Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): Italian maestro Sergio Leone's greatest tribute to the "Western" genre

Leone's piquant cocktail of style and substance

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

Once Upon a Time in the West, opening railway station sequence, Directed by Sergio Leone, Spaghetti Western
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) - By Sergio Leone
Our Rating: 10.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.7
Genre: Adventure | Western
CastClaudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards
Country: Italy | USA
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 175 min
Color: Color (Technicolor)

Summary: Epic story of a mysterious stranger with a harmonica who joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a piquant cocktail of style and substance in equal parts, potent enough to catapult the viewer into a whirlpool of incessant excitement, transcending him beyond the usual realms of an adrenaline rush. Vintage Leone,  Once Upon a Time in the West  is inarguably the best Western ever made and undoubtedly features amongst the very best works of cinema, period. Sergio Leone incredibly surpasses the brilliance of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with  Once Upon a Time in the West  by blending his favorite theme of Greed with that of Revenge. The only thing that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly lacked was the presence of a strong female character and Leone more than makes up for it in  Once Upon a Time in the West . Its eccentric yet consummate plot revolves around a female protagonist, thereby revolutionizing the very tenets associated with the genre, a realm where machismo and chivalry had hitherto held sway.

Henry Fonda as the cold-blooded outlaw/bounty-hunter Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, Spaghetti Western masterpiece, Directed by Sergio Leone
Henry Fonda in his chilling portrayal of Frank
Once Upon a Time in the West juxtaposes the lives of five idiosyncratic egotists: Harmonica    a mysterious stranger, Cheyenne – a notorious desperado, Frank – a ruthless assassin, Jill – a beautiful widow with an obscure past, and Morton – a railroad baron, whose motives inevitably make them cross each other's paths albeit through an act of fate. Henry Fonda is a revelation as the cold-blooded assassin, a portrayal that is remarkably contrasting to his usual 'good guy' on-screen image. He goes about his business with a sublime touch of feral grandeur that makes him equally chilling and fascinating as 'Frank'. Henry Fonda was initially reluctant to play the part of Frank, a negative part that too in a Western. Fonda gave his nod only after discussing the issue with his good friend and actor Eli Wallach, who had earlier worked with Leone in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Leone reportedly said that Henry Fonda is the best actor he ever worked it. Fonda returned the favor by testifying that 'Frank' was the best role he ever played on the celluloid.

Jason Robards as the outlaw Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West, Spaghetti Western masterpiece, Directed by Sergio Leone
Jason Robards as Cheyenne
Charles Bronson as the mysterious gunslinger Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, Spaghetti Western masterpiece, Directed by Sergio Leone
Charles Bronson as Harmonica
The role of 'Cheyenne' is played with singular brilliance by double Academy Award winner Jason Robards. He has taken care of the various subtleties and nuances to such an extent that he perfectly fits into the shoes of notorious, yet likable, 'Cheyenne'. Charles Bronson plays his part with utmost conviction and incredibly manages to conjure up an element of mystery in his portrayal that not only brings 'Harmonica' to life, but also gives it a very distinct identity despite Harmonica's conspicuous similarities with Eastwood's 'Man with no name'

Claudia Cardinale as the ravishing Jill McBain in Once Upon a Time in the West, Spaghetti Western masterpiece, Directed by Sergio Leone
Ravishing Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain
Claudia Cardinale is a soothing delight for the sore eyes as the voluptuous 'Jill McBain'an opportunistic lady capable of doing anything to save her skin. She has fully justified the trust shown by Sergio Leone in casting her and by Bernardo Bertolucci in penning down a strong feminine part in a Western. She truly entrances the viewers with her mystifying pulchritude and enigmatic charm. She meticulously highlights the flaws in Jill's character while also managing to depict the elements of tenacity and grit which represent the true spirit of femininity. Gabriele Ferzetti is quite effective in his cameo as the crippled railroad baron, 'Morton'. He suffers from the tuberculosis of bones and each passing day brings him closer to his end, thereby further intensifying his desperate urge to fulfill his far-fetched ambition of taking the railroad to the Atlantic. He truly represents a man worthy of achieving the impossible, unfortunately cut short by his haplessness. Despite the inhuman and unjust means adopted by him to fulfill his naked ambition, one finds it excruciatingly hard to derive pleasure from his perpetual plight and eventual doom. 

The opening shoot-out sequence in Once Upon a Time in the West, Spaghetti Western masterpiece, Directed by Sergio Leone
Tonino Delli Colli's widescreen cinematography in OUTW
Contrary to the popular belief, the slow pace of  Once Upon a Time in the West  and laconism in dialogue pose no impediment to the viewing and in fact this deliberate pacing enormously adds to the detail and beauty of the movie, and also helps in brewing the desired level of tension before it is finally punctuated suddenly with quick bursts of action. Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography is vividly descriptive and has elements which have become his and Leone's trademarks like the extreme close-ups, the quick panning of the terrain, the rotating camera shots etc. 

Sergio Leone with his long time collaborator Ennio Morricone
Sergio Leone with his long time collaborator Ennio Morricone
The haunting score written yet again by the master composer, Ennio Morricone enhances the grandeur of Once Upon a Time in the West  tenfold. If Leone's direction and Colli's cinematography are the backbone of the movie, then undoubtedly Morricone's plaintive score is its heart and soul. The surreal score has shades of melancholy, intrigue, and romance that become more obvious with each passing moment. The music features leitmotifs (a melodic phrase that accompanies the reappearance of a character) that relate to each of the main characters (each with their own unique theme music). The soundtrack to the opening scene is a symphonic orchestration of quotidian sounds like that of the dripping water, the clicking of a telegraph, the buzzing sound of a fly, the screeching sound of a windmill, etc. after Morricone experienced a symphony being created by the medley of these distinct sounds.

Once Upon a Time in the West is unparalleled in direction, screenplay, cinematography and music. With its slower pace and relatively somber theme (especially compared to Leone's Dollars Trilogy), Leone managed to transform his image of a satirical showman into that of an accomplished auteur capable of producing much profound works. OUTW also served as the harbinger for Leone's masterpiece, 'Once Upon a Time in America'. 

P.S:  Once Upon a Time in the West  is an absorbing masterpiece; an absolute gem of a movie and a must watch for those who understand the true meaning of 'A Timeless Masterpiece', and are willing to indulge themselves completely through the whole length of the movie.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

For Best Films by Sergio Leone, please click here

For more information on the title, please click on the following links:

IMDb

Wikipedia

Once Upon a Time in the West Trailer


Previous ReviewRan (1985)


People who liked this also liked...
Share on Google Plus

8 comments:

  1. loved the blog post man, where'd that first poster up top come from, can't seem to find it online?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks a ton, mate!!! As far as the poster is concerned, I just don't seem to remember its exact source... must have been some poster or wallpaper site.

      Delete
  2. All Ennio Morricone soundtracks are my absolute favorite but this one does have a special place in my heart :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with everything you've got here, with the possible exception of this being absolutely the greatest Western ever made. I'd put it top-5, but might go with The Searchers on top.

    Regardless, I'm with you on just how strong every element of this film is and I can't think of something I'd do to improve it much of anywhere (I think a couple scenes are a touch long, but nothing that upsets me). Great casting throughout, and good catch about Claudia Cardinale, who is much more than just a pretty face here.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Can't agree with you more about Claudia. Jason Robards is absolutley brilliant in his role... the same can be said of Fonda. Charles Bronson just doesn't let the viewer miss Eastwood's presence. Gabriele Ferzetti, though completely unrecognizable in the role of the railroad baron, delivers a powerful performance. But, the real star of the movie is Morricone.

    Searchers is a great movie but it's only there at the number 5 position in my all time list. The top 4 would be Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dynamite (some may not even consider it a Western... but I don't really care), and The Wild Bunch. At number 6 would be Unforgiven followed by Corbucci's The Great Silence and Django at number 7 and number 8, respectively. At number 9 would be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford rounding off the top 10.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Can't agree with you more about Claudia. Jason Robards is brilliant in his role... the same can be said of Fonda. Gabriele Ferzetti, though completely unrecognizable in the role of railroad baron, delivers a powerful performance. But, the real star is Morricone. Charles Bronson can lets one miss Eastwood's presence. Searchers is a gr

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for sharing for valuable opinion. We would be delighted to have you back.