"Do you know anything about a guy going around playing the harmonica? He's someone you'd remember. Instead of talking, he plays. And when he better play, he talks."
What a pleasure it was for me to finally get to watch this masterpiece which I kept on putting off because of its nearly three hour runtime. I was blown away by Sergio Leone’s direction in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and that was the only film of his that I’d seen up to this point, but now I honestly can’t say which of the two films I prefer. This is perhaps a better film because it is set on a grander and epic scale, but perhaps not as entertaining as the other. Both films have terrific performances with memorable characters and a masterful score composed by Ennio Morricone that accompanies Tonino Delli Colli’s beautiful cinematography. Leone’s exaggerated close ups show us the dirt and the sweat coming out of these grim people’s faces and it’s juxtaposed perfectly with these extremely long shots of the vastness of the Western valley. I can’t imagine liking this film more than I already do, but it is clear that these films were made to experience them in the big screen and it’s a pity I couldn’t do so. There are also many memorable quotes in this film and I absolutely loved the screenplay. For the first 90 minutes or so I wasn’t sure what direction the movie was heading and that is what I liked about this film since it had me guessing at some of the characters motivations and where the plot was trying to go. The characters have a lot depth and not even the villain is portrayed in a stereotypical way. Along with Unforgiven these are the three best Westerns I’ve seen so you can bet I will watch more of Leone’s spaghetti westerns in the future.
The film couldn’t open in a more spectacular fashion as the camera follows three gunmen waiting for someone at a station. Once the train arrives, the men don’t find who they are waiting for and as they are walking away they hear someone playing a harmonica. It is the mysterious man they’ve been expecting (Charles Bronson) who asks them where Frank is. They’ve been sent to kill him, but Harmonica is too quick for their guns and finishes them off claiming they “have brought two (horses) too many.” Then we are introduced to a recently married family man who is living on his deserted property with his three children and expecting his new wife to arrive that very day, but a group of bandits led by blue eyed Frank (Henry Fonda) kills them all one by one for reasons that aren’t explained yet. The bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), arrives to find them all murdered and the officers find evidence that lead them to believe that the outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is responsible. The lives of these three men all intersect with Jill’s and as the story develops the plot and mystery unfolds.
Sergio Leone had me engaged with the film from the very opening sequence and he sets the slow paced tone rather quickly. He takes his time to let the action unfold but thanks to the beautiful cinematography and the gripping score I was never bored for a minute. I was continually trying to guess what was going on and what the motivation of each character truly was. I was surprised that Leone decided to have Ford’s character shoot a young kid in a very early scene in the movie, and I can only imagine what a shocker that must have been for audiences during that time who were used to seeing Ford play the hero. Bronson is mysterious but it is rather obvious from the beginning what his intentions are. He still delivers a gripping performance as this mysterious character and when his backstory is finally revealed it all pays off. It was Robards’ character who had me guessing at times what his real intentions were. At first I believed he was going to be one of the main villains, but he delivers most of the funny scenes and was perhaps one of the best characters in the film. The breathtaking Claudia Cardinale may have not been given a strong female role, but she wasn’t simply a damsel in distress and she seemed to know what she was doing. Once Upon a Time in the West is not a straightforward revenge story and it blends several tones throughout the film having you sympathize with each character at different points of the story. Leone maintained the thrilling atmosphere for its entire runtime and the final showdown is rewarding. This is an epic masterpiece and a new addition to my favorite movies of all time list that I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to experience.