Once Upon a Time in the West / C’era una volta il West
Info: Italy, 1968, 165 mins, DCP
Director: Sergio Leone
Cast: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti
- Saturday January 4, 2020 - 1:00 pm
- Thursday January 9, 2020 - 2:20 pm
"Nobody has made a better Western since. In fact, nobody has made a better Western, period." Kim Newman, Empire
"One of the great films in cinema history." Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle
Nobody could make something out of nothing the way that Sergio Leone could. Just look at the first ten minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West: a fistful of tough hombres in ankle-length dusters are waiting for a train at a railway depot out in the middle of nowhere.
Their faces are familiar yet strange: Woody Strode and Jack Elam are veteran Hollywood cowboys, with dozens of movies under their belts. But they have never been filmed like this before, gazed at so long or so longingly. Leone pores over their grizzled skin, in widescreen, yet in microscopic detail. A windmill on top of a leaky wooden water tower has a rusty squeak. A fly buzzes around Jack Elam’s gun. The train is late, or they are early. They wait, and the movie keeps on rolling along.
This was Leone’s fourth western, and fifth film. Each had marked a significant advance on the one before (in this case, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – the culmination of Leone’s wildly successful ‘Dollars Trilogy’). They grew in budget, in scope and scale, in authority, in flamboyance, and in duration.
Once Upon a Time in the West was cut by twenty minutes when it was first released in the US in 1968. In the full version, it clocks in at a hefty 165 minutes – yet the story is relatively simple and the cast of characters is limited to just a handful of speaking parts. The key players are Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an easygoing outlaw who just wants to do his own thing; Harmonica (Charles Bronson), who is on the vengeance trail for the man who killed his brother; Jill McBain (the luscious Claudia Cardinale), a New Orleans whore who has come West to set up a home and arrives to find herself a widow; and Frank (Henry Fonda), a vicious hired gun who works for the railroad barons. These four figures circle each other with a proud but wary distance reminiscent of flamenco dancers, or the bullring… perhaps it’s not coincidental that the so-called ‘spaghetti’ westerns were filmed in Spain.
With story credits for future directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both young turks at the time, this is a movie drawn from the imaginative pull of other, older films – Bertolucci said they watched nothing but westerns for a month as they prepared the script, and you may pick up bits and pieces from the likes of John Ford’s The Iron Horse and My Darling Clementine, High Noon, Johnny Guitar, Shane and The Tall T – all the young Italians’ favourites.
On this patchwork fabric, Leone embroiders a quizzical, cynical take on the foundation myth established by Ford and many others. Ford knew that “civilization” came with sacrifice and loss, but he never painted it in such brutal, violent strokes as this. It speaks volumes that Ford’s Wyatt Earp – Henry Fonda – is the callous blue-eyed killer here, a man who will shoot a child without a second thought.
And then there’s the Ennio Morricone music. This is one of the most famous scores in film history – much quoted and parodied – and it’s integral to the film’s impact: soaring, sometimes flip, but with an undertow of nostalgia and regret. The music came first and the shooting was choreographed to the playback.
It is too bad that Variety had already coined the term ‘horse opera’ back in the 1930s, because that’s a more apt description of what Leone was up to than the condescending ‘spaghetti western’. An opera with horses, cowboys, and bullets… By the time the fat lady sings – as Leone cranes back in a truly majesterial last shot – you’ll be crying for an encore.