30 for 30: Once Upon A Time in the West

Richard Petro

twitter @ThePetroProject

October 03rd, 2019

"People scare better when they're dyin'."

     There was a good amount of bouncing back and forth between Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and this, with GBU possibly being my most rewatched three hour film, it's wonderful. But when push came to shove, I decided to go with Once Upon A Time in the West, a film that may very easily be considered Leone's masterpiece.

     A woman is left widowed as she is coming home to Flagstone, revealing that she had married just prior to arrival as a surprise to her new stepchildren and is now the owner of the land her husband had left behind. Cheyenne, an infamous bandit, is framed for the murders and he wants to figure out what is going on. Frank works for railroad tycoon Morton, who wants the land in Flagstone so that his railroad can go through. Morton sent Frank to scare the family, but Frank decided instead to kill them. Meanwhile, a man with a harmonica arrives, searching for Frank for reasons unknown to Frank himself. The mental and physical battle for the owned land in Flagstone begins.

     There's a lot of interlocking and overlapping stories going on in Once Upon A Time in the West, but the script brings them together with such ease that its 2 hour 45 minute runtime absolutely flies by. The film feels decidedly different from Leone's own 'Dollars Trilogy'; whereas those films seemed to have a plucky quirk to them, with real dramatic moments peppered in, Once Upon A Time in the West has a certain weight to it. I don't mean that in a way to discredit the prior films, because they're all great, but you can feel that Leone had been wanting to move on from his spaghetti westerns into something else entirely. You can see sprinkles of Once Upon A Time in America here, primarily in how the characters seem to grow and have a certain level of depth to them that one may not have expected from a Leone western. Of course, this also fits beautifully with 'death of the old west' theme presented, with certain characters almost destined to be left behind in the past.

     Like expected of Leone, there's a lot of quiet scenes and long shots, but the film never truly feels slow. The landscapes breath, a life of their own brought through the gorgeous cinematography and Leone's direction. There are endless amounts of memorable scenes and awe-inducing shots. The opening sequence alone is one of the best put to film, as three hitmen wait for our harmonica playing friend (with Bronson proceeding to lay down one of my all-time favourite lines. It's magnificent). It is immediately followed by one of Leone's most shocking scenes put to film. It's an expertly crafted film, a perfect marriage of a director's much beloved tropes with his growing need to tell more.

     The acting across the board is fantastic. Jason Robards' Cheyenne is a man who, though he hasn't led quite the best life one can lead, wants something more, to have some sense of worth to his character before he may die. Bronson is a man, and character, of few words, but his Harmonica leaves an impression with Bronson's stare, and face, conveying what may be going on inside the head of a man who obviously had been through some awful things, one who is one a path led by revenge. It's great to see a film have a strong, singular woman character in this type of setting and film, and Claudia Cardinale is fantastic as someone who runs the gamut of emotions and growth, going through countless hardships and trauma yet not letting others think of her as simply easy and vulnerable prey. She's the heart and soul of this movie and carries it with ease.
     Now, though all the actors are phenomenal in their roles, conversation is usually left for one aspect in particular, and as much as I dind't necessarily want to and feel kind of bad doing, I also have to single out Henry Fonda here. For anyone that might not know, Fonda had been known as a man of classy, strong and likable protagonists. Leone's famous reason he wanted the actor for Frank was by telling him to picture a gun being pulled from a waist holster and shooting a running child, as the camera then reveals the shooter's face and it's Henry Fonda. A massive shock in and of itself. Fonda is masterful in this, his charisma and magnetic energy exuding a different type of confidence than we ever could have expected from him. The charm that made him a star is still here in folds, but it's fascinating to see how easily he slides into the role of an absolutely disgusting human being. Frank is one of those characters that feels like he's constantly hanging over the film, threatening to re-enter at any time and cause havoc. He's easily one of my favourite villains in film, and Fonda's icy cold stare will probably haunt you for a few hours after seeing the film.

     Once Upon A Time in the West is a beautiful film realized by a director that I wish we had been able to see more of. The film still ranks as one of the greatest ever made, and may very well be the greatest western of all time. It begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and I hope that I'll get the chance to someday soon.