Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards
Director: Sergio Leone
Mood: If you want to watch a ‘must-see’ Western by a brilliant director but be assured that unlike his previous films that maybe you couldn’t follow this one will definitely deliver on every level.
I feel like I’ve watched a lot of Westerns that have been dubbed ‘masterpieces’, and have been disappointed.
Movies like Shane, A Fistful of Dollars, and the sprawling miniseries Lonesome Dove get so much hype, and I agree that they’re GOOD. Just not mind-blowingly great. I’ve been waiting for a so-called Western masterpiece to rock my world.
Once Upon a Time in the West is that Western.
The word ‘masterpiece’ has origins in trades: a piece of work presented by a craftsman to a medieval guild, to qualify for the rank of master. It’s your best work – it’s the greatest achievement of your lifetime to that point. And this movie is SO F*CKING AMAZING, it’s definitely Sergio Leone’s masterpiece.
ScreenRant has an awesome roundup (pun intended) of Western masterpieces, which you should go read – but first, my opinions.
Once Upon a Time in the West opens with a group of bandits sent by Frank (Henry Fonda) to kill a mysterious, harmonica-playing man (Charles Bronson). There’s almost no dialogue in the first twenty minutes; it’s all sweaty, dusty, classic Leone close-ups… and a lot of waiting. But the waiting itself is super engaging, and has that real-time tension like High Noon.
There’s an agonizingly drawn-out scene that’s just Jack Elam’s face with a persistent fly, which made for some entertaining making-of trivia.
At that point, two stories unfold. Greedy railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) is trying to steal a piece of land, hence sending in Frank to get the job done. Frank’s men unceremoniously dispatch the entire family of cherubic gingers living on that land, and frame jovial bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Meanwhile Harmonica is slowly hunting him on a revenge quest that isn’t explained until the end.
And before he died, Mr. McBain had somehow married a former prostitute named Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who arrives in a sort of mail-order-bride manner just in time to see the bodies of the would-be family she had never met. Now the owner of that choice piece of land, Jill becomes mighty popular with the film’s three lead bad boys.
Then it’s a matter of which man will be left standing, and you just know there can only be one.
I struggled a bit at first to keep track of who was on which side, and didn’t catch that the first three bandits WEREN’T Cheyenne’s boys. There was also an extremely confusing sex scene that had me skipping back and forth on the DVD, trying to understand WTF was happening. But the acting in general was so good that I didn’t really care if I wasn’t keeping up at all times.
This film is of particular note as one of only two times in his career that Henry Fonda played a bad guy – and he delivered a mean, menacing motherf*cker. But the standout for me was Jason Robards as Cheyenne.
He was scruffy and commanding in a way that definitely read bad guy, but then he’d suddenly become charming. He flipped that switch on and off with the skill of a masterful artist. His character was the most fascinating, even up against Bronson’s mysterious Harmonica. Kirk Douglas wanted that role, but I think Robards fit it perfectly.
Bronson and Fonda both gave great performances. Fonda felt genuinely cold and evil, and his facial expressions created some of the most intense shots. Bronson had the perfect balance of hawk-eyed observation and coiled strength. Leone originally offered that role to Clint Eastwood, and then James Coburn.
I wasn’t into Claudia Cardinale as the female lead. She gave beautiful close-ups, but the excessive eye makeup and giant hair didn’t reflect the period. Yes, her character was a recently retired sex worker, but mascara wasn’t even invented for another 30 years. Her performance was okay, but felt flat and nowhere near the level of everyone else.
From its opening scene, Once Upon a Time in the West immediately feels less spaghetti and more Western than Leone’s ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy. Not that there’s anything wrong with Spaghetti Westerns! The audio and cinematic quality in this film are just far superior to Leone’s earlier work.
I feel like I get Leone’s style now, and can see why it’s so iconic. It seems like you had to be a really f*cking good actor (and super comfortable with your pores) to be in his films – if you can’t carry five straight minutes of story while acting only with your eyes and facial muscles, forget it.
The score is also pretty incredible. They somehow manage to say as much with silence or nature sounds as with music, which I found impressive.
I would watch this movie over and over again. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t even matter because there’s so much to enjoy.