sergio Donati emphasizes 'the fly' is that Dario Argento subsequently claimed this aspect of the opening sequence as his idea." [4]

The fly scene in the screenplay
NB. The screenplay for Once Upon a Time in the West has never been published, and I am grateful to Sergio Donati for generously making the relevant pages (18-21) available to me for publication here. Though I take full responsibility for the translation, I wish to thank Francesco Caviglia, Flemming Forsberg and Alexander Forsberg for their assistance, and Roberto Trapanese, Lars Ølgaard and Filippo Ciampini for kindly facilitating contact with Sergio Donati.

Zzzz, a fly buzzes obstinately around the face of Snakey, who doesn't move but only follows the insect intently with his eyes.
The fly lands on the wooden panel near Snakey's head. And suddenly, flashing like the tongue of a chameleon, Snakey's right hand quickly grabs the pistol and presses it against the panel.
101 -
The opening of the barrel is resting on the wall, in ECU [extreme close-up], and Snakey puts his ear against [the barrel] and with him we hear
102 -
Snakey reveals his gapped teeth in a smile. Carefully, he removes the pistol from the wall, blocking the opening with a finger, and approaches the barrel to his ear, listening with amusement to the furious buzzing of the imprisoned fly.
103 -
Snakey's smile fades. His eyes focus in the distance, on the train tracks. He removes his finger from the barrel, the fly flies away.

Making sense of the scene
In an effort to find meaning in the fly scene, commentators have devised two main approaches.

One involves attributing to this scene a specific, definable purpose within the plot of the film. For example, after describing the interaction of Elam and the fly in some detail, one commentator writes:

At this moment, a train enters the station and Elam releases the fly. The object of the wait has arrived, and the victim of the dry run is no longer needed. The Man (Charles Bronson) appears behind the train and quickly guns down the three killers. Elam's gunman may have gotten the best of the fly, but in the real event he is unable to escape death. The intrusion of the fly serves to heighten the tension of the approaching showdown; the annoyance of the visitor foreshadows a much more dangerous encounter. [5]

While this is an admirable effort to make the fly scene meaningful in terms of plot, it could be argued that the scene tells us nothing about Snakey that we didn't already know from his treatment of the station agent, and nothing new that we need to know in order to understand and fully appreciate any subsequent event in the film, including the shoot-out with Harmonica.

The other and more common approach in the literature on the film is to link the buzzing of Snakey's fly to the drops of water splashing on Stony's head and hat, and the cracking of Knuckles' knuckles - this triad of the killers' sounds enmeshed within a broader sound montage which also includes a squeaking windmill, a slamming door, a quickly silenced telegraph, and the heavy chug of an approaching train. The fullest study of Once Upon a Time in the West characteristically deals with the fly scene primarily in a chapter devoted to "The Music of Sound and Dialogue," [6] and in one way or another, music often becomes a key concept in discussions of the fly scene, as in the following delightfully extravagant assertion:

Jack Elam suffers the loyal attention of one fly (I think we know this is an Italian fly) - such a fly, a Caruso of an insect - which he captures in the barrel of his pistol, where it sings the aria of a furious and neurotic bullet. [7]

And in another discussion, also with music as the central concept, the fly scene is taken as emblematic of Leone's filmmaking, even to the point of drawing a parallel between Elam and Leone:

Leone is like the wall-eyed villain Jack Elam, who catches a persistent and ordinary fly in the barrel of his colt, and who smiles at the music produced by the insect inside the gun. Nothing is ordinary. You just have to know how to metamorphose flies into musical instruments. [8]

Intriguing as these claims may be, particularly since no musical theme was used in the opening sequence in order to let the montage of heightened diegetic sounds entirely fill the soundtrack, I believe that the real importance of the fly scene can best be understood in an entirely different perspective, more in keeping with the screenwriter's original inspiration (already cited above): "the idea of those wall-eyes fixed upon the barrel of the gun with the fly imprisoned, appeared to me very ironically 'Leonesque'!"

In contrast to the plot-related and largely sound-based approaches mentioned above, I would like to suggest that having a fly buzz around Elam's face and inside the barrel of his gun, provided a perfect opportunity to have the actor perform a series of facial gestures, some of which emphasized his bad eye, and for the filmmaker to lavish cinematic attention on that notorious physiognomy in action. Providing a pretext for Elam to enact that measured succession of largely underplayed grimaces and grins without speaking a word and for Leone to film them in prolonged close-ups, is the most important function of the fly in this scene. And I would argue that for the approximately 100-second duration of this remarkable set-piece, Jack Elam's face becomes the story.

Both an homage to and a send-up of Elam's ominous screen presence, simultaneously celebrating and parodying his evil look, this scene, conceived by Sergio Donati, is unlike anything ever seen before in any Western. It is also a perfect illustration of Leone's characterization of himself as "a director of gestures and silences. And an orator of images." [9]

1 Ron Miller, "Born to be booed, yet three earned Oscars." The Columnists, 14 Aug 2006.
http://www.thecolumnists.com/miller/miller542.html A childhood fight left Elam blind in his left eye.

2 Cinematographer Tonino delli Colli's comments in the DVD bonus film The Wages of Sin, and those of Christopher Frayling on the audio commentary track of the Once Upon a Time in the West - Special Collector's Edition DVD (Paramount, 2004).

3 My translation of an email sent on May 27, 2007.

4 Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone. Something To Do With Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), p. 265.

5 Andrew Schenker, "Death, the Fly and Dickinson." The Cine File, 2 April 2007.

6 John Fawell, The Art of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. A Critical Appreciation (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005).

7 David Thomson, "Leonesque." American Film, 14 (September 1989), p. 26.

8 Michel Mardore, "Vive le western!" Le Nouvel Observateur, 250 (25 August 1969), p. 35; my translation from the French.

9 Sergio Leone, "I'm a director of gestures and silences." American Film, 14 (September 1989), p. 31.


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