Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards
In 1966 Sergio Leone filmed, arguably, the greatest western ever made, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” What could he possibly do to top it? The result was his even grander epic “Once Upon a Time in the West.” The title is legendary as it is now used by other filmmakers to title their own personal epics (ie. “Once Upon a Time in China,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Once Upon a Time in India” etc.)
The title is appropriate because it refers to a type of timeless, yet stylized storytelling that contains universal themes of good & evil, romance, time-spanning arcs etc. Sergio Leone’s film has it all – though not all filmmakers adhere to these standards (maybe there should be a Dogme-95-type jury administering licenses for this title).
Much of what we think about what the “west” was like are impressions formed by myths created by Hollywood and it’s ironic that it was the Italians who expounded these myths into the spaghetti western. The creation of the film was a conscious effort of Leone and his partners (and great filmmakers in their own respect), Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, to combine elements of all Hollywood westerns into the ultimate western mythology.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” tells the story of three characters, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a notorious outlaw and prison escapee on the run, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a beautiful newlywed moving out west to settle her family and a mysterious harmonica player (Charles Bronson) looking for revenge. In their way stands Frank, a ruthless assassin, dressed in bad-guy black, played against type by none other than Tom Joad himself, Henry Fonda. Each story begins mysteriously, and in the classic Leone style motivations and true identities of the characters reveal themselves slowly. Each character is a caricature of a Western archetype. Bronson’s harmonica man hardly speaks a word, but talks with his sharp shooting pistols. Jill is a beautiful bride, but later revealed to be a former prostitute. The evil land developer Morton is a cripple.
The film is style over plot, as it contains scene after scene of stand-alone cinematic power. The opening title sequence is legendary – 15 minutes played in virtual silence as three gunmen wait at the train for Bronson’s arrival. It sets up the style for the entire film – moments in time drawn out and lengthened for maximum dramatic effect. For those unfamiliar with Leone’s work, it can be off-putting, but it pays off beautifully and no other filmmaker (perhaps Hitchcock) has consistently done it better.
The film is elegance-personified, from the gorgeous figure of Claudia Cardinale shot with luminous godlike reverence to the majestically sweeping wide-lens camera moves to Ennio Morricone’s grand score. In fact, film is worth renting or buying just to listen the score alone.
The lengthy drawn-out moments of drama are punctuated and paid off by moments of startling violence. One of the greatest screen introductions is Frank’s shooting of Jill’s husband and children in the second scene. After a slow Hitchcockian build up, Leone unleashes Henry Fonda and his gunmen with some of loudest gunshots we’ve heard on film. Even when people get shot they die in a Leone-signature way – a violent spin and fall. It was a year before the “Wild Bunch” and “Peckinpah blood,” but it’s still shocking and arresting.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” is a must-see, though it might take a couple of viewings to appreciate it fully. The film runs 2 hours and 45 minutes so save up a couple of days in your lifetime, it will be worth it. Enjoy.