Logline: On the western frontier, a mysterious loner with a harmonica joins forces with an outlaw to protect a widow from an assassin working for the railroad.
Review:If someone declared Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West the greatest western ever made, I would not argue. This vivid and expressionistic depiction of the dying West engages all of the senses.
After three successful spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Sergio Leone was ready to depart from the genre until he was lured in by Paramount studios to make Once Upon a Time in the West, his best western. The film has a thin plot and moves at such a languid pace that many viewers will find it off putting. However, for cinephiles, the film is pure joy. The film opens with one of the most brilliant openings to any film I have ever seen. This sequence, in which attention is paid to the smallest of details, sets the tone of the entire film.
This film features an incredible use of sound. Also, Ennio Morricone’s music is wonderful as usual and the cinematography and camerawork is masterful. The film’s frames are full of the extreme closeups, blood, dirt and sweat that one comes to expect in a Leone western. Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale are all great but it is Henry Fonda who stands out the most, in a villainous role against type. Interestingly, the “Man with No Name” role in the Dollars trilogy was offered to Bronson, who rejected it. The role was then taken by Clint Eastwood.
Once Upon a Time in the West is an operatic epic in the grandest sense with a feeling of finality. It assumes viewers are familiar with Old West mythology and western cliches and in many ways, inverts them. Westerns typically depicted male heroes. In this film, the three male leads are all deeply flawed. The true “hero” of this story is Cardinale’s Jill McBain, who is a compassionate woman.
Ultimately, Once Upon a Time in the West is a story of revenge and the end of the Old West, signaled by the construction of the railroad. It is a masterpiece that invites viewers to simply revel in its images.
Great scene: A beautiful sequence that shows Leone’s unique way of shooting a scene.