Once Upon A Time in the West (1969) Dir. Sergio Leone

In 1969 the Western was an overused genre. Most films under the Western heading weren’t very creative and used recycled plots and mediocre cinematography. Italian director Sergio Leone had begun his revitalization of the Western in his Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood (Fistful of Dollars; For a few Dollars More; The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly). It was with Once Upon a Time in the West that he created a Western that transcended genre expectations and became a powerful, epic emotional story. The original concept started as a film Leone wanted to make about Italian-American immigrants in the first half of the 20th century. He pitched this to an American studio with the title Once Upon a Time in America. However, with the success of the Dollars Trilogy in the states they asked if he could do another Western before they produced this film. Leone agreed and developed the idea for a second trilogy about moments in American history that drastically changed the way we live. This second trilogy is composed of Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite, and Once Upon a Time in America.

Once Upon a Time in the West focuses primarily on five characters. First, we have Jill (Claudia Cardinale). She’s a prostitute from New Orleans who, a month prior to the story, met a settler named Brett McBain. McBain and Jill have an affair and secretly get married with plans for Jill to come to his homestead a month later.

Next we have Frank (Henry Fonda). Fonda was sort of a Tom Hanks for film at the time, the typical nice guy actor, he played Abraham Lincoln which became an iconic role for him. However, Leone wanted to subvert the audience expectations. They’d expect Fonda to play the hero but instead we’re introduced to him in a very shocking manner. As McBain and his three children from a previous marriage prepare for Jill’s arrival a band of men show up. They shoot McBain, his eldest son, and daughter. The youngest son, about 9, comes out of the house, tears streaming down his cheeks only to be greeted by Frank…who promply shoots him between the eyes.

Then there’s Harmonica (Charles Bronson). The character never goes by a name but plays a harmonica as he enters each scene, this is a common motif in Leone films which I’ll talk about a little later. Harmonica arrives in a scene that plays as an homage to the High Noon train arrival scene. Three gunmen wait for him at a train station, he appears out of nowhere playing his theme on the harmonica and expertly blows them away. Harmonica has a secret that ties him to Frank and has brought him back to this town for revenge.

Harmonica is befriended by Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an outlaw in the town. Cheyenne is also hired by Jill once she arrives and finds her new family dead, she asks him to find the man who did it and to kill him.

The final character is Morton, a railroad baron stricken with a muscle disease. He wears a full body brace and moves around awkwardly, using a locomotive and small office car to move around the land. Morton has hired Frank to aid him in buying up land and keeping the competition out of his way. A secret McBain was working on is what connects all these characters and pulls the story into the level of not just a story of outlaws in the West but the struggle to realize the American Dream.

Leone always worked with Italian composer Ennio Morricone on all his films and you’ve probably heard Morricone’s music used in the Kill Bill films (Tarintino is a huge fan of Leone and says The Good The Bad and the Ugly is the greatest film ever made). In this film Morricone creates about three or four themes that powerfully underline both the menace of particular characters and their hopes as well. One of the best film scores I’ve ever heard. Morricone also mixes ambient noises in as well, using squeaky windmills and bootfalls as rhythm and percussion in his music.

If you get a chance to see this film do not hesitate. It is worth every minute and is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen with lots of twists and turns before every character’s true motives are revealed.

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~ by Seth on October 25, 2005.

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