I’m not well versed in Spaghetti Westerns, but I certainly do not need someone to tell me that Sergio Leone’s film is a sprawling epic. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. The cast, the score, the visuals. Everything about it fits together so marvelously. All the moving parts succeed in developing a majestic piece of cinema that really is awesome. I try not to use that word lightly.
Recently I saw Tarantino’s Django Unchained which of course pays homage to the Spaghetti Western, and it undoubtedly exhibits the Tarantino style. However, Leone’s film lingers as well, but with Once Upon a Time in the West, I didn’t mind. The film, after all, has a cold open that lasts 13 minutes and most of it is spent staring at Jack Elam and Woody Strode. Except the way Leone captures it all, I don’t really mind. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. Whereas Tarantino’s film felt like it was dawdling, Leone’s film didn’t seem to dawdle. It was just stylish in its makeup. The pacing at times feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon underlined by dread for something to come. Then for a brief blip, the trouble comes violently and then just like that it’s gone. Everything’s back to the status quo except this structure makes every killing and gunfight seem all the more dynamic.
The main players are Claudia Cardinale, James Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda. Cardinale, of course, is one of the icons of cinema, and here she feels like a wonderful embodiment of this woman who helps bring civility to this land. Whether it’s simply her immense beauty or some emotion behind her eyes, it’s hard not to watch her every movement. First, as she learns she is a widow, next when she is introduced to the other main players, and finally when she sees her dead’s husband’s dreams forming all around her.
James Bronson as the aloof, but deadly “Harmonica” has to be at his coolest. He hardly has to say anything because that ominous harmonica music is his calling card. Every time we hear it we know he’s around and also his eyes are so expressive. Sergio Leone is never squeamish about lingering on his star’s faces. In fact, that paired with landscapes is one of his signatures that helps define his iconic style. The contrasts stand out and the interludes often lacking dialogue somehow help make his characters even cooler. They take on an air of mystery and in the case of “Harmonica”, we only understand his vendetta near the very end. It all starts to make sense.
Robards is the outlaw Cheyenne, who is pinned with the murder of McBain’s wife and children. A posse is after him and his gang, but he was actually pinned for the rap. He is cast in the light of a scruffy anti-hero and Robards plays him rough around the edges, but most importantly with a heart. He’s one of the few characters who seems to get Jill. He knows enough that none of the men around her are worthy of her, because she is a special class of woman, in spite of what her past may say.
Perhaps the most striking of casting choices was Henry Fonda because by now he was well along in his career and most certainly best known for his plain-speaking heroes. That’s what makes Frank such a great character because dressed in all black and armed with a revolver, he guns someone down the first moment we see him. It’s a shock and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. He goes on to backstab his sickly employer and continues to put pressure on Mrs. McBain to give up her land. It goes so far as taking advantage of her at her home. He’s a monster, but the part is such the antithesis of the Henry Fonda we know, making it a pure stroke of genius.
At least for me, you soon forget about the dubbing of certain characters and just allow yourself to become fully engaged in the dynamic West as envisioned by Leone. After all, since there isn’t a whole lot a dialogue, in some scenes it loses its importance. It’s often about the desolately depicted visuals. The wry smile on a face. The buzz of a pestering fly or the squeaking of a windmill. That’s another thing. This film puts sound to use so wonderfully. Whether it’s the harmonica, Morricone’s engaging score, or diegetic sounds. In fact, the score evolves and reprises in concordance with the pacing of the film. It can be ominous. It can be playful. And sometimes it’s nonexistent.
When it all comes down to it, we get the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank, but the film is a lot larger than that. After all, we have been following multiple characters. Jill finally sees the world around here coming to life, and she has weathered the Wild West as an independent woman. As for Cheyenne, he ends as a tragic hero of sorts. There’s no question, Leone’s film, arguably his greatest alongside The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, helps define a version of the West, with iconic characterizations placed up against striking pictorials. It’s one of those film’s that despite the length, never feels like a labor. A smile is constantly forming on my face, to mirror the visage of James Bronson. I really wish I could play the harmonica now. It’s so ridiculously cool! That’s what I really took away from this film.