By Jesus Abyss
The lonesome harmonica playing character in Once Upon a Time in the West is played by Charles Bronson. He plays a man simply known as 'Harmonica' throughout the film. Bronson's first lines are classic with him asking where is Frank (Hendry Fonda) and asking if the gunmen had brought him a horse too which they reply 'looks like we're shy one horse' to which Bronson replies 'You brought two too many'. There's a standstill for a few seconds as the gunmen and Bronson gaze back at one another & then the guns go off.
This 12 minute sequence could be a short movie in its own right. The film could end here & you would be more than satisfied. For me it is the most obvious example I'd use to demonstrate what complete cinema is. It really does not get any better than this.
Rumour has it that Leone wanted the leads from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly to play the three gun-men in this opening scene though I can't imagine Clint Eastwood who had become an enormous star through the Dollars films being happy with being blasted away within 12 minutes of the picture. Still as much as this sounds great on paper I can't imagine anybody else playing the three bandits, their faces & expressions in those opening minutes are unforgettable.
The good news is the 138 minutes which follow these iconic scenes are also fantastic. This time round Leone has a story which has much more depth than anything he had dealt with for the Dollars trilogy.
So we've been introduced to Harmonica. Next we are taken to a rundown farm named Sweetwater where Brett McBain & his children are preparing a wedding feast as McBain has been away & married a former prostitute called Jill played by the puppy eyed Claudia Cardinale. Suddenly gunshots in the distance are heard & McBain and his daughter are shot dead. five gunmen in duster overcoats appear from a distance & the camera pans around to reveal the character of Frank played by Henry Fonda. Fonda was known for playing clean-cut good guys in the Westerns of yesteryear so when it was revealed he was the evil man who shows know mercy at shooting at defenseless child it would of been an enormous shock. So enormous that for years when being shown on American T.V they would edit out the final moments of the scene.
Dialogue is kept to a mininum throughout favouring watching peoples facial expressions yet of the little dialogue there are so many memorable quotes from this film.
Harmonica: I saw three of these dusters a short time ago, they were waiting for a train. Inside the dusters, there were three men. Cheyenne: So? Harmonica: Inside the men, there were three bulletThis exchange though sweet and simple gives the characters of Harmonica & Cheyenne and us the viewer an understanding of their then new relationship
This exchange though sweet and simple sets up the relationship between these two characters in an instant.
This is Charles Bronson's most iconic & for my money, greatest performance he would ever put on screen. This set the standard for the Bronson that most people would grow to know and love. It's as if that everything before this film was Bronson searching for his character, his calling card, his special trait that was Bronson & Bronson only. Through Harmonica the Bronson persona was born. Here was the quiet character who only spoke when he had to but when he opened his mouth everybody listened. A man who's stare could say more than any piece of written dialogue. A man who would fight for justice & of course.. a man of vengeance. Bronson had now gained that almost X factor which would make him almost bigger than any film imaginable. From now on people casting Charles Bronson were casting this persona. Bronson was Harmonica & Harmonica was Bronson.
Even Leone himself has been quoted calling Bronson 'the greatest actor I ever worked with' & for somebody who has worked with some of the all-time great actors to make that statement & after seeing Bronson's performance here, you really can't argue with that logic.
It really does get no better than Once Upon A Time In The West. Film students should be forced to sit down and watch this film, this is film-making at its purest form. The direction, performances, score, cinematography, script & dialogue all come together to make what I can only describe as.. perfection. Throw Bronson into the mix & you have the greatest film of all time.