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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Updated on May 30, 2012
Bronson as the Unpredictable Wild Card
Bronson as the Unpredictable Wild Card

Quirks and More Quirks

When I visited Russia some years back, I enjoyed a meal at a "Mexican" restaurant in the city of Moscow. The meal wasn't anything like I'd had in California -- that's for sure. The restaurant was run by a Cuban family who prepared what can only be described as a "Mexican-like" selection of dishes.

Everything was a bit "off" -- even the decor, but the food was tasty, and the restaurant offered one of the best high-rise views of the city atop the semi-notorious International Hotel (now completely rebuilt under another name).

The often-claimed best spaghetti western by Sergio Leone is "Once Upon a Time in the West." Unlike the Clint Eastwood films, "Once Upon a Time in the West" was shot primarily in the American west, and the cinematography is sumptuous. The sets, makeup and costumes are all convincing. Not everyone speaks English, and some of the smaller roles are dubbed, but this is to be expected.

I happen to think "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" was a superior flick, but "Once Upon a Time in the West" has some interesting points going for it.

Rather like my Mexican meal in Moscow, "Once Upon a Time in the West" is tasty in many ways, but with quirks that never allow you to forget the film is not entirely home-grown.

You can get the same food at McDonalds anywhere in the world as you would at your favorite local franchise in almost any city in the US, but as for pizza and Mexican food, well, one just doesn't go to Moscow for this kind of cusine -- unless you're a nut like myself.

Apparently, Leone set out to make an artistic representation of the old west. I'm not sure anyone had tried this before with so much earnestness. Like all achievements of art that aim for perfection, the eye tends to be drawn toward the imperfections, albeit not entirely nor intentionally.

To do justice to a film of this scope, would require it to be dissected scene by scene, with some kind of multiple-category score card upon which each element could be registered. I doubt that even the professional movie reviewers bothered to go to that level of trouble.

I put off watching "Once Upon a Time in the West" until recently because I understood Henry Fonda played a bad guy in the film, and I couldn't imagine this being done successfully. In my mind Henry Fonda was a metaphor for a stand-up, honest, straight-forward character with high principles, and the thought of seeing him cast as a heartless bandit just went against the grain. I had other preconceptions -- not just about Fonda but many other things as well.

Throughout the years I kept reading reviews that held "Once Upon a Time in the West" as the consummate western. I finally caved in and watched it via Amazon's download feature, viewing the film on my HD LCD wide-screen computer (HP 2511x). The picture quality was sharp enough to see every pour in every actor's face.

This is also one of those pictures where some of its strongest points are also its weakest. For instance:

  • The opening is deliberately drawn out -- some would say to a tedious degree while others might argue that it creates the atmosphere/setting/landscape of the movie.
  • Claudia Cardinale (one of the most beautiful and sexy actresses of the period) seems like a complete anomaly. She portrays a New Orleans prostitute (with an Italian accent) who becomes engaged to a friendly stranger from the west. Her lengthy trip to live wth him seems wasted, for upon arriving, she finds her fiancee (and entire family) has been gunned down for reasons that take a while to be revealed. Leone makes a mistake of filming Claudia with her face directly in the sun, forcing her to squint, working against her naturally stunning good looks. Cardinale's character is no angel, but she is willing to make a better life for herself just not to feel entrapped in life's many dead-end predicaments. But, really, she is too good looking to get stuck in a brothel, so add that in as another anomaly.
  • Fonda is the strangest element of the film's quirks. He doesn't just play a bad guy, but a man basically without a conscience. Somehow, he manages to build this aura with a minimum of dialogue and restrained facial expression. When he does "smile," he looks like a Terminator 800 attempting to display emotion that isn't really there, thereby making the smile one of the lasting, unnerving images of the entire picture.
  • Jason Robards is a Quisling in this film -- almost as much as Fonda. He too is an outlaw, but with a degree of empathy. He is a small (very small) town's local bad hombre and doesn't enjoy getting framed for murders he didn't commit. At least he doesn't kill children in cold blood and retains a sense of "right and wrong." Robards is middle-aged and bearded in the film, so he too seems like the victim of bad casting, but he's such a good actor that he pulls it off.
  • Charles Bronson is an off-shoot of the Clint Eastwood "Man With No Name." His name isn't important, but his grudge against Fonda creates some intrigue. Throughout most of the film, he is simply referred to as the "harmonica man," and Bronson makes no complaint against it. He's dead set at seeing Fonda fall for reasons that aren't revealed until the end. As always, Bronson seems to be playing himself, so he was a good choice for his role.
  • It wouldn't be a Sergio Leone film without a overly sustained shoot-out between Bronson and Fonda. Leone has a "thing" for extreme close-ups of his stars, especially positioned across the eyes. I'm not sure why he does this -- especially with characters who are as hard as nails. It worked well in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" thanks to Eli Wallach whose eyes were not those of a cyborg killing machine. Rather, they are loaded with distrust, indecision, trepidation, and, consequently, constantly shift around at his adversaries, as you might expect of a man under similar strained circumstances.

Generally, the mechanics and players do a good job in "Once Upon a Time in the West." The scenery is used to good measure. The slow pacing is debatable -- it either transports you or puts you into a slumber -- so no heavy meals before taking on this fairly intricate piece of film-making. It's worth the effort. If you can't make it through the first fifteen minutes, you might as well do something else.

One last point, the "Jill" theme (created by Leone) is really beautiful and haunting. In a way it's a separate piece of artistry that stands above the picture. If you can't locate the soundtrack to "Once Upon a Time in the West," try the version sung either by Sissle or Hayley Westenra -- they are both flawless.

Claudia Cardinal with the sun directly in her face
Claudia Cardinal with the sun directly in her face
Claudia Cardinale in an Entirely Unglamourous role
Claudia Cardinale in an Entirely Unglamourous role
Henry Fonda in one of Leone's famous severe close-ups
Henry Fonda in one of Leone's famous severe close-ups
Jason Robards, Trying to Figure Out Who is Framing Him
Jason Robards, Trying to Figure Out Who is Framing Him
Claudia Cardinale Arriving at the Small Dusty Train Stop
Claudia Cardinale Arriving at the Small Dusty Train Stop
A Very Different Looking Jason Robbards
A Very Different Looking Jason Robbards
Indoor Shot of Claudia Cardinale
Indoor Shot of Claudia Cardinale
Another Indoor Shot of Claudia Cardinale
Another Indoor Shot of Claudia Cardinale

Ennio Morricone - "Jill" Theme Music

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