Once Upon A Time In the West tells you it's something special about twenty minutes in. Cowboys in black dusters float across the barren desert like specters of death. Their leader has just finished gunning down an innocent family, and as they approach a single remaining child huddled pathetically in a doorway we hear a voice: "Well Frank what do we do with this one?.” The Camera spins around and for the first time we see his face, a face that for years has stood for decency, honor, and sanity in away that only Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck can match. There stands Henry Fonda. He lights a cigarette and in the plain, homespun voice that we have heard so many times before (but now seeming utterly foreign), we hear words that seem impossibly ruthless coming from this man: "Well now that you've said my name." With that small explanation he finishes the job, gunning down the huddled mass without a sign of remorse.
That should give you an idea of the balls Once Upon A Time In the West has, turning an icon of decency into a despicable killer. The rest of the movie is just as bold, a gritty violent film which is at once a tribute to the classic films of John Ford and Howard Hawks and a critique on the unexamined violence and simplistic black and white view of good and evil. The result is incredible, increasing the feel from the merely epic Dollars Trilogy, to mythological proportions.
The story concerns two strangers in town. The first is Jill McBain, who misses being massacred with the rest of her family by virtue of a late train. The other is only known by the harmonica he wears around his neck and announces his arrival by gunning down three thugs (including the late Jack Elam) at a train station. Both are connected to Henry Fonda's Frank, who was in charge of the McBain massacre, and who Harmonica has a vendetta against. Also caught in the mix is the outlaw leader Cheyenne, a half breed that Frank pins the murders on. The four are entangled in a mystery involving land rights and the ever encroaching civilization represented by the Railroads for whom Frank is an Enforcer.
Charles Bronson stars as Harmonica. To be fair, anyone would have a problem trying to film Clint's poncho, however old puma face does as good a job as any man conceivably could. Bronson gives a great performance of internal rage and sorrow. It’s a tantalizing glimpse of how good of an actor he could have been were he not pigeonholed into inferior Dirty Harry rip offs.
Claudia Cardinale, the famous Italian actress, is given the strongest role that Sergio Leone has ever written for a woman. To be quiet fair this is not saying much. Leone will never be known for great female roles. Even Jill is at best only a whore with a heart of gold. However, she is a tough and has brains enough to solve a mystery. She’s not some weak-kneed bar maid. She has the guts to pick up a gun and the will to protect her husband's legacy.
Henry Fonda of course steals the whole damn show. Anyone looking for the calm even minded everyman of The Ox Bow Incident and 12 Angry Man had better keep looking. Frank is stunningly sadistic, an expert gunman with no loyalties and even fewer qualms about oh I don't know, gunning down families, raping heroines, and creating one of the most utterly sadistic death traps for Harmonica and his brother to sweat in.
Jason Robards as the outlaw leader Cheyenne. Sadly, he is the weakest part of this film. He just has nothing to do accept act as a deus ex machina when necessary. A much better character as always is Ennio Morricone's score. Every collaboration he has done with Leone is a work of art. However, I think this is his best overall score. Unlike the other Leone scores that he has done (which contain dozens of memorable pieces) the score in Once Upon A Time In The West contains only four deceptively simple character themes, combined ingenuously whenever the characters are on screen. Before Frank and Harmonica's final duel, their themes battle together like rabid dogs, a precursor to the vicious battle.
The key to Once Upon A Time In the West is its size. As I said before this movie out does the epic Dollars Trilogy, which is no small feat. If you ever get a chance to see this movie on the big screen, I cannot recommend it enough. Still even on the small screen the sheer enormity of the film breaks through. Every bullet has the destructive force of an A-Bomb, the gun barrels are as big as ICBM, the landscapes and buildings would seem to be comfortable on Mars, the lines on every face is dry river bed, and in one breathtaking close up, Bronson's eyes appear to contain the universe.
Tthis movie is cool. Great plot, great performances, great acting, great action, and easily Leone's best work. Seeing it now is a fitting eulogy to Charles Bronson, but seeing it anytime is a tribute to monumental filmmaking.
This disc is the best created thus far for any Leone film, all of which have thus far been badly underdone. What we’re given here is one pretty cool retrospective, chopped into three parts by some genius at MGM, cause three is more then one. These three separate docs have no theme that would justify breaking them up. The final product ends up looking like exactly what it is: One doc cut into three by utterly crap logic.
Taken as a single documentary the retrospective itself is pretty impressive. John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China, They Live) John Milius (Conan, Big Wednesday, The basis for Walter in The Big Lebowski) and Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy, Repo Man and lets face it, nothing worthwhile in a damn long time) all line up to blow the movie, Claudia Cardinale shows up and has aged magnificently, and then the crew that is still alive comes out and wheezes in the old tongue. Strangely absent is Quentin Tarintino, who has listed this film as one of his favorites and couldn't resist talking about it even on the Once Upon A Time in America doc. The rest of the features is “The Railroad” which is just some production notes spoken aloud. The original trailer that is bad ass and there’s a commentary where everyone repeats what they already said in the retrospective.