Once Upon a Time in the West has epic written all over it. With the gorgeous cinematography, wonderful panning shots, the beautiful soundtrack, and a long running time, this 1968 spaghetti western, directed by Sergio Leone, is big in every way.
The film stars Henry Fonda as the man in black, Charles Bronson as the harmonica playing gunslinger with a vengeance, Jason Robards as the bandit Cheyenne, and Claudia Cardinale as Jill the widow. The stars are all fantastic in their parts, none of them really outshines the other and director/writer Sergio Leone ensures they all get their close-ups and time to shine. Henry Fonda is an interesting choice to play the villain as he has that nice guy look, but he really pulls it off as Frank the gunslinger. There is one particular scene, where he is about to kill someone, and he gives a very slight smirk on his face before he pulls the trigger, and it is a bit chilling. Also, he is apparently the fastest face slapper in the west as he slaps another character three times in blazing speed! Charles Bronson is cool as ever as the harmonica player. I am most familiar with Bronson from the Deathwish films, but now I will always remember him as Harmonica with him playing that strange mournful tune that is heard throughout the film and he delivers his lines in mighty cool fashion. I wasn’t sure what to make of Jason Robards at first but as the film goes on he does have a bit of a funny side to him and is probably the most likable of the characters. Cladia Cardinale does a great job as Jill, who once arrives, stands out by being as beautiful as the score that plays behind her. She must deal with the burden of losing a family and being caught in the middle of the three gunfighters. Frank wants her land, Cheyenne is framed for Frank’s murders and trying to seek answers, and Harmonica is hunting Frank for vengeance. She is like the calm within the storm that is occurring around her.
The first 15 minutes alone was simply astonishing work by Sergio Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. As a few gunslingers wait for a train to arrive, we are treated to what waiting for a train might actually have been like back in the old west. It is very quiet and all that is heard is a creaky door and windmill, the hot wind blowing, water dripping, and soon a fly buzzing around one of the gunslingers face as he tried to rest. When the stranger with the harmonica appears along with his cool score, the visual is a sight to behold. The gunslingers stand with their backs to the camera and in a shimmering distance across the tracks is the harmonica player. Some conversation is exchanged with Bronson verbally getting the best of them, then gunfire explodes. When the smoke cleared I immediately wanted to watch the whole thing again. This first 15 minutes really sums the movie up. A slow paced film, with gorgeous visuals leading to a final showdown.
As much as I loved the visuals of the film, the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is really what stuck with me most. The music is as beautiful as the visuals as for example when Jill is about to depart the train station the theme song kicks in and the camera glides upward in sync with the song to a wide open shot of the town it is a shot to behold. With the epic operatic theme song, there is also the guitar plucking and whistling tune for Cheyenne, the song for the harmonica player, and Ennio hits a home run with everyone. Speaking of the harmonica, the sound is immediately noticeable as it is heard again and again. I can only describe it as eerily mournful and I love that we actually do find out where that sound came from. Overall, the soundtrack is so great I’ve listened to it a week straight since watching the film.
There are cons such as some lip syncing issues and the film is long at close to 3 hours and it is felt a bit in the middle, but by the time things wrap up, I was left with the big smile that I had through most of the film. I love how it all comes together in the end. A great film when finishing but loved it more so thinking about it days after. The film is truly a wonderful experience that every western fan must see and I am looking forward to watching it again.