A mysterious stranger with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.
By Remy Dean
November 26, 2018
The opening 20-minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West are utterly absorbing and a near perfect slice of cinema. To begin with, we’re presented with a rich composition of textures: rude wooden walls and shutters, a chalkboard declaring delayed train times, the Station Agent’s wizened face, leather boots, canvas duster coat, the polished stock of a well-used rifle, the strong features of Woody Strode, recognisable from a run of John Ford westerns including Sergeant Rutledge (1960), Two Rode Together (1961), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He’s soon joined by two other familiar figures who are momentarily framed within the frame by doorways, backlit by desert glare. Jack Elam had appeared in numerous westerns including classics like Rawhide (1951), High Noon, and Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) — usually as a baddie, sometimes as a comedic sidekick. Al Mulock, who was a prolific Italian B Movie actor, had played a bounty hunter in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. After being a bit sinister, and menacing the elderly Station Agent’s canary and the cleaning woman (a cameo for Woody Strode’s wife), this grimy and very consciously cast trio wait on the sun-drenched platform for the delayed train.
This is an inspired and beautifully crafted sequence, devised and storyboarded by Dario Argento, and is still studied in film and media classes to this day. We are treated to wide shots with incredible depth of focus that often place two figures (one huge and one tiny) into a landscape, intercut with extreme close-ups of what could be called ‘face-scapes’ that had been established as a Leone ‘trademark’ in the Dollars Trilogy. The sequence contains clear visual quotes from The Iron Horse and references a similar scene in High Noon when three men wait at a station for a train and the confrontation it will bring.
Although Leone had once again hired his former school-friend and movie music maestro, Ennio Morricone, to compose what is another brilliant musical score, his characteristic Spaghetti Western music is conspicuously absent from this opening sequence. Instead, the soundscape is provided by an ingenious arrangement of natural sounds: first the rhythms of a squeaky wind-pump and clicking telegraph machine, then water dripping from the storage tower onto Strode’s head, until he replaces his hat and anticipates the cool drink that it will gradually collect. Mulock dabbles his fingers in the horse trough and cracks his knuckles. These two references to water are important clues, but their meaning only becomes apparent much later.
There is the intermittent buzz of a fly annoying Elam until, with crack-shot precision, he traps it in the barrel of his pistol and then enjoys its more subdued whine from within. Finally, the found sound overture closes with the chuffs, squeals and clanks of the train as it slows to a halt. The three gunslingers stand poised, clearly prepared to dispatch whoever it is they have been waiting for the moment they alight from their carriage. But no one does. As the train pulls away again, the three men turn to leave but are stopped in their tracks by the mournful strains of harmonica music and as the last carriage is drawn aside, a lone figure is revealed. I mean, what an entrance!
This ‘Man With No Name’ is played by Charles Bronson, who was already a well-established actor known for Westerns and war films and had recently starred in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). He’d been Leone’s second choice to play the lead in A Fistful of Dollars, after Henry Fonda! Both turned him down, as did James Coburn, forcing him to settle for the young and relatively unknown TV actor, Clint Eastwood! This time around, he managed to nab both Fonda and Bronson, and Coburn would star in his follow-up, A Fistful of Dynamite (a.k.a Duck, You Sucker).
We’re more than 10-minutes in and, apart from the Station Agent attempting to sell the three gunmen some train tickets, there has been no dialogue. Even now, much of the interaction is through stares and changing expressions as all the men try to get the measure of this stranger they’ve been sent to meet and presumably murder. But when it comes, the dialogue is worth waiting for and, in pure Leone-style, it’s at once both humorous and menacing. “You brought a horse for me?” Bronson asks. Elam chuckles “looks like we’re shy of one horse.” With a cool, almost imperceptible shake of the head and in extreme, pore-revealing close-up Bronson says, “You brought two too many…” and after the assuredly slow-paced build it’s all over in seconds. Violence as short and sharp as a gunshot. Only one man walks away from the exchange. Bronson plays his nameless mystery man with more solemnity than Eastwood’s, but he’s still stoically super-cool and at times hints at a supernatural force that Eastwood himself would personify in his self-directed lone avenger story, High Plains Drifter (1971).
We spend the next 10-minutes or so being introduced to the McBain family, as they prepare a celebration feast on their gingham-draped tables in front of a rather impressive ranch-house built from sturdy lumber — just one of the film’s magnificent sets designed by Carlo Simi, who also worked on all three Dollars movies. Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) deals out some old-school kid-slapping but also shows some affection to his three children and when he witnesses his daughter drop at the crack of a gunshot, he’s suitably distraught and ineffectually heroic as he and his eldest son are also shot dead.
From the dusty wilderness, a gang of gunmen emerge dressed in the long duster coats that seem ubiquitous in Leone Westerns — but pay attention, an important plot point hangs on them here. As the gang approach the ranch house, little Timmy (Enzo Santaniello), the youngest McBain, runs out to see the rest of his family lying dead in the dust. We don’t know it at the time, but this is a poetic re-enactment of another character’s backstory. Then we get another of the film’s early reveals.
As dramatic guitar chords ring out, the camera curves round to give us the first close-up of this monster who’s just killed the little boy’s father, brother, and sister… and lo, it’s none other than Henry Fonda, his laughing blue eyes twinkling in the shadow under the brim of his black hat. The intensity of the scene, aided by Morricone’s emotive score becomes almost unbearable until Frank’s evil is confirmed beyond doubt with a gunshot edit. So far, most of the characters we have spent any time with have died within minutes — clearly, nobody is safe in this movie.
Sergio Leone once said:
…the rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasp that a person takes just before dying. Once Upon a Time in the West was, from start to finish, a dance of death, all of the characters in the film, except Claudia are conscious of the fact they will not arrive at the end alive…”
It’s a fine quote that, although slightly misleading (and I’m not saying how so), has been used in subsequent marketing. Which brings us to the leading lady, Claudia Cardinale.
It was Bernardo Bertolucci who wrote in the character of Jill McBain and, after overcoming some resistance from Leone, worked her into the central role and rearranged the plot around her. Leone was reluctant to feature a female character so prominently, partly because he hadn’t directed a strong female lead, and perhaps feared it may detract from his tried-and-tested formula of intense macho menace. The women in his Dollars Trilogy had been little more than plot devices to move things along, but Jill McBain is central to the entire narrative which only really kicks off when she arrives in the frontier town of Flagstone. Apparently, the cost of building the Flagstone set was greater than the entire budget for A Fistful of Dollars and Leone uses it to great effect, first revealing it during an ingenious, uncut sequence that involves some carefully planned tracking, and an audacious crane shot…
We soon learn that Jill’s an ex-prostitute who Brett McBain met in New Orleans and had offered her a new life with his ‘ready-made’ family after his first wife died. However, when she turns up for what was to be her wedding, she finds it is now a wake for her entire family-to-be. It’s unclear whether she speaks the truth or simply thinks on her feet when she explains that they were already legally married in New Orleans. The ranch now falls to her but when she tries to sell it off, she begins to realise its importance as a water-source positioned strategically in the path of the approaching railroad.
Claudia Cardinale is superb in the lead role and this film wouldn’t have worked without her. She manages to balance aspects of the shrewd whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, the widow, the women in peril, and the matriarch in control. Clearly, she has a sexually-charged screen presence and the male characters are circling her like sharks throughout, but she’s not punished for being sexy. We feel the sense of threat she always endures, yet she remains courageously defiant and empowered. She is forced to use her charms to manipulate the men around her, but is strong enough to do this strategically, manages to stay alive and is as in control of her own destiny as any of the characters…
She forges links between the three male leads, ‘Harmonica’ (Charles Bronson), the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), and Frank (Henry Fonda), who are, respectively, this film’s versions of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. She uses her powers to play them off against each other, believing for part of the film at least, that Cheyenne is responsible for the murder of her family but gradually learning the truth about each man and finally being tragically attracted to ‘Harmonica’. As with much of the script, the dialogue is often only implied through body language and facial expressions and Cardinale totally nails this, adding a whole extra psychological dimension to her character.
Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) resembles a James Bond villain. He’s a powerful railroad magnate who’s as morally bankrupt as he’s monetarily bank-rolled. Yet he’s physically weak, suffering from progressive skeletal-tuberculosis and can’t freely move out of his specially adapted train carriage. He’s obsessed with seeing his tracks connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, spanning the continent and consolidating man’s control over the land. Indeed, Ferzetti was to play crime boss Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) just a year later.