“People scare easier then they’re dyin”
The subtitle for Once Upon a Time in the West could easily be How the Wild West Ended. Everything about the film suggests the end of an era, or at least the end of something. Harmonica’s tune is like a death rattle, we feel ultimately that it will build to a dramatic crescendo, but it takes time to get there; it is reminiscent of a tortuous death. Indeed Jason Robards’ character, Cheyenne, goes even further and suffers a long drawn out death; having been shot off-screen it takes him a full 20 min at the end of the film to die. If the pace of the film and the music wasn’t enough to suggest last gasps, the central theme is stated by Harmonica when he explains that Man is an ancient race, and that businessmen will come along and kill it off. It is the rise of the businessmen and the expansion of the railroad that is ending the time of the outlaw.
There is plenty of fabulous scenery and many sweeping crane shots, revealing huge sets and hordes of extras in the rail gangs. Of course being a Sergio Leone film there are lots of close ups of the characters, concentrating in particular on their eyes. I’ve never seen either Charles Bronson or Henry Fonda in anything else, but here they both look like real mean bastards! Leone also has an eye for the stylish and dramatic, and this is no more evident than the very start of the film. There is 10 minutes of three guys waiting at a railroad station, barely any dialogue, a squeaking windmill and a buzzing fly; but it is phenomenal. A very brave way to start a film, it sets the pace for the rest of the story perfectly. Of course on top of Leone’s inimitable style, Ennio Morricone’s score is as fabulous as ever.
All of the main characters are flawed. Like I say, Harmonica (Bronson) and Frank (Fonda) are both ruthless men; Harmonica is out for revenge, and Frank is just evil. Cheyenne (Robards) is a likeable rogue, but by no means a good guy; even Jill McBain (the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale), the traditionally “good” character, is an ex-whore. Whereas in other Westerns there is a character that the viewer routes for (usually Clint Eastwood in Leone films), in OUATITW there is no-one really. We hope that Harmonica gets his man, though we don’t know what injustice he suffered in the past; but that’s different to empathising with a character. In terms of performances I think Cardinale and Fonda are the two that stand out. Cardinale manages to switch emotions from excited and hopeful, to horrified and scared very well, yet she always seems to be in control. Fonda is perfect as Frank; playing against his usual type, he seems to really enjoy playing a real villain.
A superb, beautiful film, with some typical, but none-the-less excellent, stylish direction from Sergio Leone, and very atmospheric music from Morricone. I hesitate to mention the tempo of the film, which can sometimes feel like it’s dragging, because the slow pace is an intended feature of the film. This doesn’t detract from the epic scale of the film, and it hasn’t stopped me from seeing it many times.