In 1968, Sergio Leone directed his masterpiece C'era una volta il West (translated as Once Upon A Time In The West) starring Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. Many believe Leone’s best work was The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly starring Clint Eastwood, but in my opinion no other western embodies the isolation and mystery of character and the tension between civilization and wilderness. It’s also one of the best examples of sound and cinematography.
Henry Fonda plays against his typically “good guy” character and embodies Frank, a heartless murderer with money and power in his sites. The lovely Claudia Cardinale plays Jill McBain, a new bride who comes home to find her husband and adopted family murdered in their backyard. Jason Robards plays Cheyenne, a thief and convicted felon who just escaped prison. Charles Bronson rounds out the stellar cast as Harmonica, the lingering shadow whose intensions remain a mystery right up until the end. Every main character carries a history as their stories meld. Every character is also given their own distinctive musical theme.
They all play their characters with wit, charm and strength but it’s Bronson’s Harmonica who really draws me in viewing after viewing. The title sequence alone is one of the most technically and aesthetically pleasing scenes I’ve ever witnessed. It’s also probably the longest title sequence ever tried. Really it’s just three men waiting for a train but Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock embody their sinister characters so well that the scene plays out like a climatic ending of a film.
Of course they have help from the sound department using a squeaky windmill, a buzzing fly, knuckle-cracking and dripping water on a cowboy hat to assist in the annoyance of waiting for something to happen. It’s in this scene when we’re introduced to Bronson’s Harmonica with one of the best one-liners ever written. To recite it in this article would be to ruin a great moment in western cinema history.
The pace of the film is generally slow but one must understand its reason. Leone was a believer in dramatic tension. The film could not – and should not – be faster. Much like another great western, the recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (another personal favorite), the film had to be this pace or it would lose much of its charm. If you are delighted by the title sequence then sit back and be comforted by the fact that the rest of the film will equally delight you. If not, then I’d still say give it a try because this is one of western cinemas best.
Spread the word, cowboys and girls. To watch the film’s trailer click on the following link: www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi239075865. And to read more about the film, visit their IMDb page here: www.imdb.com/title/tt0064116
UPDATE: Once Upon A Time In The West is now on Bluray.
TRIVIA: The first draft of the script was 436 pages long.