Three men wait a remote train station. One man (Al Mulock) endlessly cracks his knuckles. The second man (Woody Strode) stands underneath a leak in the water tower. Eventually the water gathers in the crown of his hat and he drinks it with a really satisfied smile. The third man (Jack Elam) engages in an existential war with a fly that just wonâ€™t leave him alone. The train arrives and one man (Charles Bronson) disembarks. The three men have obviously been waiting to kill him. The lone man plays a sad dirge on an old battered harmonica and he asks the three men if they brought a horse for him. The third man jokingly says that it looks as if theyâ€™re one horse shy. The harmonica player disagrees:
â€œYou brought two horses too many.â€
The harmonica player whips out his gun, kills all three men with incredibly fast and accurate shots and thatâ€™s how ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST begins. A movie that I think is the best western ever made. You can disagree with me. I donâ€™t mind.
Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in the boomtown of Flagstone to take up housekeeping with Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) whom she met and married in New Orleans. Jill is desperately looking to put her former life as a prostitute behind her but that dream is totally shattered as she finds that McBain, along with his three children have all been brutally murdered. The townspeople are quick to put the blame on Cheyenne (Jason Robards) a local bandit noted for his flamboyance and rough charm. But Cheyenne is for once the innocent party. The McBains were actually killed by Frank (Henry Fonda) a merciless killer in the employ of railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) who is dying from tuberculosis of the bones but is determined to stay alive long enough to see his railroad reach The Pacific Ocean. Nobody knows what the motives and intentions of the mysterious man that they all call "Harmonica" are. But he moves among these four and manipulates their actions for his own dark purpose. A purpose we donâ€™t learn until the end of the movie and one I wouldnâ€™t dare reveal here.
Iâ€™ve been a lover of all of Sergio Leoneâ€™s movies and Iâ€™ve thought for years that ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was his highly underrated masterpiece. Most would say that â€œThe Good, The Bad And The Uglyâ€ takes the top honors among Leoneâ€™s films but I gotta disagree. Much as I love â€œThe Good, The Bad And The Uglyâ€ I love ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST even more. Why? Okay, sit back. This will take a while.
First of all is the title: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Leone is letting you know right up front heâ€™s telling you a grown-up fairy tale. This isnâ€™t going to be a fairy tale that has a happy ending because it takes place in the west. But it really isnâ€™t The American West we know. The film critic Danny Peary wrote in his review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST that Sergio Leoneâ€™s West was inhabited by a select group men who belonged to an elder race of warriors who possessed near supernatural skills with guns. And I think thatâ€™s valid. Sergio Leoneâ€™s American West is actually as much a fantasy realm as Robert E. Howardâ€™s Hyborian Era or Michael Moorcockâ€™s world of Elric of Melnibone. But in Leoneâ€™s fantasy world his warriors tote sixguns instead of swords. In fact, thereâ€™s a key scene where Charles Bronsonâ€™s Harmonica says to Henry Fondaâ€™s Frank that he belongs to â€˜an ancient raceâ€™.
Second of all is Claudia Cardinale. Sergio Leone may have slighted women is his other movies but he made up for it with this one. He takes every opportunity to film Claudia Cardinale the best way he can. Sheâ€™s an astoundingly beautiful woman and Leone takes advantage of that, giving her an amazing amount of close-ups where we can just take delight in how lusciously gorgeous she is. And sheâ€™s not just there as eye candy. Miss Cardinaleâ€™s character is the one that sets everything in the movie into motion.
Third is Henry Fonda. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is legendary as the only movie where he played a bad guy and I guess weâ€™re lucky because if Mr. Fonda had really put his mind to it weâ€™d have gotten some of the scariest bad guys of all time from him. Henry Fonda damn scares the you-know-what outta me eveyrtime he shows up on screen in this movie. Heâ€™s so scary that when this movie was first shown on American broadcast on ABC here in Brooklyn, some scenes were actually cut out; including Frankâ€™s killing of a little boy.
Fourth is just the way the story is told. Sergio Leone takes his time in all of his movies and this is no exception. Heâ€™ll tell the story he wants to tell in his own way and in his own time. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is no exception. There are many scenes which have nothing but characters staring at each other. And compared to how fast the gunfights happen you might be bewildered at how much time Leone takes setting up the gunfights.
Fifth is the score by Ennio Morricone which I think is the best heâ€™s ever done. Do yourself a favor and pick up the two-disc DVD version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in which youâ€™ve got commentary by guys like John Carpenter, John Milius, Claudia Cardinale and numerous others including Morricone who himself says that Leone wanted ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST scored liked a opera. Every main character has their own theme music and the hauntingly evocative â€˜Jillâ€™s Themeâ€™ is used to its greatest effect in the last ten minutes of the movie. Which is Leoneâ€™s commentary in full on the last ten minutes of the mythic Old West he loved so much.
Should you see ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST? Itâ€™s one of my â€™25 Movies You Canâ€™t Call Yourself A Movie Fan If You Havenâ€™t Seenâ€™. Itâ€™s got terrific performances by Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and the exquisite Claudia Cardinale. Itâ€™s not a western you want to see for non-stop action and bloody shootouts. In fact, for a Sergio Leone Western itâ€™s really slow paced. But the way itâ€™s filmed, its story and the acting itâ€™s captivating. Itâ€™s a movie Iâ€™ve long wanted in my home library for years and I do. In short, yes. If you call yourself a fan of movies or a fan of westerns then ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a movie you need to see.
WORLD - CULTURE
Copyright © 2010 DLFerguson
Once Upon A Time In The West
Copyright © 2010 DLFerguson
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