Once Upon a Time in the West Review

From just the first few minutes into Once Upon a Time in the West its magnificence is immediately evident. What is perhaps Leone’s best western opens with a beautifully orchestrated sequence that sees three unnamed gunmen awaiting the arrival of train and one of its passengers, ‘Harmonica’ (Charles Bronson). Leone builds tension in this scene using every tool at his disposal, most obviously in the effective use of a soundscape that manipulates sound effects and the score so as to control the audience’s reactions down to the finest detail. His almost patented use of wide shots and close-ups also both establishes and develops whilst at the same time never losing any engagement with the viewer. The opening is a lesson in filmmaking from one of cinema’s greatest experts and the excellence on display here continues throughout.

The fact that the film begins with the arrival of a train is significant in its foreshadowing of the importance of the great ‘iron horse’ in the film’s narrative. The arrival of the train and the general spread of the railway across America sets in motion key threads of the plot and also provides a wonderful wider backdrop to the more intimate emotional stories.

Also arriving by train is Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) who is en route to the area of Sweetwater, near the town of Flagstone, to meet her new husband and begin a new life. Railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) and ruthless killer Frank (Henry Fonda) destroy Jill’s dreams though with the slaughter of her new husband Brett (Frank Wolff) and his children. The film rests on a land battle for the land left to Jill by Brett and the various players who become entangled in this provide the drama that helps make the narrative so compelling.

Leone’s films have often rested on excellent casting rather than stunning performances and Once Upon a Time in the West continues in this tradition with these various players being exceptionally well cast. Casting choices are wonderfully apt with characters feeling all the more iconic thanks, to some degree, to their status as stars. Henry Fonda in particular is noteworthy for the way in which his casting subverted the accepted idea of what kind of character Fonda played, making his character seem all the more sinister.

Claudia Cardinale is also excellent and has never looked more beautiful, which means a lot for an actress directed by both Fellini and Visconti, and whilst the role of Jill McBain could be dismissed as a simple hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, Jill is far more nuanced and layered a character than that description suggests. Like much of Once Upon a Time in the West, the film uses common tropes and archetypes of the Western expertly, often building on them and adding further depth. Her character is in many ways the protagonist of the film, a female protagonist being something of a rarity in Westerns, and Cardinale carries the weight of this well. With Cardinale’s subtle performance, Leone’s spot on direction and the beautiful cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, a shot of Cardinale simply looking into a mirror becomes infused with emotion and depth. This layered characterisation and complexity evident in all the key roles in Once Upon a Time in the West is highly effective and perhaps all the more rewarding due to its delivery under the mask of an archetypical approach to characterisation.

The story in Once Upon a Time in the West was originally conceived by Leone with the help of fellow Italian masters Dario Argento and Benardo Bertolucci and the three were heavily influenced by American Westerns that had gone before. The influence of these films is more obvious in some places than others but the overall effect is one of making the film feel very much like an indebted achievement but one that is no less impressive because of this. Leone clearly loved the western, he supposedly knew Monument Valley like the back of his hand purely through all the westerns he’d seen, and this intense passion is all on the screen.

A slightly different version of this review was originally posted at HeyUGuys.