After Sergio Leone completed the ‘Dollars’ trilogy in 1966, the studios granted him the license to make a Western without fear of studio intervention. The film that resulted, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is this weekend’s movie recommendation.
The film is set in a time of rapid industrialisation, when the railway barons raced to connect the coasts of America with iron track. The prospect held fabulously lucrative promise, and Leone constructs a world in which the laws governing the realisation of that prospect were frighteningly flexible. One such baron is particularly ambitious, and reluctantly hires a henchman with higher designs – ‘Frank,’ played by Henry Fonda – in order to help him get the job done before tuberculosis denies him satisfaction.
Don’t expect to see the moral probity of Juror Eight, Wyatt Earp, or Young Abe Lincoln in Henry Fonda’s performance. Instead, Frank is a terrifying, psychotic character with an appetite for child murder, corruption, and an unquenchable thirst for power. Charles Bronson appears opposite Frank as an enigmatically taciturn gunslinger. He is identified by the only thing about himself he is willing to reveal from his past – his hauntingly played ‘Harmonica.’ Harmonica cherishes his instrument with as much attention as he does his burning desire to kill Frank, for reasons that he’s willing to divulge “only at the point of dying.”
Frank’s and Harmonica’s stories coincide in the town of Flagstone. There, they meet Jill and Cheyenne, played respectively by the stunning Claudia Cardinale and the charismatic Jason Robards. Jill is an ex-prostitute trying to restore her reputation as an honest woman of means, and Cheyenne is keen to clear his name for the murders – perpetrated by Frank – for which he has been framed.
Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack assigns a stirring leitmotif to each of the principal characters. The music matches each character’s idiosyncrasies beautifully: for Frank, the music is loud and jarring; for Harmonica, it’s un-placeably morose; for Cheyenne, it’s strangely whimsical; for Jill, the melodic soprano seems dissonant in the barren wasteland of Flagstone.
The feature of Leone’s work that I find especially compelling is his ability to construct a believable history for almost every one of his characters. There are very few character ‘props’ without personalities – Frank’s venal henchmen, the licentious bartender, and the exasperated sheriff officiating the auction – all are believable.
Make no mistake: Once Upon a Time in the West is brutally violent. Clocking in at almost three hours, it will also swallow a sizeable chunk of your weekend whole. It is an exhausting experience, but as the pinnacle of the spaghetti Western genre, it is deeply rewarding. Watch it if you want to see where the clichés come from: my favourite is the way the camera captures an extreme close-up of piercing eyes appearing from under the hat-brim as the head lifts, but you’ll surely notice countless other examples. Just remember that while they may seem dated, Leone is justly credited with having made them the ice cool hallmarks of dramatic cinema that they are today.
For trivia purposes, I think I’m going to play this one a little differently, given that Once Upon a Time in the West is already such well-trodden turf. I’m going to ask people to contribute instances where they think the film has been directly referenced by other films in the comments section. It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide a long list, especially given the love of Leone’s work by just about every director since (Tarantino in particular is a huge fan). The rules are that you must provide clear information detailing the reference between the new film and what scene or aspect of Once Upon a Time in the West to which it refers. Simply naming a film won’t do. Buona fortuna!