Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Genre: Spaghetti Western Running Time: 2 hrs. 55 min.

Release Date: July 4th, 1969 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Sergio Leone Actors: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn

 


 

I

t starts with slow camera pans, from one side of a ticketing office to the other, from the boots of a gunman up to his icy cold stare, and then it cuts back and forth between the grim, grimy faces of outlaws waiting for a train. There’s very little dialogue, opting instead to take in unimaginably wide, widescreen cinematography capturing the scenic Wild West, as well as the eerie sounds of desolation, crisp details of unfriendly visages, and the minutiae of a pesky fly and a leaky roof. These techniques will eventually be joined by unnerving anticipation and Ennio Morricone’s recognizable, sweeping music. Each element identifies the now iconic, signature components of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, with “Once Upon a Time in the West” frequently nabbing the top spot as the director’s very best example.

At the Little Corner railroad station, three hired shooters, sent by the ruthless murderer Frank (Henry Fonda), await the arrival of a man (Charles Bronson) who frequently plays a harmonica. Meanwhile, at the Flagstone station in town, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives from New Orleans, expecting to be met by her stepson Patrick and taken to the nearby farm at Sweetwater, where her new husband Brett (Frank Wolff) and his two other children have planned a grand feast. But unscrupulous realty tycoon P.H. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), interested in the area due to a profitable railroad line being built through the land, sends Frank to scare the waiting family into leaving. Instead, Frank slaughters the foursome and blames it on recently escaped, notorious gunfighter Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his gang.

The new widow is convinced by the harmonica player to stay, after learning about the frame job and the connection between Frank and Morton. Cheyenne also joins the plot, intent on protecting the property, which is revealed to have great value from its water supply. And at the heart of it all is a revenge scheme by the harmonica man, harboring a painful past while unstoppably tracking Frank’s whereabouts across the town.

Although the cast is impressive, with a significant part for a leading lady (something absent from all of Leone’s other Western ventures), it’s the primary antagonist who is most amusing. Fonda, cast against type, is one of the most unforgettable of all villains in cinema – not always wearing black but nevertheless an undivided scoundrel. His relationship with the harmonica player doesn’t have the poignancy of the vengeance witnessed in “For a Few Dollars More,” though it’s reminiscently topped with flashbacks and culminates in a riveting, long-awaited showdown. What the film lacks is Clint Eastwood – or someone who can adequately fill his shoes. Bronson and Robards are entirely watchable (Bronson receiving no moniker, a symbolic connection to the previous pictures) but neither possesses the clever complexity of Leone’s former inventions of Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes. Cardinale is a welcome addition to (or perhaps a substitute for) the formula, imparting a nuanced performance and a fresh complicatedness in regards to morality, survival, and redoubtableness.

In another familiar ruse, each character passes through the frames with their own personal theme songs attached to their actions. The music not only narrates and foreshadows, but also momentously sets the tone for every movement, motive, and interaction. As with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Morricone’s score is a character of its own, regularly taking the spotlight and coercing scenes to continue or cease. It’s never interrupted by the script, either, which is essentially of secondary importance to the majestic composition (it’s not uncommon for a scene to go on as if without any other purpose than to let the music finish).

“I could squash you like a wormy apple,” taunts Frank. The sparse dialogue isn’t wasted on small talk, with the notable wordlessness easily managing to conduct the necessary exposition. From a story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Sergio Leone (an impressive lineup of Italian filmmakers), this three-hour epic has largely changed its pacing and tone from Leone’s prior trilogy, reducing the violence and bravado in favor of nods to numerous, classic American Westerns and their denizens (likely the greatest blending of Spaghetti Western sensibilities with the iconic tropes of American productions), but it’s still a stunning achievement in Leone’s filmography.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10