Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone is widely acclaimed for his epic films, which mostly appeared during the 1960s. Amazingly, he’s only credited as the director of seven features during his lengthy career. There were others like The Last Days of Pompeii where he was uncredited while shooting most of the movie. Westerns are his primary genre, including the “Dollars trilogy” with Clint Eastwood. Following this trio, he delivered the widely praised Once Upon a Time in the West, a nearly three-hour story of revenge. Although I’ve watched some of Leone’s other work, this movie has managed to elude me. This was one of my first picks for this ongoing series, so my expectations were high. Could anything match the build-up for me? It might not seem likely, but it's foolish to underestimate Leone.
What's this story about?
Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in the Old West town of Flagstone with plans to settle with her new husband (Frank Wolff). This doesn’t work so well. Her husband and the entire McBain family are gunned down by the vicious killer Frank (Henry Fonda) shortly before she arrives. Frank has made plenty of enemies over the years, including a gunfighter known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson). After surviving a train-station showdown with three of Frank’s goons, he arrives in Flagstone for revenge. Right in the middle of the action is Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who's no saint but must deal with false charges that he killed the McBain family. While both Jill and Harmonica pursue him, Frank works with railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) to grab the precious land as the railroad’s arrival looms over everything. These forces collide violently, and very few are likely to survive the ensuing chaos.
Why has it taken me so long to see this movie?
My only explanation is the 165-minute length, which is prohibitive when I’m watching so many films. I love Westerns and have heard praise about Once Upon a Time in the West for years, but it never reached the top of my list. It would have been a perfect choice for a marathon, but I've yet to focus on this genre. I wondered about this pick because I wasn’t thrilled by Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America last fall. Thankfully, my issues with that film became a distant memory right from the start. The story is intriguing from the opening shots and never lets up until the final showdown.
Does the story hold up well today?
Simply put, this movie is awesome. Leone perfectly sets the scene and never loses focus. Although it’s a Western, the story feels modern because of its unsentimental perspective. Frank, Cheyenne, and Harmonica are killers who use their guns without a second thought. Each guy has a different moral code, but there are no tears shed for the departed enemies. It’s kill or be killed in this brutal environment. The railroad’s imminent arrival signifies an end to these wild days, but Leone indicates that corruption will only grow. Morton’s focus on gaining wealth at all costs represents the new era for the Western territories. Although he believes that money gives him the upper hand, the gun fighters show they’re not ready to ride quietly into the sunset. Jill might appear to represent the civilization, but she quickly adapts to this different moral code. She sleeps with Frank to save her life and sells the passion while maintaining her true goal of revenge at any cost.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
Although the characters are thin, this isn’t a drawback. It only takes a glance from Jason Robards to realize Cheyenne’s the type of guy who plays all sides. The surprise comes from Henry Fonda, who plays against type as the hired killer. When a young boy overhears his name, he barely hesitates before shooting him in cold blood. His eerily white eyes and wrinkled face mask a killing machine who will do anything to survive. Fonda’s known for playing the good guy, but even his famous roles like Tom Joad and Wyatt Earp have hinted at a darker side. It hasn’t reached this level of nastiness in the past, however. I’m not that familiar with Charles Bronson beyond a few signature roles. He’s excellent as the nearly silent Harmonica, who exudes confidence that he’ll succeed. He’s the closest we have to a good guy, but even he turns around and saves Frank to ensure the story plays out correctly. There are no true heroes in this vision of the West. Finally, the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale holds her own with the heavyweights after a shaky start. Leone gets a bit too close to just depicting her as a sex object, but it’s clear her character knows what she’s doing. It never reaches the blatant sexism of Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, and her steely performance helps to avoid that result.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
There are many great moments in this film, but the highlight is actually the opening sequence. We begin with three gunfighters who silently prepare for a meeting. When the train arrives, it reveals a single figure against the desert landscape. Harmonica seems to have little chance against three killers, but he strides confidently into the fight. The striking image of the showdown is worth the price of admission, and we’re only a few minutes into the story. Another excellent scene involves Cheyenne’s daring attempt to rescue Harmonica aboard a moving train. He uses a variety of clever tactics to outwit Morton’s goons from the roof of the car. A more intimate moment that’s equally memorable is Frank’s seduction of Jill. There seems to be no escape for her from imminent death, but he doesn’t seem in any hurry. It isn’t a brutal scene, but he’s basically forcing her to have sex through an implied threat. He makes an offhand comment during their tryst about killing her, which contrasts with the physical actions and shows the menace lurking beneath the surface.
How does this beloved film live up to the hype?
Once Upon a Time in the West doesn’t just live up to the hype, it completely shatters my expectations. I’ve only seen it once, and I’m ready to say it ranks among the Top 10 Westerns ever made. You can feel Leone’s confidence from the very first shot, and his mastery never wavers. A good example is the revelation of Harmonica’s reasons for seeking revenge. With Ennio Morricone’s iconic score blaring at a high volume, he pulls back to reveal Frank’s horrible act. Little dialogue is needed to convince us why Harmonica will do anything to seek retribution. There are so many ways this scene could have gone wrong, but it never hits a false note. The stunning cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli combines perfectly with Morricone’s score to present the pivotal moment. It’s one of countless examples from a classic film that hasn’t lost any of its power more than 40 years after its original release.