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 performances are all superb, even when verging on the expressionistic. Admittedly, this arises from masterful casting. I mean Henry Fonda just has to play his own ‘evil twin’, albeit with some nice new nuances. Bronson has to maintain a granite exterior and seem detached from pretty much everything except his enigmatic quest, giving very little away. He may not be the most versatile actor, but I think his restraint here makes this his best performance and it defines the single-minded tough-guy persona he would continue to exploit through the 1970s.
Cheyenne could easily have veered into either broad comedy or pantomime villainy, but Jason Robards humanises his character as a loveable rogue and imbues him with pathos. Interestingly, Robards was to star in another post-modern western about a water source and the passing of an era, Sam Peckinpah’s partly pretentious broad comedy The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), in which he plays a luckless hobo who accidentally discovers a desert spring and builds a trading post and way station on the site.
The unusual dual narrative structure can be confusing and does fall apart a little in the middle, but really it’s this along with perfect pacing, and Leone’s inimitable visual flair, that has made Once Upon a Time in the West the enduring classic it’s become. It’s the stylistic culmination of everything that made the Dollars Trilogy stand out: the extreme close-ups in unforgiving widescreen, the striking innovation of the double close-ups and the deep-deep focus (all realised with the help of Tonino Delli Colli’s clever cinematography), the assured pacing that hits the beat of a scene so perfectly that it never drags nor bores, even when there’s very little happening. And the essential contribution of Morricone’s distinctive music can’t be overstated. The final act builds inexorably to a more than satisfying denouement and the full explanation of Harmonica’s motivation, told in a cleverly shared flashback sequence, is emotionally devastating.
The magic of Once Upon a Time in the West is how Leone managed to capture the essence of those classic Westerns that had enchanted him as a boy and cast the same spell over a modern audience. For all its brutality, violence, and pessimism, it retains a sense of glee and an almost fetishistic fascination with all the regalia of the Old West; the livery, the barrels, the trigger guards, boot buckles, bustles, buttons, and bows. Those kinds of details are all celebrated. And there’s that Italian flippancy and sense of fun that pervaded its pulp cinema through the 1960s and ’70s. For example, keep a lookout during the protracted shootout between Frank and his unloyal henchmen for a super-clever High Noon-inspired visual joke when the shadow of a sniper’s rifle extends down the painted face of an unfinished clock that has no hands fitted, creating the illusion of the clock striking noon.
After completing the principal photography in Spain — which, for the final scenes, involved laying functional railway track, moving a mountain (well, actually a sandy hill more like a dune), and trucking in a full-size steam locomotive to be craned onto those tracks — Leone went the extra distance, literally, and finished up with location filming in the US. He wanted to capture some of the expansive establishing shots in the famous Monument Valley, Arizona, to place the story more definitely in Wild West territory. One suspects what he really wanted was to visit those distinctive locations that John Ford had adopted into his iconography — to finally break that fourth fantastical wall and walk in the footsteps of his childhood heroes.
At 175-minutes, the original cut was deemed too long. Leone agreed and did some trimming here and there, but the distributors chopped a further half-hour off the US print, which included the key scene that introduced Cheyenne, established a rapport between him and ‘Harmonica’, and set-up a key plot point. They also trimmed some of the more protracted death scenes and excised the death of one main character entirely! Not surprisingly, it didn’t perform well at the box office and struggled to recoup its $5M budget. By contrast, the international theatrical release did very well in Europe, where it ranked as 1969’s most popular film in France and Germany and made the all-time Top 10 in both countries. A restored print of 165-minutes was given a successful re-run in 1984 and subsequently released on home video. There have been various versions available on DVD and now Blu-ray, but the 159-minute cut is generally accepted as the original.
Critically, it’s close to perfection and deserves its ranking in many greatest films of all-time lists. In 2009, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, recognising it as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Once Upon a Time in the West formed the first part of what Leone was to refer to as his ‘Once Upon a Time Trilogy’, which continued with Duck, You Sucker and concluded with the director’s final feature Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It’s hard to believe that, apart from his debut, The Colossus of Rhodes, these two trilogies represent Sergio Leone’s entire output as a film director, and yet there’s no denying his importance and resounding influence. A fine example of quality over quantity.
In memory of writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci — 16 March 1941–26 November 2018.