English Title: Once Upon a Time in the West
Original Title: C’era una volta il West
Country: Italy, USA, Spain
Language: English, Spanish, Italian
Director: Sergio Leone
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Sergio Leone’s first saga of his ONCE UPON A TIME trilogy after competing THE DOLLARS trilogy. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is as good as his classic Spagetti Western predecessors if it is not better. Mustering three Hollywood toughies Bronson, Fonda and Robards, the film evidently echoes the pattern of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), although Bronson is a perfect specimen embodies both the Ugly and the Good, and for the first time Sergio deploys a woman, the Mediterranean beauty Cardinale to be a pivot among these three, contrives an interwoven plot with vengeance, duel, murder, vice as well as the righteous side of the Western ideology: masculinity, integrity, fraternity and chivalry.
Three men are introduced with their own respective sequences give their characters a full-blown presentation: the mysterious and tacit Harmonica (Bronson) is a marksman with a stern resolution and trademark music (the 10 minutes-long opening scenes of three gunslingers waiting in the train station is a homage to the opening sequences of HIGH NOON 1952); Fonda’s Frank is an appalling child killer, remorseless and intimidating, he has no mercy in anyone and can wipe out anything standing in his way; Cheyenne (Robards), the wanted bandits who would be framed for Frank’s slaughter, is the most inscrutable one, we cannot easily categorise him at first, his weathered face glimpses with acute wariness, he has escaped from numerous pursue and capture, he could be the last man you ever want to mess with.
Cardinale’s Jill, a former prostitute from New Orleans, also is granted a strong narrative arc, she is secretly married to Brett McBain (Wolff), nevertheless, on the first day of her arrival for her wedding, her husband’s family is being cold-heartedly massacred, she becomes a new widow and inherits a large tract of land, where they intend to build a station when the railway reaches out. Jill inevitably falls the victim of Frank’s atrocity, but she is not a common chaste heroine, she necessarily knows how to exploit her advantage to keep alive and find a way out, at the same time, she is not afraid. It is a career-defining role for Cardinale, her strong-willed resilience only add more allure on the erotic exotica of her glamour.
Come to the rescue of Ms. McBain is Harmonica and Cheyenne, both harbour an unsaid affection towards her, even more is admiration. They have some unfinished business with Frank and his gang, which also includes the railway tycoon Morton (Ferzetti, who is considerably memorable as he wonderfully conveys the exasperating angst from his bodily defects ), who initially is Frank’s boss but slowly loses grip over him as Frank runs amok with his evil deed. The segueing confrontations slacks off a bit in the sense of tension and certain sequences are befuddling for a first-time viewing especially the subplot concerns Cheyenne in the third act is bluntly excised as one could assume a film running around 175 minutes, is there really no room for such an important set piece since obviously Cheyenne is the most interesting role and Robards is so competent and accomplished to convey even the most subtle expression without any affectation, contrast to Bronson’s perpetually unfathomable smile hanging on his round but ragged visage, slowly deadens its enigmatic spell and degrades into a deadpan one trick pony.
It is Henry Fonda’s most iconic role as an out-and-out villain, he is bone-chillingly vicious from his first appearance, but Fonda is also fated to carry on a human level of consciousness when he is forcibly bedding Jill, he is a monster no doubt, and he softens himself in front of the luscious figure which he sympathises not only out of lust, but also a little glint called kindness. Even during the final showdown, as we all awaits his doom, he is still reminiscent of a man who is perplexed by a riddle or blurred by his memory, until finally Harmonica reveals his identity, his demise is more like a quick relief than a belated punishment for a rotten soul.
The film is a bonafide epic from all aspects, from its immense Flagstone set and the beguiling desert scenery in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio; to the lengthy patience in atmosphere-building and character-establishing; to Morricone’s sterling score, which can not be circumvented by any reviewers, the entire sound voyage of the film can take one’s breath away, it is visceral, mellifluous and completely at the service of every plot turn, one can even admit, it gallantly steals the thunder from its visual counterpart, and Morricone’s virtuosity is still without parallel, so is Sergio Leone’s enormous contribution of the undying genre.