Once Upon a Time in the West is a test of patience. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western asks the audience to soak in each shot, but never in a masturbatory way. Water drips on the hat of a cowboy. He later drinks the same water. Another crazy-eyed bandit contemplates using his pistol on a pesky fly. He instead traps it inside the barrel. We know a train is coming, but why? Is it the train that’s heading our way, or something much more powerful? It stops, and someone throws a small package down. It pulls away, and for the first time we meet a mysterious man playing a harmonica. The man, who is later dubbed Harmonica, is played by Charles Bronson. Ten minutes have passed, and you’ve just witnessed the opening credit scene.
Although, not entirely evident until you’ve invested over an hour of time in this nearly three-hour film there are two main conflicts within the story. The first conflict is over land that a railroad was built on and the other being the mysterious Harmonica’s (Bronson) hunt for Frank. Henry Fonda plays Frank, and up to this point he had never played a villain in his career, let alone such a dastardly one. The first time we meet Frank (Fonda), there’s no doubt that he is an evil man who is unlikable in every sense. Something about his icy-cold blue eyes juxtaposed against his five o’clock shadow is really unsettling. Harmonica, on the other hand, we are only left to assume he’s on the side of good. We really have no idea who he is or why he’s after Frank. We just assume it’s something awful.
Frank kills Jill McBain’s (Claudia Cardinale) husband, and leaves her trying to figure out what to do with this land she’s inherited. Hence, the whole railroad conflict. Cardinale is the lone female character amongst the cast, and never has a chance to be as effective as she could have been. In addition to Henry Fonda’s against-type casting, Jason Robards plays a hardened bandit named Cheyenne. Both very good, but no one can match the stunning performances of Bronson and Fonda. Bronson does a lot of coming and going, and very little talking. Just plays his harmonica. Fonda does a wonderful job of becoming unsettled as the story unfolds, as if being tortured by Harmonica’s looming presence.
Aspiring filmmakers should take notice to the work of Sergio Leone because most of what makes his films so good is what he does from behind the lens. He forces you to look into the eyes of an outlaw, and he’s never quick to reach for the pistols. In one particular shot of a horse and carriage coming around the bend, Leone holds and follows around the turn, as the shot opens into the desert it’s as if he’s welcoming us to the Wild West. The dialogue is so few and far between, but every bit of it seems like a small clue to where the film is heading. I enjoyed the beginning hour, as much as the final hour. The middle portion is where most of the story comes together, but it’s definitely the most conventional this Western ever gets.
The final showdown between Harmonica and Frank borders on being comical as it seems to go on for several minutes. They stop. They stare. Sergio Leone knows how to take his time, and make every shot count. In the midst of the showdown we get a very convincing flashback. Back and forth, it’s a battle of the green-eyed Harmonica and the piercing blue stare of Frank. Now, we know why we’re here. It’s all come down to this.
It’s a rather somber film with slight tips of its hat at a lighter side when the score feels upbeat, or Harmonica cracks a smile at the thought of killing Frank. The film is very long, and could easily be knocked for its slowness. It doesn’t pretend it’s trying to get to the point any time soon. That’s kind of what I love about it. I love the Western genre, but it died because it became action-packed over substance. Shoot-outs are exciting, but they all look the same and they’re over within seconds. Leone was very conscious of the film’s length and compromised the original US release by shortening the film, it suffered and it took many years before it was as highly regarded as it is today.
I love movies, and I want these stories to come to life on the screen. I think it’s the greatest form of storytelling. It comes in all sizes, and packages. Once Upon a Time in the West is a tall order, but well worth every minute of your time. It didn’t grab me by insides and stir things around, but I was emotionally invested and it’s visually remarkable. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is very nearly a masterpiece of a film, a Western, and it’s definitely a must see for anyone interested in the art associated with filmmaking.
The Good: It’s very long, but always entertaining (like this review). You know what is happening, but you want to know why.
The Better: Sergio Leone’s direction. Every shot has a meaning.
The Best: Sergio Leone convinced Henry Fonda to play a villain in an unforgettable performance.