“ Genre: War & Western - Western / Theatrical Release: 1968 / Director: Sergio Leone / Actors: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale ... / DVD released 18 November, 2003 at Paramount / Features of the DVD: Anamorphic, Closed-captioned, Colour, Dolby, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC „
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I think everyone would agree that Sergio Leone will always be best remembered for his fast paced Dollars trilogy with Clint Eastwood. But we shouldn't forget that he was hugely talented and did go on to make a few other very significant films. This film, Once Upon a Time in the West, is one of them. Though it's another western, this is very different to his original Dollars trilogy. I'd always way that the Dollars trilogy focused more on the adventure of the characters. But this film focuses on the characters, and is a brooding, well paced epic. As before, the underlying story is about greed and more specifically the greed surrounding the rail roads. But instead of showing a bunch of men going after the money, we are shown men who are drawn towards each other for different reasons. The film has a stella cast with Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale.
The film starts with a scene at a railroad station, where three gunfighters await the arrival of a mysterious man only known as 'Harmonica',named after the musical instrument he plays. After a tense build up, Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives. For a moment, he and the three gunmen just stare at each other while 'Harmonica' calmly plays his harmonica. Suddenly, there is a shootout and Harmonica turns from a calm, cool headed man into a killer with mission.
Meanwhile a man called Brett McBain has just married. He also owns a plot of land near water in the desert which he bought for a cut price, foreseeing that the railroad will need to pass through it. However, before his new wife can join him, he and his children are shot to death by a ruthless henchman called Frank who works for the railroad's director.
Soon the paths of Harmonica and Frank start to cross each other, and it becomes apparent that Harmonia is after him for some reason. In the middle of all this, there is the railroad, and Harmonica tries to ensure that Brett's widow (played by Claudia Cardinale) isn't intimidated by the railroad director and his henchman. This naturally leads to a brilliant climax, where all is revealed about the men.
For those expecting a fast paced ride from Sergio Leone, this can initially come as a shock as it is so different from the dollars trilogy. This film is brooding, and is very deep. The story isn't told through violence or action, but very much through exceptional characterization that has the action added to it when it is fit. As with The Good the Bad and the Ugly, this film also uses a specific background that connects to the west. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it was he American Civil War. In this film, it's the railroads. As always, Leone carefully builds up the tension using a variety of long takes and some quick close ups and cuts. This is particularly evident in the outstanding opening scene at the railroad station, where only a few words are uttered in the first ten minutes, and again in the final showdown between Harmonica and Frank. This also has a beautiful soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, which highlights the epic, brooding feel that this film has. The action scenes, as always, are shot to perfection and the violence is always believable and never exploitative, meaning that everything in this film blends together perfectly.
This also boasts some of the best acting in film. I am a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, but he made the right decision to stay out of this film. This is a deep film, and needed very subtle character actors to pull it off. Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson were perfectly cast in this film and both make their roles their own. When you watch them act, it's very hard to envisage anyone else in their roles. there is also oustanding support from Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale, both of whom are in top form in this.
Though this is not quite as good as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, this is another masterpiece from Sergio Leone and is probably one of the deepest westerns ever made, rivalling Unforgiven.
As you may already know if you've been reading my recent reviews, I've been watching a lot of Spaghetti Westerns recently, having finished the Clint Eastwood starring trilogy by Sergio Leone, I decided to move on to another of his films - released in 1968 with a rather more complex plot and Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale in the lead roles.
It's quite a bit different from Leone's earlier films in that the plot is not laid out obviously and the characters don't seem quite as they appear, changing as the film goes on, where as the previous films had a comical outlook, Once Upon a Time in the West is a rather sombre affair - although I still find some parts tongue in cheek and one part had me in stitches - "never trust a man who wears a belt and suspenders, he can't even trust his own pants"
The script is awesome, the characters extremely strong - Harmonica Man, Cheyenne, Frank, Mrs Byron and Morton all have very different personalities that helps make the film so intriguing. The music is haunting throughout and definitely adds a unique flavour to the film.
The film is a very long affair and the beginning may go on a bit too long and seem slightly irrelevant to some viewers, after all a stubble chinned brute catching a fly in his pistol has very little to do with any of the main characters, however I know other people find this part an important inclusion for emphasising the arrival of the man with the harmonica and generally I wouldn't question it due to the satisfaction gained from watching the film at the end.
The male heavy casts of Leone are still in place but the very glamorous (well in 1968 at least!) Claudia Cardinale has a strong onscreen presence and you never quite know which way she's going to go.
This is a classic film and definitely one of my favourite Spaghetti Westerns, I think however that The Good, The Bad and The Ugly still comes out on top for me for its simplicity, Once Upon A Time in The West seems to borrow heavily from other films in the genre but it's definitely a top top film.
Once Upon a Time in The West - Another great film directed by Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time In America). Released in 1969 and winner of 4 academy awards. Another long film by Sergio Leone approx 165 minutes.
Henry Fonda - Frank
Claudia Cardinale - Jill McBain
Jason Robards - Cheyenne
Charles Bronson - Harmonica
Set in Wild West of America , Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinal) a young woman from New Orleans to the West of America, more specifically Utah. She arrives to a horrible scene, her new husband and entire family have been murdered. She is befriended by an outlaw and prime suspect for the killings, a man named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who offers to help her catch the real killer.
It is truly a clash of all four characters as they come together in this movie, you have a young woman searching for something new, an outlaw who is innocent, a killer and a secretive harmonica player with a sharp shot.
Did I Like It
Absolutely! A true gun-slinging western movie, by a great director. Brilliant storyline with four very different characters, all at crossroads in their lives, coming together to provide a gripping tale.
Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda play such brilliant roles as Harmonica and Frank, they both have such great screen presence you can see why Leone was persuaded to direct the film being promised these actors.
Is this film the greatest Western ever made? Quite possibly is the answer. It may even be a contender for the greatest film ever made full stop, though that may be an argument for another day.
The film is near perfect in every aspect from the brilliant photography through to a soundtrack that is as electrifying and as important as any of the characters.
The films begins as it means to go on with an excellent opening credit sequence that lasts for ten minutes alone and keeps going through to its climatic showdown.
Henry Fonda excels as a cold hearted killer and you can only guess at how the sight of him gunning down an innocent child was received at the time by audiences more used to his everyman roles in films such as The Grapes of Wrath or 12 Angry Men.
Add this this to great performances from Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and the stunning Claudia Cardinale and you may well have the perfect Western... 5/5
A film only review:
Every now and then, along comes a film to make you stop and think. One that makes you wish you had been there. One that reminds you of things you have seen in different snippets of films and books more recently. Essentially, one that is so good that it inspires others and creates future elements in films that are so subtle that you only notice them restrospectively.
And this is how I would class Sergio Leone's 1968 epic 'Once Upon A Time In The West'. It is regarded as the fourth in the trilogy of 'Spaghetti' Westerns and provides an apt depiction of the end of the Wild West. 'West' is a very slow film, and Leone relies very much on his style of wide-angle shots immediate close-ups, with a panning camera not the focus as it is in most films. It is this style that we see immediately, as the immesurably long opening sequence sets the scene for what is to come.
It opens on a train station in the Wild West, shortly before the advent of the railroad system that laid waste to the long and stretching plains which were hard to traverse and gave them an easy way to cross. The ominous nature of the film starts here, straight away, as silence and lengthy pauses with closeups focus on three men who take control of the station to wait for the arrival of a nameless drifter (Charles Bronson).
The drifter turns out to be a man playing a harmonica, and the men have been sent by the mercenary gun for hire Frank (Henry Fonda). Dispatching with the men, we see the true determination of the man who becomes known purely as Harmonica, as he continues on his journey, seemingly without purpose.
Elsewhere, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is off to join the family she has married into, on a house mysteriously set apart from anywhere else, and with a curious owner who has promised her riches. However, when she arrives to find the family massacred by Frank and his men, she embarks on her own journey to exact revenge.
Into the scene comes a third 'journeyman' as such, that of the notorious bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), recently escaped from captivity who has been set up by Frank as the murderer of the McBain family. These three heroes cross paths a few times before combining their efforts to thwart Frank and his employer, the railroad developer Morton, who are trying to gain the McBains' land in order to monopolise the railroad running right through the plains.
The plot is a well celebrated and copied format, with a virtual game of chess unfolding as we see the three 'heroes' calmly go about their quest, and beneath it all lies the unexplained reasons behind Harmonica seeking out Frank. Indeed, throughout the film, Frank continually asks Harmonica his name, only to be answered with the name of various men that the gun for hire has murdered. This frustrates Frank, and while this frustration is very subtle and slight, the direction of Leone by exacting long pauses makes it all the more meaningful.
In fact, the acting and direction are perfectly done by the four main leads. Bronson has always struck me as a bit of a loose cannon when it comes to his performances. Here, he surpasses other films I have seen him in, even The Magnificent Seven, where I believe he is excellent. In West, as a character very much in the mould of Eastwood's Man With No Name, he does Leone's recurring style of character justice throughout, from start to finish, his weathered features seemingly apt for such an obviously disturbed and introvertial character.
On the other side of the scale is the animation of Fonda as Frank, with his ruthlessness being displayed throughout save for one moment where he relaxes and calms down in an intimate moment with Jill. As with Bronson, Fonda's skill is shown through the close-ups, as the lengthy scenes often focus on the characters' faces without moving. In this respect, the acting is done through the eyes. Fonda's cool and calculating eyes are void of emotion, and it's riveting!
Curiously, the gruff and almost afterthought-nature of Robards' Cheyenne releases the immense tension between Frank and Harmonica. It is needed to relax us as an audience as well, as the film is nearly 3 hours long and the intensity would be too much without the comedic element Cheyenne brings, although this is more in the form of the odd awkward posture or a shake of the head as opposed to a quirky one-liner or a funny moment.
Cardinale plays the damaged wife very well, her anger towards Frank so intense that it is displayed extremely in places, her anger seeping through to the other leads as well. Indeed, there are many similarities between the three male leads, with testosterone between the characters zipping back and forth throughout, as the upper hand switches places many times before finding its final resting place. Cardinale, as Jill, sits firmly in the middle of the masculine triangle, as the tenuous links between the four of them flip and change throughout the film. It really is well conceived and excellently executed on the screen behind and in front of the camera.
What amazes me even more is the score from Ennio Morricone and how Leone uses it to announce each character on screen. The different tempos for each of the four main characters (powerful female solo for Jill, heavy guitar for Frank, deft harmonica for Harmonica(!) and gently humourous twangs for Cheyenne) fit perfectly. What is even better are the silences when these four are not on screen and when there are more of them on at a time. The music is excellently placed.
Let's not beat about the bush. The film is long, and it is not for the faint hearted. It is a very well executed Western, and has a genuinely believable set of grievances at its heart, providing the fuel for the characters' dedication to their causes. The long and expansive camera shots and the extensive silences may not be your cup of tea, but it is hard to not appreciate how riveting this makes the film. The Coen Brothers successfully managed to mimic this in No Country For Old Men, with the visual doing a lot of the talking, and Leone earlier trilogy of Westerns featuring The Man With No Name are also very much in the same mould, but West has to be one of the best Westerns, if not films, I have ever seen. I was thoroughly riveted for the entirety of the film.
Apparently, there are references throughout the film to other Westerns, although I missed this. Perhaps I was focused too much on the plot at hand, too engrossed to let my mind wander to find tedious links to other films or previously visited elements. I feel it is a shame that the release of this film in the US was held back for legal reasons as battles were ongoing at the time, but perhaps this has helped to make the film an even more appreciated 3 hours of genius.
The phrase, 'They don't make them like they used to' really does apply here. I can't remember a Western that was so powerful. 'Forgiven' and 'Open Range' have come close in using blunt and visual approaches, and are great films, but these still don't touch the surface of Leone's excellent show here. I can see how Leone has affected Stephen King's portrayal of his hero Roland of Gilead in his 'The Dark Tower' saga, and no doubt for the next few years I will spot other bits and pieces that remind me of this film. It's no surprise. If I was a director or an actor, I'd probably look here for inspiration, too.
Once Upon A Time In The West has been released on various DVD formats. Sadly, I only have the privilege of having seen it as a film only production, but I'm likely to go and buy the film in all its glory and plethora of extras. Rarely am I bothered by extras, but this may just be the one exception.
1967 was the year that Sergio Leone shot to world fame. With the legal entanglements with Akira Kurosawa on the subject of plagiarism of Yojimbo for A Fistful of Dollars ending in a settlement, Leone's earliest western was now free for wider distribution with no worries, and it was in the year of 1967 that MGM imported Leone's films to the United States, with A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly premiering within only months of each other. What was even better was that the films were also successful there, just as they were in their home country of Italy, and this also opened up American eyes for this style of western that was much more violent and dirty than American westerns usually were. In its wake, the films also helped re-vitalise the western genre, which had in the 1950s and 60s become more and more stale. The concept of an anti-hero in place of the John Wayne type straight-faced hero's hero seemed fresh and interesting, and it quickly made Clint Eastwood a star too. For Leone, though, after three westerns he was starting to feel somewhat weary of the whole genre and was already starting to plan on filming an expansive gangster epic based on the book The Hoods. But with his fame now established in the revisionist western genre, the public also expected him to continue with it. With this in mind, he decided to go ahead and make one more western - a western to end all westerns - in which he'd pour all of the love that had attracted him to the genre as a child in the first place and make it a sprawling epic filled with nostalgia and affection. The result was Once Upon a Time in the West.
Once Upon a Time in the West deals with three men and a woman in the outbacks of the western frontier right at the turn when the railroad was beginning to infiltrate the last stretches of the open prairies, bringing with it civilisation as we know it today, and signalling the end of the old west of gunfighters and outlaws. In it, a former Orleans prostitute named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives to these, as of yet desolate, sandy plains to meet her new husband, an Irish settler named Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) who lives in the middle of all of this with his family, the wife of whom had passed away some time ago. McBain has big plans for this patch of land, and Jill is one to come and share this vision he has of using the advancing railroad to his advantage to make himself rich by building a station to the site, since it is a fortuitous place where water can be found, a vital asset to the soon passing trains. However other factions, headed by the railway baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) and the more sadistic Frank (Henry Fonda) are also interested in this land and will stop at nothing to ruthlessly try and get it for themselves, ending up massacring the entire McBain family before Jill arrives. But it is not all that easy when a mysterious drifter (Charles Bronson) and a legendary bandit (Jason Robards) also show up on scene, ending up going against Morton and Frank, each for their own reasons that are not immediately revealed. All these characters then end up drawing thematic connections to each other in ways that make this perhaps the best spaghetti western ever made.
Now, more than anything, Once Upon a Time in the West is a treasure trove of homages to the great westerns of the past Leone grew up with. Practically everything in it is a throwback to one or another western film by people like John Ford, Glenn Ford and Fred Zinneman, referencing films like High Noon, The Searchers, Johnny Guitar and many others. In a way Leone was wanting to create a monstrous tribute to what made a western "western"; to weave a fairytale of Once Upon a Time in the West out of all the references and binding them together into a fairly straight-forward story and giving it a uniquely Leonian twist. He even went as far as to travel to America in order to be able to shoot at the legendary Monument Valley with its distinctive rock formations; where many a legendary western found its backdrop from and which here is dressed in as nostalgic a shade as possible with soaring Morricone music and extensively wide vista shots. Yet despite all of these tributes, the film is not a diffuse set of repetitions and reminiscences of other films and everything works perfectly in unison to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, while retaining an identity all its own as a Sergio Leone film. This is widely thanks to Leone's pacing and characterisations, which are pure Leone through and through.
As has already been evidenced by his previous two westerns, Leone is a director who likes to take his time in telling a story without needing to rush it forward. Thus is the case with Once Upon a Time in the West, which is extremely slow and extremely deliberate in all its motions. In a way the film is a nearly three hour long elegy on the old west, which in its own multifaceted way, while being a nostalgic tribute, is also an extended death rattle for the whole concept of the old west; a lyrical - if somewhat pessimistic - poem of the passing of the great frontier. This also reflects with the characters themselves, with all the men in the film coming across as throwaways of an age that is about to pass away. Bronson's Harmonica is a perfect example of this, an Eastwoodian hero type... yet this one is not a boyishly cool gunslinger; a bounty hunter after reward or a box of gold... No, Harmonica is more like a phantom, roaming around the west with a specific goal in mind and perfectly aware of his own mortality. A man haunted by memories of his past and who has nothing else in his life left but revenge. Or the old gunfighter Cheyenne, who is more like a roguish leftover of the past, equally aware that his time is soon going to be over as the world no longer has any need for the likes of him. Even Frank, who is more attempting to adapt to the developing world around him, is in the end too stuck up on his old habits to be able to escape extinction for he cannot embrace the same values as Morton does in which money is taking the place of more straight-out settling things with guns. And in this world where men must either adapt or die away, is Jill who is exactly this type of person to be able to change and take the world forward toward the future where it is going, the only person who clearly can escape from the death sentence hanging over all the other characters.
The composition of the film is also one of utter brilliance. The character interaction is absolutely fantastic in many ways, with each of the four main characters extending their tentacles to each other. Harmonica's secret objective, his connection to Frank, Frank's connection to Jill, Jill's connection to Harmonica, Harmonica's connection to Cheyenne, Cheyenne's connection to Jill etc. makes this one of the most multifaceted spaghetti westerns ever produced when it comes to the character interplay and intention... and well even in westerns in general. And all of this is draped in Leone's usual calm pacing which goes to fantastical lengths here. The opening scene alone is a perfect testament of the patient tension Leone builds around his characters without making it feel portentous or long for the sake of being long. Who else could pull off 10 minutes of three people silently waiting for a train and only focusing on the creaky sounds of the old train station and the faces of the people waiting? Off hand I can't think of any. Also it is telling irreverence on Leone's part to place a truly terrifying massacre scene near the beginning of the film, and then reveal that the man behind such brutal inhumanity was Henry Fonda, a man known for always playing the hero! The entire mythical placing of an actor like that into a role such as Frank's was a stroke of genius... as was the final seal in the coffin of him shooting a 10-year-old boy just to make a point that yes, this is Henry Fonda.
Finally the film itself is filled with Leone's trademark ways of shooting his scenes, from the wide Techniscope panoramas and close-ups, as already said, moving at an excruciatingly slow pace. Or how he could take a scene depicting something solitary like a quiet train station, and then transforming it into a spectacle shot of a bustling town without ever cutting off from the tracking movement. What is furthermore new for Leone is the use of pre-recorded music, an aspect he had been wanting to do even in the Dollars films, but never really had the opportunity to do so. Ennio Morricone's score is one of his greatest classics, melding in the lyrical, impossibly beautiful theme for Jill with Edda dell'Orso's soprano solos, the grungy electric guitar rammings for the theme of vengeance toward Frank, the humorous tramp music of Cheyenne, and the alluringly dissonant harmonica of Harmonica, the music very much defines a lot of the film, and Leone would use it to edit and set-up the scenes in his film by listening to the operatic magnificence of what Morricone conjured up for him. It is one of the most legendary pairings of music and images, a homogenous combination that works in such an utterly symbiotic way to make the two practically inseparable from one another. In conclusion, one can only summarise that Once Upon a Time in the West is a film that succeeds in being a homage to the old western films, a sprawling epic of operatic dimensions, a great study of its characters and their relationships, a cinematic experience that uses images in as purely a narrative structure as possible, that uses sound as fully as it can and, which in the end, is a sad film of death, yet counterbalanced with the motif of rebirth and a promise for the future. It is an elegy... a violent, yet also a gentle farewell to a world irrevocably gone... a film that will forever retain its classic status as Sergio Leone's masterpiece beside Once Upon a Time in America.
© berlioz, 2009
C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West) (1968)
... Jill McBain
... Morton (railroad baron)
When a mysterious stranger turns up at the railway station he is greeted by a gang of hired guns who are determined to make sure that he doesn't make it into the mining town. At the same time just outside town a gang attack a defenceless family, just as they are organising a party to welcome their father's new wife.
The past and hopes of the future will clash as the harmonica playing stranger and the widowed wife will be plunged into a showdown with the murderous gang and their mysterious backer.
Critically overlooked on its release, Once Upon a Time in the West has been rightly recognised as both a classic film and the culmination of the 'Spaghetti Western' cycle of films.
Sergio Leone decided after the success of the 'Dollars' trilogy to concentrate on the broader setting of the Wild West and to focus on aspects of the period which had been covered in the post war 'classic' western period.
The screenplay was written with Dario Argento and Bernado Bertolucci with the express intent of pulling together all of those influences from the early western period, hence the appearance of Henry Fonda.
The film itself is probably the most complete film that I have ever seen, the music interacts so perfectly with the action on the screen that is seems to be almost organic, each character getting their own mini-theme tune which changes with their mood.
It is arguably the crowing achievement of the 'spaghetti' western cycle of films both in its scope and in its ambition. Multi layed in its story telling it explores aspects both economical and political.
A film that cannot come high recommended enough.
At the end of 1966, after the release of 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly', the final film of his so-called 'Dollars' trilogy, Italian film director Sergio Leone was looking forward to taking a break from westerns. In fact, he had in mind a project that had been simmering for a while, an American gangster fable with the provisional title of 'Once Upon a Time in America'. But his new US backers at Paramount, though nominally agreeing to finance the gangster pic sometime in the future, insisted first upon one more western, so Leone, slightly piqued (but delighted with the money offered), decided to give them what they wanted: a movie to remember!
Together with a couple of young friends and admirers, aspiring director Bernardo Bertolucci and critic Dario Argento, Leone spent a month or two watching and absorbing as many classic Hollywood westerns as he could and the three gradually put together a treatment, with Leone giving it the working title of 'Once Upon a Time in the West'. A script of sorts was eventually written by Sergio Donati, although Leone had a major hand in that too. He also called in his cinematographer friend, Tonino Delli Colli, to discuss the shoot and talked with composer Ennio Morricone about ideas for a score. The US money men were happy to provide ample funds for the project, little suspecting just what it was they were helping to create.
Along with Paramount money came an offer that Leone couldn't resist. Hollywood legend Henry Fonda had agreed to work with Leone on the film (after some persuasion), only this time he wouldn't be playing a straight man but a cold-blooded psychopath. Leone was thrilled both with Fonda and with the opportunity to direct him against type. Italy's darling Claudia Cardinale was also secured, with Charles Bronson, Broadway star Jason Robards and Italian veteran Gabriele Ferzetti completing the line-up of principal players.
Exterior shooting was carried out near Almeria in southern Spain and, briefly, in Monument Valley in northern Arizona, scene of many a venerable western of old. All interior shooting, sound recording and post production work was done at Cinecittà studios in Rome. Ennio Morricone's score, incidentally, was completed before a foot of film was shot, and this, as we shall see, was for a very good reason.
The basic plot is simple enough:
The railroad is coming, and with it will come money, opportunities and civilisation. A "redheaded Irishman", Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), has realised that in an arid region the railroad will be bound to build its stations where there is water, so he has found the only spring for miles around and built a ranch there, calculating that when the railroad arrives he will be made an offer he can't refuse. But Railroad tycoon Morton (Ferzetti) is not inclined to pay over the odds for anything and sends his enforcer, Frank (Fonda), to clear this "obstacle from the track". Frank and his men oblige by casually murdering the whole McBain family and leaving enough incriminating evidence behind so that the blame will fall on a local outlaw, Cheyenne (Robards).
But unknown to anyone, McBain, anticipating a prosperous future, had married in New Orleans a month before, and on the day of the atrocity his new wife, Jill (Cardinale), the proverbial 'tart with a heart', arrives, only to find that all that remains of her new life is a dusty ranch in the middle of nowhere. But Jill is made of stern stuff and she decides to stay put and figure out what is so special about her dismal inheritance. She is aided and abetted by a mysterious harmonica-playing gunman called (unsurprisingly) Harmonica (Bronson), a man who is working to his own agenda and who has a major beef with Frank, and the larger-than-life Cheyenne, whom she meets on her way to the ranch. The movie basically describes a battle of wits between Jill and her two unlikely allies and Frank, the personification of evil. The whole exercise winds to an inevitable and dramatic conclusion.
What marked this film out from its predecessors and contemporaries was that Leone had in mind from the start to choreograph the key scenes to Morricone's score. The music, in other words, directs the movements of the actors rather than what it had done before in simply adding dramatic colour to the action. The result is... interesting. Morricone, on direction from Leone, had composed a specific signature theme, a leitmotif, for each of the four key players, and the relevant theme plays each time the actor in question hoves into view:
Fonda is accompanied by a sharp and sinister distorted guitar; Robards ambles around to a western-saloon-type tinkly tune; Bronson, predictably, glides in and out of picture to the strains of a constantly-repeating harmonica phrase; and Cardinale looks imperious and lovely while being bathed in a beautiful piece of music, soaring soprano at the centre of it, that also doubles as the movie's main theme.
The only relevant question, therefore, is: does this gimmick work? Well, that's a matter of opinion, and an indication of why this movie is either loved or loathed. Some think it sublime and others think it tedious in the extreme.
I think the most interesting feature of the film, choreography aside, is the interplay between Frank and his mysterious nemesis, Harmonica. Leone thought that Henry Fonda's inscrutable demeanor, so often used to illustrate the upright and honest American Joe, would be ideal to equally illustrate a novel opposite, the emotionless psychopath. And he was right. Frank is sinister AND blank, a killing machine that gives as much thought to his victims as he would to any fly he casually swats. In his memorable opening scene, when he and his men approach McBain's house to wipe out the family, the camera takes an indulgent age to pan around Fonda's face, music jangling loudly, only to end by lingering on the cold smirk of our killer as he shoots in cold blood the last member of the family, McBain's youngest son. Leone's intention was, presumably, to make the audience wince as they suddenly beheld Mr Clean blow away a defenceless little boy, and enjoy doing so.
Bronson's character is an enigma, not because we fail to realise why he has turned up, but because he doesn't really seem to be human, or at least have human characteristics. Time and again his profile glides oddly into view only for him to say something in monotone, Bronson fashion, then glide off again. The camera zooms sharply into close-ups of his face to reveal strange animal eyes, and as much as he is the boiling-hot spirit of vengeance he is as inscrutable as the man he is gunning for. Once his work is done, but not before Leone has shown us specifically why he has done what he had to do, he leaves, despite having become the object of Jill's affection, an affection that is, partially at least, reciprocated. He has work to do elswhere. Perhaps his work is never done?
Jill and Cheyenne are both attractive characters in their own way but somehow less significant. Claudia Cardinale is simply beautiful in that sixties Italian busty way and it's not surprising that the other three leads lust after her, each in their own particular way. But she doesn't have much to do (despite being easy on the eye) and her appearances are made memorable more by Morricone's exquisite and sublime score than by the excellence of her performance. Jason Robards was a curious choice to play Cheyenne but he does well enough, giving to his unsavoury character a bluff what-the-hell dimension. Perhaps his most memorable line comes when he describes, with deep affection, his late mother as "the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived"!
Yet it's not really the characters themselves that make this film stand out but rather the way they are presented, and for many that was the problem. The major scenes are rather like a pop video, with the stylised movements of the actors - often accompanied, for some reason, by extreme close-ups of their faces - appearing odd and clunky. Leone had said that what he had wanted was a dance of death, a kind of prolonged death rattle, and the pace of the film was meant to duplicate that. I personally have no idea what that means but it sounds kind of interesting! And it works (for me, at least). The overall effect is mostly enjoyable, sometimes sumptuous and occasionally beautiful. Although, I suspect that this curious mixture of sound and vision works more because of Morricone's fantastic music rather than Leone's choreography, however satisfying that often is.
But... the first viewers of the completed movie, those attending previews in the States in late 1968, were more horrified than thrilled. Studio bosses and critics alike didn't know what to make of it. In a panic, the former, who had naively expected 'Dollars' No. 4, immediately ordered cuts to be made to the three-hour epic they had taken delivery of. Almost twenty five minutes were cut, including significant scenes that were vital to a full understanding of the plot. The cut-down US release made little sense and sank without trace almost immediately. A review in Time magazine simply called it "Tedium in the Tumbleweed" and dismissed Leone as a bore.
But others were not so dismissive. Film schools began to use the movie to illustrate specific techniques to students and a number of young upcoming filmmakers at the time - John Carpenter, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg - absorbed its novel construction and dynamic use of music.
But Leone makes us work for our bread. The opening-title sequence, for instance, showing three gunmen waiting at a station for the arrival of Harmonica, is virtually wordless, lasts for nearly thirteen minutes and is a clue as to how little of his movie Leone was conceding to taste. Morricone was puzzled as to how he could score this sequence and eventually settled for simply accentuating the sounds that accompany the idle fumblings of the bored men: a buzzing fly; drips of water; cracking fingers; a creaking windmill; a ticker-tape telegraph machine. Let's just say that Leone expected the audience to stay with it. Most didn't!
'Once Upon a Time in the West' is, in my view, a fantastic film, though more for its atmosphere, mood and structure than for its dramatic content. There is no doubting that it has a certain beauty and grandeur, that it was immense in scope and possesses two or three stunning scenes. But I will also admit that when I occasionally watch it afresh I find myself skipping to my favourite scenes and bypassing those less memorable. For that reason alone I must reluctantly cut a star in my final estimation of it: the movie is just way too long and, at times, way too slow.
Yet it is an enjoyable watch from start to finish (if you have the time) and is strangely beguiling. All the leads acquit themselves admirably, with the oddball and melancholic Bronson just about standing out. Claudia Cardinale is also mesmerising if for no other reason than she is just so damned gorgeous. This film is, more than everything else, a cinematic experience so if you ever get the chance to see it on the big screen then take that chance. Films don't necessarily have to make sense just so long as they hit some sort of unconscious spot. This one certainly does that (though some may disagree) but whether that was down to design rather than accident only Sergio Leone could say, and as he died years ago we must decide for ourselves.
To satisfy persistent demands a two-disc Collectors Edition DVD of this film was eventually released in 2003 and it's an excellent package. Disc 1 contains a widescreen digitally-remastered presentation of the film, while Disc 2 contains a series of so-called 'Featurettes', including docs about the film's production and impact. The cheapest current online price for this DVD is an extremely reasonable £5 (Incl. P&P) from play.com.
From the very beginning you are hooked.Even if you don't understand English the wonderful music tells the story for you.This is the first time that I saw Henry Fonda as a villain and what a convicing one at that.The enigmatic way Charles Bronson played this part was also wonderful.A gritty but extremely enjoyable film.I still love Claudia Cardinale's music and often it is still to be found in some adverts and also pop music.I wasn't the greatest fan of westerns but this is one the exceptions.
SORRY! THIS IS A DVD REVIEW NOT VHS> MY MISTAKE!
When Sergio Leone launched his now famous Dollars trilogy in 1964 with A Fist Full of Dollars he started a cult which spawned over 200 of the so called Spaghetti Westerns. However, Leone remained the man and, in most critics eyes, remained the master of the genre. The first Dollars film was quickly followed by For a Few Dollars More in 1965 and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in 1966, effectively launching the career of Clint Eastwood who starred in all three.
After the success of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Eastwoods decision to begin directing his own films, Leone moved away from the Old West and ventured into other areas such as the gang wars of the 1920s with Once Upon a Time in America. But the film world and the cinema goers wanted more Westerns from Leone and, in 1967, he reluctantly agreed to produce just one more. Leone turned to Sergio Donati for the screenplay, who had, uncredited, rewritten much of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The result was Once Upon a Time in the West.
Leone had wanted Henry Fonda for the roll of Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More, but Fondas agent turned the script down without passing it to the actor. This time round Fonda did get to read the script but declined it immediately. However, after the script had been re-translated from the original, an enthusiastic reaction from Eli Wallach and marathon screen of Leones previous Westerns, Fonda was finally won over and agreed to play the part of Frank. Leone obviously did a fine job of persuasion as it was the first time in Fondas career that he had been cast as a truly evil character and one of the few times in the latter part of his life when he agreed to accept second billing after Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain). The other main characters were played by stage actor Jason Robards (Cheyenne) and Charles Bronson (Harmonica). Other lesser names to be cast included Gabrielle Ferzetti (Morton), Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Al Mulock and Lionel Stander.
Most of the indoor scenes were filmed in Romes Cinecitta Studio. For the bulk of the location shooting, Leone returned to his beloved Spain and more specifically Tabernas near Almeria and Estacion La Calahorra further near Guadix. Parts of the original film set can still be seen at both locations. See my previous review Guide to Almeria dated 27/6/2005. As a nod of appreciation to previous Western greats, Leone also uses Monument Valley in Utah for some amazing panoramic scenes.
As with the Dollars trilogy, the soundtrack was composed by Ennio Morricone and fits the film perfectly. Morricones score manages not only to compliment the epic nature of the film, but to actually enhance it.
At 159 minutes, be prepared for the long haul.
The film is set in the railroad building days of the late 1800s. The plot revolves around Harmonicas (Bronson) search for Frank (Fonda), the killer of his brother, many years before, and is a relatively simple one. Starting with the arrival by train of Harmonica, who immediately despatches 3 of Franks hired killers. In the meantime, Frank is busy removing small obstacles from the path of the rapidly expanding railroad. Basically this involves killing anything in its path including a highly emotive scene of Frank shooting dead a 9 year old boy who has just witnessed his own family, the McBains being slaughtered. When McBains beautiful widow, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), appears on the scene to claim her inheritance and to find the murderers she finds herself in the middle of a silent war between Frank, the killer, Cheyenne (Robards), who Frank has framed for the murders, and Harmonica who is bent on killing Frank. All the various set pieces are quite brilliantly linked together and climax with the inevitable showdown between Harmonica and Frank.
To go into further depth would spoil the film for many viewers. Suffice to say that Leones mastery of the Old West and his brilliance as a director have produced a superb film of epic proportions. Students of camerawork will appreciate the skill with which so many shots have been filmed. Chief amongst these is the famous camera panning shot as Jill arrives by train at the fledgling town of Flagstone truly a remarkable feat of camerawork. Other memorable shots include Leones obsession with his characters eyes, particularly those of Fonda and Bronson during the final showdown.
The Once Upon a Time in the West Special Collectors Edition comprises 2 DVDs and a short leaflet on the history of the film. The first DVD contains the film which is a digitally remastered widescreen version enhanced for 16:9 screens. It also contains a Commentary Track with various pertinent interviews. Disk 2 contains various documentaries, interviews, cast profiles and the original trailer.
Personally, I believe this film to be the finest Western ever made and only a director of Sergio Leones calibre could have achieved such a masterpiece. Ive watched this film at least a dozen times and it hasnt started to become tedious yet. However, bear in mind I am a Western film nut!
This really is my favourite western, yes its long, but that only improves it for me. So much time and effort was spent by the director Sergio Leone on this film, and it's all visible. It's not the plot that makes this film, but i'll give you a brief overview anyway. A band of gunmen are working for the railway, clearing the inhabitants occupying desired land, being payed alot of money. However they come up against a lonely widow, and a gunmen who plays the harmonica when he should talk and talks when he should play, fighting for the what is right. Well thats enough spiel, I've saved the best bits of the plot and haven't given away any of the surprises. The real thing that makes this a cut above the rest is the way it is shot with every camera trick in the book. It really is beautifully made, with a real sense of atmosphere. This atmosphere is also created through a breath-takingly emotional score from Ennio Morricone. The acting is what you expect from a western, not great, but not bad, and the script is okay, but this is not what you watch the film for. Amazingly this film has the longest opening credit sequence in film history, a whopping 12 minutes long, as three gunmen await a train. If your looking for the ultimate western then this is it.
Oh how I wish I could begin this opinion with the soulful blow of a harmonica. Second best the hop-along character theme of Mister Cheyenne. Thirdly the lilting loveliness of Claudia Cardinale's tune (along with her heaving breasts). Damnations; I can do none of the above, so it's back to the tedium medium of text for me. *The Film. Hmnn, how much can I give away without a) spoiling this adventure for you, and b) lowering Sergio Leone's Western classic to the level of my writing skills? I'll try: Three no good, yella bellied, snake eyed, gibbet fodder ruffians assume control of the train station, and lie in wait for the impeding arrival of the train. They wait, they wait some more (I'm not doing this scene justice - I told you so): One of them collects the dripping rain water in his hat (while waiting) and drinks it with relish. Another's tranquil anticipation is menaced by a fly - he catches it in the barrel of his gun and listens to its flurrious buzzing. The Train draws near and expectation rises; the train slowly squeals to a halt (in issues of bellowing smoke), the three stand to greet its arrival, and approach. They sinisterly snigger when no one disembarks - BUT, as the train pulls away, they hear the discordant cords of the harmonica. The smoke clears and our hero steps forward... The man with the harmonica asks where Frank is - the threefold gang's fingers twitch eagerly over their guns. Harmonica asks if they have a horse for him - the sniggering continues. Harmonica states firmly that the three horses he can see obviously have no owners...the shooting begins. All of this and the opening credits are still rolling. Harmonica (a young and rather dashing (for once) Charles Bronson) is in town to see Frank (one evil eyed mother of a Henry Fonda). Frank (and his cronies) are in town to aid the fat cat Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) get his
evil way. Mac Bain (a distant relative of mine) WAS in town, but he and his family have just bitten the dust thanks to Frank. Jill (a slightly bustier than our own, Claudia Cardinale) is an ex-whore, who is arriving in town any minute now to meet up with her new husband, Mac Bain. Oh, and Cheyenne (a haggard Jason Robards) is just a low down criminal, loose from the law and wandering through. Jill has inherited her husband's land (much to the disapproval of Morton and Frank) but her immediate searches for his supposed fortune are futile. Cheyenne drops by, then Harmonica and finally Frank. The story twists and turns like a railway track; why is Harmonica so desperate to encounter Frank? Why has Mac Bain ordered a town-full of wood? Who will get the girl (or rather, who will the girl get), and will Morton and Frank's relationship stand the heat, or teeter under the weight of money? That's it. Now go watch the film. *The Acting. Still here? Then I suppose I should continue: Never (as in never ever) have I been enamored by the rather hulksome qualities of Mr Bronsan, yet this film is in an era pre to the birth of ugly facial hair and bulging waistline. Here, is a cutely rounded face, a beau young body and sparkling blue eyes (only somewhat hidden by Bronson's heavy lids). Here, is a quiet and menacing performance; a mourning soul; a desolate little boy on the road to revenge. Bronson kicks poop, hard. He fills the almost empty script with sadness and wit; his words are uttered with disinterest - his ultimate aim is the only subject that matters. We feel the power of this need through Bronson's distant representation, and (luckily) his later incarnations are relegated to memory. Yeh, ok, I would be happier if the said hero was Leone's other little prodigy - Clint Eastwood; but it wasn't to be, and so, my favourite ever (as in ever ever) Western, stars Charles Bronson. Claudia Cardinale
steps on screen and you fall in love. Buxom and proud, blonde and coiffured, tiger eyed and pert - she really is the perfect Western whore....Umm, what more do you want from your eye candy? And she acts quite well too. Jason Robards is the funny man; the talk for Bronson's lack of it. His ambiguity (is he a good guy or a bad guy?) at the start of the film soon diminishes to a roguish puppy love. Amicable and playful, he hams it up (a bit), but when push comes to shove, he's a sensitive soul who's willing to die for the cause. All of the above simply pale into the background in relation to the evils we find behind the eyes of Fonda: Henry=Villainous, the eyes have it: Piercing through the storyline, there is only one man that makes this movie great (apart from Leone himself of course). Here is a vile rat, an evil cavalier - a skinny bugger to boot. Like Bronson, Fonda's script is limited, but every word is shaken (not stirred) by the malice swirling in his mouth. Ooh, he's sexy with it too; cold, dangerous, diabolic and completely moral less - dontcha just love him? *Direction. Sergio Leone stands alone (in my books) in this absolute treatment of the Western genre - he reminds me of the works of Jeunet (Delicatessen etc.) in his need to lead the story with inanimate objects; throughout the film, the train acts a symbol (the real one and a toy one) to drag us into the plot; a use of clocks signifies that the end is nigh for Frank, and the harmonica is ultimately the memory and weapon of revenge. The set detail in Once Upon a Time is just as prolific as Jeunet's films: The deco of Morton's train carriage reeks of dirty money and western whims - plush, brushed red and gold velvets hanging in an abundance of decadent glory. Mac Bain's homestead is a finely detailed replica of a recent immigrant - memories of home, cluttered with childish things and sprinkled with tenderness at the thought of th
e arriving new bride. Outside of the sets, the location shots are predictable, yet impressive - BIG deserts and harsh emptiness. The real winner with Leone's movies is the way he paces them: He sets the stage with a nerve wrenching, measured momentum, and then he offloads the action in a quicker-than-the-eye split second - oh, everybody is dead now (see The Good, the Bad and the Ugly final shoot out scene). He really is a master at dragging us to this point of no return, of near climax, before dealing us the goods. I like. Another sweet little thing I enjoy in Once Upon a Time, is the bizarre theme tunes that introduce us to the character - and then let us know when that character is lurking around the corner. The unforgettable wailing harmonica tune (and all its crescendos and descents) are thanks to Leone's partnership with Ennio Morricone - I love the music from this film sooo much, I bought a Western themes compilation tape (what the hell am I admitting to this for?). *Other Stuff (that bugs me slightly) This is a little off centre, I know, but I want to have a whinge: Leone does us a favour and only includes one world worn whore (too many spoil the broth, apparently); but why, oh why is it that in Westerns, the male characters achieve their ultimate forgiveness (the baddies by dying in comprehension of their evilness; the goodies by avenging their dead father/mother/brother/sister/lover etc.), and the whore(s) is always left in a grey area of continual servitude and suffering? Whinge over. *Conclusion. My favourite ever, ever, ever Western, so of course it is recommended (highly). Oh, and I can't tell you who it?s distributed by or how much it costs, as I taped it off the TV absolutely yonks ago (and it's beginning to show) - anybody want to buy me a DVD player?
Let's get this straight - you're never going to fully appreciate this film on the small screen. I don't care if you have a forty inch widescreen TV with surround sound - you just can't do it justice at home. I'd seen it a few times on video before finally experiencing it on the big screen, after which I was in a kind of daze for about a week. Director Sergio Leone is perhaps most famous for his 'Dollars' Trilogy (Fistfull Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good The Bad And The Ugly), all set in America but shot in Spain by an Italian crew, and all memorably starring Clint Eastwood. On the back of the success of these films, Leone made the wise decision to shoot his next western in the US. Clearly impressed by the beauty of the landscape he found there, Leone made it an integral part of the film - almost a character in its own right. His lingering shots of enormous mountains and plains tower majestically above the human characters, belittling their endeavours as they work their way through the plot. The story was written by Leone and Dario Argento (notorious Italian schlock-horror writer/director, perhaps best known outside Italy for his work with George A Romero on 'Dawn of the Dead') and Bernado Bertolucci who directed such films as 'The Last Emperor' and 'Last Tango In Paris'. The film follows the fortunes of four main characters: a nameless harmonica playing man (Charles Bronson) bent on revenge for his brother's death, a hardened outlaw (Jason Robards) seeking to clear his name for the murder, a beautiful city girl (Claudia Cardinale), come to claim her stake in the West, and a cold hearted gun-for hire (Henry Fonda) who solves 'problems' for the ever advancing railroad. The film's music is by Ennio Morricone. Leone and Morricone had collaborated on the Dollars trilogy, but I think this film represents the greatest coupling of music and film they made toget
her - arguably the best that anyone has made in a Western. Morricone's impact on film music should not be underestimated, he's still going strong, most recently with 'Mission To Mars' and 'Malena', but this is his finest hour. From the haunting harmonica theme (notably sampled by 'The Orb' on 'Little Fluffy Clouds' and 'Beats International' -aka Fatboy Slim - on 'Dub Be Good To Me') to the soaring soprano outro his music is innovative and anthemic - a perfect complement to the visuals. I won't forget the first time I saw Henry Fonda's gang first emerging one by one from the undergrowth to the slow crescendo of Morricone's distorted guitar theme. In this age of the seven-second attention span, your average blockbuster director could probably knock out the whole story of 'Once Upon A Time' in a thirty minute film quite comfortably, but Leone wasn't pandering to a restless audience - from the outset he lets you know that things are going to go SLOOOWWW. The film lasts for nearly three hours, but this is not a film that would have benefited from rushing. Tension is built very slowly in long scenes - the opening credits feature three hired guns waiting for a train for ten minutes, we wait with them as a windmill relentlessly creaks - in the silence of the station, its sound becomes hypnotic. The climax of this almost trance inducing wait is a gunfight which is over in less than a second. Leone doesn't have much time for the drawn out gunplay sequences which dog today's action flicks - the violence is quick and brutal, it is the waiting for it's certain arrival that Leone plays on. I really can't fault this film - sure, critics might say it's slow, to which I say "it's MEANT to be slow" - but if you have a miniscule attention span, you're not going to appreciate it. If you want to see perhaps the greatest western ever made, you mi
ght just find it here - but for God's sake do me a favour and don't watch it on a fourteen inch portable telly, that would just be sacrilege.
A very long and troubling masterpiece, and more or less the last decent film Leone made (with perhaps the exception of his jokey 'Fistful of Dynamite'), this is a stunning, seemingly endless black western, with Henry Fonda cast violently against type as the sadistic bad guy, Charles Bronson in something like the Eastwood part, and Claudia Cardinale gorgeous as the beseiged heroine. It's a tense and brutal film, brilliantly shot on fantastic American locations (for a change) with Leone in expansive mode, working on a laconic script which nevertheless involved such disparate Italian maestros as Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. The credits sequence (all twelve minutes of it) is alone worth the price of admission (or DVD), and Morricone's score is masterly. Probably nly for people who have already seen the 'Dollars' trilogy and know what to expect, but still a superb piece of cinema.
The so-called spaghetti Western achieved its apotheosis in Sergio Leone's magnificently mythic (and utterly outlandish) Once upon a Time in the West. After a series of international hits starring Clint Eastwood (from A Fistful of Dollars to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), Leone outdid himself with this spectacular, larger-than-life, horse-operatic epic about how the West was won. (And make no mistake: this is the wide, wide West, folks--so the widescreen/letter-boxed version is strongly recommended.) The unholy trinity of Italian cinema--Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento--concocted the story about a woman (Claudia Cardinale) hanging onto her land in hopes that the transcontinental railroad would reach her before a steely-eyed, black-hearted killer (Fonda) does. (The film's advertising slogan was: "There were three men in her life. One to take her ... one to love her ... and one to kill her.") Meanwhile, Leone shoots his stars' faces as if they were expansive Western landscapes, and their towering bodies as if they were looming rock formations in John Ford's Monument Valley. --Jim Emerson, Amazon.com