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  • Once upon a time in the West - Harmonica (Charles Bronson)

by Scott MacKenzie

In this essay, I wish to re-address the ways in which one can conceptualize montage and mise-en-scène functioning in relation to the creation of textual meaning in the cinema. To this end, I shall address the way in which some combinations of montage and mise-en-scène can create a mode of visuality which can only be understood through adherence to a notion of cinematic specificity. More specifically, I shall posit that certain films contain what I shall call “operatic montage,” a form of montage which manipulates temporal and spatial relations in film, typically to melodramatic ends. To undertake this analysis, I shall briefly examine the closing sequences of Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name or Dollars trilogy and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, both of which employ strategies of montage and mise-en-scène which both elongate and compress time to an extraordinary degree and, combined with the musical score, produce a visual and temporal experience-based on accentuation and distortion-which can only be found in the cinema. The style of editing employed in these films I call “operatic montage.” In the case of both trilogies, the culminating scenes contain stylistic elements which have operatic qualities, reflected in the films formal elements, that cannot be simply explained in terms of the realism of mise-en-scène or the ‘plasticity’ of montage. Instead, it is the synthetic relationship between montage and mise-en-scène which give these scenes their power. The closing sequences of both trilogies engage in a heightened, melodramatic quasi-realism that is typical of opera; further, the instances of “operatic montage” come at the end of films which concern themselves with leitmotifs-revenge, greed, fratricide, forbidden love-that can be seen as staples of operatic narrative. But, to a large degree, it is the editing strategies employed at the conclusion of these films that accentuate the operatic qualities of the narrative.

Before turning to the films of Coppola and Leone-and how their films, through a synthesis of montage and mise-en-scène, engage in “operatic montage”-it is important to consider the historical tension between the theorists of mise-en-scène and montage and the reasons why positing a synthetic relationship between the two concepts benefits us in our understanding of certain kinds of cinema. The debate over the relative importance of montage and mise-en-scène was a key issue in the development of classical film theory, criticism and aesthetics. This debate centered on two questions: what was the primary “building block” of the cinema; and what kind of role could the cinema play as an aesthetic object? In essence, some believed that the cinema could transform images derived from the real world in order to create something radically new (“plasticity”), while others argued that the cinema naturally reflected an ontological reality and therefore the cinema’s great works should strive toward capturing this reality as truth.

Sergei Eisenstein, and others in favour of intellectual montage, argued that the construction of cinematic meaning, produced through the juxtaposition of shots, and the resulting distillation of a juxtaposition’s representation, image and theme, lead from stasis to pathos, and then onto action on the part of the audience. For Eisenstein, film’s ability, through dialectical montage, to create mental images was of utmost importance. Film was therefore structured dialectically in order to generate meaning in the spectator; meaning not embedded in image-the text itself, but in the collision of images through montage. Indeed, Eisenstein argued that cinematic images carried no meaning outside of their function to create a more generalized theme extending throughout a cinematic work. He defined this process as follows:

What is involved in [ . . . ] an understanding of montage? In such a case, each piece exists no longer as something unrelated, but as a given particular representation of the general theme that in equal measure penetrates all the shot-pieces. The juxtaposition of these partial details in a given montage construction calls to life and forces into light that general quality in which binds together all the details into a whole, namely, into that generalized image, wherein the creator, followed by the spectator, experiences the theme.1

Eisenstein’s theory of montage posited that the cinematic image itself was of no value as a sign related to a referent in the real world; in his eyes, the cinema could only signify through the juxtaposition of one image in collision with the next.
In contrast to such an approach, realists such as André Bazin saw the films of Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, French cinema of the 1930s and movements such as neo-realism as forms of representation that, in a reflective manner, re-presented the reality of everyday life. If there was a problem with the realist model proposed by Bazin, it was his frequent use of the concept of “realism” as shorthand for “reality.” Indeed, Bazin often blurred the distinction between mimesis and ontology: “The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space. Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction.”2 For Bazin, the possibility of the “ontological reality” of cinematic representation, as seen in the films of De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti, ‘proved’ his theory that a broadly defined notion of humanist progression could be attained through an essentially aesthetic strategy based on realist principles as ascribed to the cinema.

Despite the polemics of Eisenstein and Bazin, and others like Vsevolod Pudovkin and Bela Balazs-and in spite, on the one hand, of mise-en-scene experiments such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (US, 1948) and Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (UK, 1977) and, on the other, montage-based experimental films such as Bruce Conner’s A Movie (US, 1958) and Arthur Lipsett’s Free Fall (Canada, 1964)-the synthesis of mise-en-scene and montage are central to any understanding of the cinema, from Classical Hollywood film to the avant-garde. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments in the cinema have foregrounded the relationship between mise-en-scène and montage, to create a new representational form of time and space which compresses and distanciates time in order to accentuate certain moments of drama or suspense over others. At times, this process is used to make time come to a standstill; at others, it is used to compress many disparate events into a few key shots. In contrast, this process can also be used to stretch time to an almost unbearable degree, as can be seen in Leone’s corrida-style shoot-outs. It is the use of montage to create these new representational forms of space and temporality-found in films as diverse as Wim Wenders’ Lightning Over Water (West Germany/US, 1980), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (Canada, 1983), Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (US, 1984) and Raoul Ruiz’s Shattered Image (US, 1998)-which give cinema one of the key aspects of its specificity. It is important to note here what I take to be cinematic specificity: in the aforementioned films, a sense of time and place exists-where different temporal locations can exist simultaneously and where their duration can be manipulated vastly-that can only be represented through film. This is not to say that theatre, literature or even tableau paintings cannot represent time and space. Instead, it is to say that the specific forms that the process of denaturalizing time take in the cinema, through the use of mise-en-scene and montage, offer narrative and stylistic devices not available in other media (the split-screen would be the earliest stylistic version of this specificity).
It is to the notion of “operatic montage”-which I argue is a specific form of temporal and spatial manipulation in the cinema-that I now wish to turn. In the films of Leone and Coppola, mise-en-scene and montage are combined to intensify suspense, stretch time and foreground the melodramatic conventions of their respective narratives-narratives that would otherwise seem cliche. The works of Coppola and Leone have been often called “operatic”-because of their style, narrative concerns, and overt use of melodrama, among other things. Coppola has often used the term himself in regards to his work; Leone, on the other hand, has likened his work more to a concerto than a Baroque opera.3 It is important to note that Leone and Coppola are not the first directors to adapt operatic conventions to film aesthetics. Throughout the history of the cinema, many films have used the conventions of opera in a wide variety of ways, from Chuck Jones’ appropriation of Rossini and Wagner in, respectively, The Rabbit of Seville (US, 1950) and What’s Opera, Doc? (US, 1957) to Sally Potter’s use of Puccini (and Bernard Herrmann) in Thriller (UK, 1979). Operatic themes and styles have also appeared in films that do not necessarily overtly quote or appropriate an operatic text in toto. Leone and Coppola, however, are the two contemporary directors who have self-consciously foregrounded this approach to the greatest degree, both in terms of content and style, but especially in regard to montage.
An anti-realist approach to montage plays an important role in the works of Sergio Leone. Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy-A Fistful of Dollars (Italy, 1964), For a Few Dollars More (Italy, 1965), and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Italy, 1966)-in many ways rewrote the aesthetics and narrative of the western. While American films such as Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) had begun to redefine the western narrative in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was Leone who transformed the genre, by foregrounding and exaggerating the dual roles of violence and mythology.

A Fistful of Dollars is a case in point. The film appropriates the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai film Yojimbo (Japan, 1961); indeed, the concluding scenes of the Leone film seem to be story-boarded from Kurosawa’s earlier epic. Nevertheless, in the conclusion of A Fistful of Dollars, we can also see the development of Leone’s editing strategy; Leone segments the iconographic parts of the western hero’s body-the spurs, the gun-into concise shots, cut together rapidly. This process of segmentation allows the viewer to not only see-in a tight close-up-the preparation of the men as they wait to draw, but also allows for Leone to build suspense, in a nonnaturalized manner, while at the same time foregrounding the violence that is about to occur. That the style of the scene is antirealist only adds to the intensity, as the viewer’s position jumps from one iconographic image to another. The final showdown only breaks from this approach once, and it is the least effective part of the sequence. At one point, after the villain, Ramone (Gian Maria Volonte) is shot, Leone uses a point-of-view shot which attempts to represent the antagonist’s vision as he falls to the ground. This shot is the least successful of the sequence, proving that the cinematic and temporal space created by the combination of mise-en-scène and montage is much more effective than the attempt to duplicate the visual field of a character. In his phenomenological account of the cinema, Maurice Merleau-Ponty made a similar observation when he wrote: “If a movie wants to show us someone who is dizzy, it should not portray the interior landscape of dizziness [ . . . ]. We will get a much better sense of dizziness if we see it from the outside, if we contemplate that unbalanced body contorted on a rock or that unsteady step trying to adapt itself to who knows what upheaval of space.”4 Inadvertently, Leone proves this point through the strength of his montage and the relative ineffectiveness of his subjective point-of-view shot. In doing so, Leone also foregrounds the way in which, through montage, a different kind of cinematic space-one that heightens the viewer’s response leading up to the showdown by creating space as a mental image in the viewer’s mind-can bring about a drastically different relationship between the viewer and the actions on the screen.

Therefore, the conclusion of A Fistful of Dollars offers us not only the re-telling of the narrative of Yojimbo-itself based on a western-but also a redefinition of the aesthetics of the showdown. Here, the showdown is not played for heroism or honour; instead, it becomes a ode to a certain form of violence based on notions of vengeance. Both stylistically and thematically, then, the conclusion of A Fistful of Dollars shifts the western from realist narrative to a quasi-surreal melodrama.

Leone develops these concerns further in his next film; indeed, it can be considered his first truly “operatic” film. In For a Few Dollars More, time itself plays a key role: both in terms of the narrative and in relation to the final showdown between The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood), The Colonel (Lee Van Cleef) and El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte). As the final showdown occurs, Indio produces a pocket-watch which both gives the amount of time until the shootout can begin (“when the chimes end, pick up your gun and shoot me Colonel. Just try”) and as a connotative link to the flashback earlier in the film-where Indio rapes the Colonel’s sister, which leads to her suicide-which gives For a Few Dollars More its narrative trajectory. The conclusion of the film applies the same principles of montage to the showdown as found in A Fistful of Dollars; however, this time the elongation of time and the accentuation on when the showdown will begin-through the use of the chimes-brings together the stylistic and thematic concerns of opera. The operatic themes of the film would not work, however, without the presence of a style on montage which foregrounded the antirealist aspects of the duel and its basis in the psychological past of the characters.
Leone turns the psychological aspect of his work around in his next film, where each of the characters-through their names in the title of the film-represents fairly arbitrary traits: good, bad and ugly. The conclusion to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly -the last film in the trilogy-is the clearest example of Leone’s use of “operatic montage.” Using his by now typical corrida image-this time in a circular graveyard-Leone elongates the final showdown to close to three minutes of film time. As in A Fistful of Dollars, Leone segments the body of the western gunfighter, but here he extends the process, focusing on the eyes, and building an accelerating and repetitive pattern of montage which repeats the same shots of The Good (Clint Eastwood), The Bad (Lee Van Cleef) and The Ugly’s (Eli Wallach) eyes at greater and greater speeds. Once the draw actually takes place, the viewer feels pulled back from the scene, as Leone returns to medium shots and Ennio Morricone’s music fades away. Here, the final showdown becomes Brechtian, as the scene is removed from any other narrative concerns other than the spectacle of the fight itself.

While Leone moved away from causality in his narratives as his films became more operatic, Francis Ford Coppola’s films embedded opera firmly within tightly plotted narrative trajectories. Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy-The Godfather (US, 1972), The Godfather, Part Two (US, 1974), and The Godfather, Part Three (US, 1990)-takes the notion of “operatic montage” further, even to the point of incorporating an opera into the conclusion of the third film in the trilogy. The endings of each of the three installments not only offer us exemplary examples of parallel editing, but also demonstrate the ways in which film can be used to create a temporal space that exists outside of real time. This process of foregrounding and heightening is central to the operatic narrative proper, and Coppola transfers it to the film medium and gives it a specifically cinematic form. As Peter Cowie notes: “If the essence of opera lies in its discreet heightening of suspense, then Coppola, like Hitchcock, knows how to transplant that to the cinema.”5 Coppola’s trilogy uses operatic strategies throughout the films and not solely in their conclusions. Indeed, the narrative of the life of the Corleone family has a strongly operatic quality to it. As Harlan Lebo notes that: “[ . . . ] in the film’s exploration of the Corleone family, behind the laughter, the bonding, and the dynamic personalities, every human encounter in The Godfather was a portrait of treachery.”6

It is this dualism between family and violence that, on a narrative level, foregrounds the operatic nature of the narrative. Yet, it is the use of montage that changes the trilogy from a series of films which incorporate operatic qualities into narrative to a group of works which, on a formal level, develop an operatic equivalent in the cinema. For instance, the conclusion to The Godfather, Part One weaves together two narratives: the baptism of Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) godson, and the murder of the Corleone family’s enemies. The conclusion to the film offers us insight into the ways in which montage and mise-en-scène can be used together in order to create both tension and a trans-temporal narrative flow. As William Simon notes: “The most basic notion suggested by this intercutting is that the shooting of rivals and the baptism are happening simultaneously. However, the complexity of the structuring goes far beyond the parallel editing principle.”7 While Coppola’s use of parallel editing is far more advanced than most of his Hollywood contemporaries, it is the synthetic relationship between narrative and form that he develops which give the scenes their true power. As Peter Cowie notes:

Both betrayals [of Family and Church] are illustrated in cinematic language that has become associated with Coppola’s craft and vision. Michael continues to pay lip-service to the traditional ideals while others, like some ominous symphonic bass line, carry out his scheme with vengeance. […] The editing takes up a heavy, inexorable rhythm, like the tolling of bells. The massacre both chimes with, and defiles, the lofty operations and minute details of the religious ceremonial.8

In the concluding scenes of The Godfather, Coppola constructs a seemingly realist montage, but one that heightens the ironies of Michael’s fall. Here, the process of “operatic montage” presents a multitude of events-baptism and multiple murders-in a concise manner that accentuates their inter-relatedness. In the conclusion of The Godfather, Coppola demonstrates how the need to preserve the Family on Michael’s part also brings about its demise. This alone would seem operatic in nature, but Coppola does not deliver this information through the use of straightforward narrative; instead, he conveys this information through film style. As the baptism and the murders takes place, with each cut, Michael’s voice can be heard affirming the religious pronouncements of the priest while his vengeful deeds are carried out. Similarly, in The Godfather, Part Two, Coppola’s inter-cutting of Michael and the life of the young Vito (Robert De Niro) brings into relief the dissimilarities between father and son at the same age. Here, Coppola implies both a circularity and discontinuity to the story of the Corleone family, again echoing motifs often found in operatic narratives.
The Godfather, Part Three concludes with the inclusion of an opera itself, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, in the revenge-filled dénouement of the film. The parallels between the narrative of the opera and of the Corleone family are easily evident. To make these parallels apparent, it is worthwhile to briefly consider the narrative of the opera. The story of Cavalleria Rusticana (or “Rustic Chivalry”) is fairly straightforward. The first example of verisimo, a style of opera which validated the ugly and the vulgar as relevant concerns of art, the opera takes place on Easter Sunday in Sicily. Turiddu, a returning soldier, serenades his mistress Lola. Meanwhile, Santuzza, a village girl asks Mamma Lucia, Turiddu’s mother, about her son, as Santuzza and Turiddu are engaged to be married and he has been acting strange. As they talk, Alfio comes by, who is the husband of Lola and is oblivious to the affair. As the villagers arrive for the Easter Mass, Santuzza confronts Turiddu about his affair, but he violently pushes her away after Lola arrives on the scene. After Turiddu leaves, Alfio runs into Santuzza, who tells him all about the affair. He leaves swearing vengeance on Turiddu. After church, a happy Turiddu offers all the townspeople a drink, but Alfio angrily refuses. A challenge is made, and Alfio tells Turiddu to meet him in the orchard. Turiddu pays his respects to his mother and asks her to look after Santuzza. Santuzza then tries to intervene in the duel, but it is too late, as Alfio has already killed Turiddu and won his duel.

We can see the parallels between Mascagni’s narrative and that of The Godfather, Part Three-the battles over lovers and questions of honour and revenge-are the basic principles of “Family” as embodied by the Corleones and by Michael in particular. Here, Coppola tells the story of Michael’s final fall both through conventional narrative and through the use of montage that he developed throughout the previous two films. Coppola reprises the strategy employed in the conclusion of The Godfather, but here the opera itself is edited together with the revenge taken by the Corleone family. Again, the intercutting foregrounds the difference between the respectability of watching the Sicilian opera of revenge and the acts of revenge undertaken by the family. But in this film, the revenge backfires, as Michael’s daughter (Sofia Coppola) is shot as they exit the opera house in Sicily. Again, Coppola’s use of what I have called “operatic montage” foregrounds the ironies and the melodramatic aspects of the narrative over all else. Indeed, the presence of Cavalleria Rusticana highlights the fact that Coppola is not really inserting an opera into his film; instead, he is cutting together two operas: Mascagni’s and the Corleone’s.

The films of Leone and Coppola offer us a means of conceptualizing film form in a manner different from the ways it is typically theorized. The distanciation and compression that is central to the closing scenes of these films point to the fact that time and space in the cinema is quite dissimilar from time and space in reality; indeed, it is dissimilar from the manner in which time and space are typically represented in realist cinema. In the films of Leone and Coppola, montage offers the viewer a cinema that lies between realism and anti-realism; one which, through montage, highlights moments of tension, suspense and pain to such a degree that these moments on screen seem to hang still in time. Yet, the tension created by these scenes exists as much in the spectator’s imagination as it does on the screen and it is this unification of the mise-en-scene-which tells the story-and montage-which creates the tension and the mental images-that reinforce the fact that Coppola and Leone have engaged in creating a new form of “operatic” montage.


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Baudry, Pierre. “L’idéologie du western italien,” Cahiers du cinéma 233 (nov. 1971): 55-56.
Bazin, Andre. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” in Bazin, What is Cinema? vol. I. trans. Hugh Grey (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967): 9-16.
Cowie, Peter. Coppola. London: Faber, 1990.
Cowie, Peter. The Godfather Book. London: Faber, 1997.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “Word and Image” in Eisenstein, The Film Sense. trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt, 1947): 3-68.
Ferrini, Franco. “Leone spiega se stesso,” Bianco e Nero 9/10 (1971): 37-42.
Frayling, Christopher. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: Routledge, 1981.
Graziani, Sandro. “Western italiano-western americano,” Bianco e Nero 9/10 (1970): 80-92.
Gressard, Gilles. Sergio Leone. Paris: Éditions J’ai lu, 1989.
Jameson, Richard T. “Something to do With Death: A Fistful of Sergio Leone,” Film Comment 9/2 (1973): 8-16.
Lebo, Harlan. The Godfather Legacy. New York: Fireside, 1997.
Lewis, John. Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “The Film and the New Psychology” in Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense. trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964): 48-59.
Simon, William. “An Analysis of the Structure of The Godfather, Part One” in R. Barton Palmer, ed. The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches (New York: AMS Press, 1989): 101-117.
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Wallington, Mike. “A Concordance,” Cinema 6/7 (1970): 32-34.


1 Sergei Eisenstein, “Word and Image” in Eisenstein, The Film Sense. trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt, 1947), p. 11.

2 Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” in Bazin, What is Cinema? vol. 1. trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 13-14.

3 Noël Simsolo, Conversations avec Sergio Leone (Paris: Stock, 1987), p. 129.

4 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Film and the New Psychology” in Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense. trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 58.

5 Peter Cowie, The Godfather Book (London: Faber, 1997), p. 164.

6 Harlan Lebo, The Godfather Legacy (New York: Fireside, 1997), p. 38.

7 William Simon, “An Analysis of the Structure of The Godfather, Part One” in R. Barton Palmer, ed. The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches (New York: AMS Press, 1989), p.113.

8 Peter Cowie, Coppola (London: Faber, 1990), p. 70.

A Danish Journal of Film Studies, N. 6 December 1998


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