REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]

“Watch those false notes”

Never having watched many Westerns, I just know from what I have heard, that they are chock full of anti-heroes. Men who live conflicted lives and, while they may do the right thing, probably only help others when it ultimately serves their own purposes. These aren’t businessmen, but just plain men … an ancient race. With Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, this cannot be truer. Between our three male leads, and even our female star, not a one can be called a hero of any sort. One is a killer, one a criminal, one a whore, and the other a man looking for vengeance, making friends, but really just traveling to the point of avenging a wrong done to him and his family. Do the two men protect the newly widowed Mrs. McBain from the ruthless killer Frank? Or do they just use her and the prospect of her money to get to where they want to be? Just because someone risks his life for another doesn’t mean it is a selfless act. Quite the contrary, it usually means they have a lot more invested in the situation than one might think. Concerning these four characters, you never can tell where allegiances lie, or how long they may hold up. All one can be sure of is that the almost three hour ride they take together, from strangers to intimate acquaintances, for better of worse, is a helluva good time.

I completely understand any complaint that the film may be too long and perhaps even boring in stretches. There are plenty of times where little to no speech is uttered; all we have to work with are the amazing visuals and sumptuous score. Each character seems to have their own song that follows them along, giving away their presence as time passes. The use of sound in general is so integral that those passages of silence, on behalf of the cast, is a necessity to create mood and tension between them. Who couldn’t think that a short diddy on the harmonica can elicit the amount of suspense it does here. Not only does it give away the position and identity of its player, it inflicts fear in those confronting it. An uncomfortable unease at this weathered cowboy exuding such a lyrical melody mingled with the inability to know if the musical talent hides an expertise with the gun or compensates for a lack thereof. The absence of sound also helps at moments to keep the audience off balance. In one of my favorite sequences—not to ruin anything, but the death of the McBain clan—contains two extended instances of nothingness. A father and his children are smiling and readying themselves for the arrival of Jill, their new wife and mother respectively, yet are taken off-guard twice at the lack of noise from nature, and, on our end, score. You know something is amiss and causing the turmoil to the circle of life, you just don’t quite know when or where that rift will show its face.

Cinematically, one couldn’t ask for more. There is a laborious, detail-oriented craft in play, carefully framing each second for full impact. The multiple showings of a large head in the foreground opposite a full figure in the distance, at diagonals to each other, never grows tired. The long focus, keeping it all in view is stunning to behold, as are the sweeping shots from above. A few long takes are interspersed as well, uncovering a dusty, realistic cesspool of deceit and wild west aspirations, the desert and tumbleweeds crawling around while the action moves through. Even the introduction to each character is handled with a skilled touch, framing them in silhouette, in close-up, or from afar, adding just the right amount of intrigue and importance to each. Especially for our three male leads, it couldn’t be better. After a long sequence at a deserted train station, men dealing with the heat, dripping water, and uncaring flies searching for a place to land, we see the figure of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, just arrived from the passing train, telling the three men that they brought “two horses too many”. For Frank, an amazing role of villainy by Henry Fonda, we see his handiwork from off-camera as the McBains fall one after the other, culminating with a true glimpse into the compassionless void where his heart should be. And even Jason Robards’ Cheyenne enters with subtle bombast, walking into a saloon, slowly and with confidence, following the volleys of gunfire and struggle outside the establishment’s walls, ending with the camera upon his handcuffed wrists, pouring alcohol down his dry throat.

Claudia Cardinale has her moments as well, those times where she appears to be a lady of good-upbringing, truly distraught over the murder of her new family, a clan of farm folk that would allow her to leave the life of prostitution she had in New Orleans. A strong-willed firecracker, her Jill is unashamed to use her body for whatever means necessary; she likes the touch of a man, knowing that a hot bath will wash away all the unpleasantness for her to continue on living afterwards. Never allowing her to be the victim, Cardinale is no waif in need of protection and help, she can most definitely hold her own.

There is of course a story holding the brilliant character studies on display together, one of greed and power. The land left to Jill by her dead husband is worth a fortune once the railroad reaches it’s station, something Frank and his benefactor Morton, (another great performance by Gabriele Ferzetti), know, causing him to commit the murder. Harmonica and Cheyenne take it upon themselves to save that land for Jill, although their true reasoning results from the desire to stop Frank and all the evil he has caused the world. No one here is innocent, all are after power in some capacity, selfishly and without too much caring about the others except how much they can help achieve it. Truly a tale of humanity being undone by a world without rules, Once Upon a Time in the West is everything you’ve heard it was and more. I almost don’t want to watch another Western because I’m sure all the rest will pale in comparison.

Once Upon a Time in the West 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★


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