Once Upon a Time in the West-1968
Starring-Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale
Scott’s Review #886
Reviewed April 17, 2019
At one time dismissed as either frivolous or cartoon-like, the derogatory genre classification “spaghetti western” originally played for goofs or contained a comical slant associated with bad lip-syncing. Many of these films have aged tremendously well though and now have come to be appreciated more and ensconced in the cinematic study. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is a lesson in camp art that marinates like a fine steak drizzling with texture and good atmosphere across a sprawling two-hour and forty-six-minute landscape.
In a great sequence, the film begins with a mysterious harmonica-playing gunman (Charles Bronson), dubbed “Harmonica” for reasons eventually revealed shooting three men sent to kill him. Meanwhile, to get his hands-on prized railroad land in Sweetwater, crippled railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) hires killers, led by blue-eyed baddie Frank (Henry Fonda), who murders property owner Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his family. Immediately, the film exudes intensity with a severe revenge theme.
The story develops further with romance mixed in western style as McBain’s newly arrived bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), inherits the land instead. Jill is a former prostitute who catches the eye of most of the men she encounters. Both outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica take it upon themselves to look after Jill and thwart Frank’s plans to seize her land. With standard western flare, they are both attracted to Jill and yearn for her affections while also feeling protective over her.
Not professing to be enamored with the western genre- the stereotypical Cowboys and Indians and token damsel in distress have their limitations- Once Upon a Time in the West is a feast for the eyes and the ears with cinematography on par with Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and a killer musical score. While the story may have a traditional backbone, the nuances are astounding. The sweeping mountains of the western United States feature heavily, and the tension-infused music sets up every thrilling scene with gusto and foreboding tendencies.
Hot on the heels of another similarly themed masterpiece The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) Leone delivers the goods at every turn most notably setting up each scene with sizzling elements that emit a clear sense of danger. The audience knows trouble is about to transpire but not exactly when the shit will hit the fan. The family death scene is paced astoundingly well as the family merrily goes about preparing a delicious summer meal unaware that destruction is around the corner.
Sure, the cast is a mix of American and Italian actors with varying degrees of accents not exactly mirroring the Wild West. Yes, Jill wears heavy mascara and a hairstyle straight out of the 1960’s and one character has brightly dyed red hair, but these intricacies give the film character rather than turn the production into a disheveled mess.
Forever known for heroic or every man roles Fonda plays against type instead cast as the central and sadistic villain, and the result is superlative. Leone’s ability to cast a legendary star in production with little expectations is quite a feat and Fonda seems to revel in the role-playing him dangerous and straight. With his piercing blue eyes and a gaze sure to make children run away in terror, his brutal villainy is only wholly realized at the film’s conclusion.
Dozens of iconic comparisons to modern directing genius Quentin Tarantino’s style can be drawn upon. The director undoubtedly watched and studied this film repeatedly as numerous qualities mirror his own films. Viewers will delight at drawing these comparisons including a harmonica reference, the revenge story, and the climactic reveal at the end of the film via flashback pulling all the pieces together.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is a quality film that has finally gotten its due. Tremendous and compelling story-telling are combined with flavorful qualities and a dusty atmosphere. The film is the sum of all its parts and while at first underappreciated has finally risen to the ranks of the high-quality masterpiece. Influencing many great directors like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas and Tarantino is quite a testament to its staying power.