“You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside… something to do with death.”
Even after the “spaghetti” Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly established Italian director Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More) as a master of the genre, he still had a lot to offer. Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale, is another great epic Western on the same level as Leone’s previous masterpiece, and that’s no small feat. Unlike Leone’s original Dollars trilogy, which were mostly about the adventures of wandering gunslingers, this one is a revenge tale that focuses on more stable parts of civilization like a young wife and a railroad tycoon. But even with a home to go back to, there’s plenty of turmoil for the characters here. And Leone is still a master at crafting suspense and general moodiness, so this is a very entertaining Western as well.
The story opens with a mysterious harmonica-playing stranger (creatively just called “Harmonica”) arriving in a small town on a train looking for a man named Frank. There’s instead an attempt on his life by Frank’s goons. Frank is elsewhere, murdering a family that’s waiting on the young mother to arrive on train. When the mother, Jill, arrives and finds her family murdered, she starts thinking about how she can get revenge. Meanwhile, Cheyenne, the man pinned with the murder of Jill’s family, escapes from captivity and seeks Jill to find out more about the murder he’s been blamed for. When Jill, Cheyenne, and Harmonica form a tentative alliance, they begin plotting how they can take down Frank—but he won’t go without a fight.
You know, ma’am, when you’ve killed four, it’s easy to make it five.
As in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West excels at creating a moody atmosphere that exudes vintage cool. This is accomplished through iconic lines (“You brought two too many” in the opening scene was classic) and the amazing score from Ennio Morricone, who also wrote the music for Leone’s previous Western masterpieces, but most notable is that Leone is not afraid to use silence and emptiness. The long opening scene contains no music, almost no dialogue, and very little action, but we know exactly what’s going to happen and the suspense is incredible. Unlike many other fast-paced, quick-cut movies that build suspense by jerking the audience around, this film takes its time and crafts a mood. This is something that could easily go wrong in the hands of a bad director, but Leone is a master of this and it ended up being one of my favorite parts of the film.
The choice of Henry Fonda as villain Frank is great, but it’s easy to forget how shocking that was to audiences at the time. Fonda was well-known for his roles, most notably the hero of 12 Angry Men, but that’s just the problem: he was a hero through and through, and nobody saw him as anything different. Sergio Leone ran into another problem: even Fonda saw himself as only a hero! He initially turned down the role, and Leone flew to America to meet with him. When Fonda asked why Leone wanted him for a villain, he replied, “Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera pans up to the gunman’s face and… it’s Henry Fonda.” That convinced Fonda to take the role, but he was still apprehensive about it—he showed up in Italy with a pair of brown contact lenses and a mustache, but Leone wanted the real Fonda. And it paid off. Fonda did an excellent job portraying the cold killer Frank, showing brutality but also humanity so as to avoid the cartoonish villainy of other Westerns. Frank ended up being one of the best villains in any Western, and that’s one of the things that elevated this movie above the rest.
You have to remember that, when this film was made, American Westerns were made by people who were completely in love with the American West. Though this is Leone’s fourth “spaghetti” Western, it was still fresh and novel to portray anti-heroes in Westerns and focus on the hardships rather than the heroism. Compared to classic American Westerns—and just about any American movie of the time, actually—this was dark, gritty, and brutally real. What that means for viewers today is that this feels complex and surprisingly modern.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a masterful epic Western that doesn’t shy away from the dark parts of the old West as it tells its story. It’s also one of the most iconic Westerns of all time, with its music, mood, and badass lines from memorable characters. If you’re burnt out on John Wayne movies or have never been interested in seeing old classic Westerns, this may interest you because it’s so different than the old American classics. It showed that director Sergio Leone was a master of the genre and proved that the world was ready for a new era of Westerns.
Director: Sergio Leone
Genres: epic, western