Once upon a Time in the West
Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson
Time magazine included it in their 100 greatest films of the 21st century, Martin Scorsese and Quinten Tarantino have both cited the film as one of their primary influences, and The Guardian ranked it as the best Western film of all time.
This was my grandfather’s favorite film. After his passing, I was too nervous to watch the film, but 2021 marks five years after his death. Therefore, I decided to finally watch it. Also, it was free (at the time) on Hulu.
Brett McBain owns a farmstead outside Flagstone called Sweetwater. Everyone in the town mocks him because his land is in the middle of nowhere and of use to no one. That makes his and his family’s death all the more shocking and random.
Enter Jill, a former prostitute that McBain fell in love with on holiday in New Orleans. They were married secretly, and she has arrived to be a mother and caretaker. Instead, she’s stuck with an empty home and clues to the killer: Cheyenne.
Jill’s first night in the McBain home is anything but peaceful. Not only is she distraught at her husband’s death, she is visited by Cheyenne himself! He’s furious because he and his gang have been pegged for McBain’s murder, which Cheyenne insists he didn’t commit. Even stranger, a nameless man who obsessively plays the world’s creepiest harmonica shows up at the homestead looking for an outlaw hitman named Frank. Frank’s specialty? Killing people and framing the crime on local bandits.
The three form a tentative alliance: Jill to get justice for the family stolen from her, Cheyenne to clear his crew’s name, and Harmonica to dismantle Frank’s operation. Together, they uncover an insidious tycoon plot led by one of the most despicable villains in all of film.
It not only plays, it can shoot too! This movie was directed by a master of the genre leaving the Western behind. After The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone unofficially felt that he’d fully explored the genre. By the latter half of the 60s, though, filmmaking style and expression had blossomed and evolved, setting up for the auteur-driven 70s. Leone embraced this mentality, which results in a motion picture that is both faithful to the genre’s roots, but also boundary pushing.
The characters also straddle old-fashioned and cutting-edge. Harmonica, of course, is the Clint Eastwood-esque mysterious hero (almost played by Clint Eastwood!), but he’s more selfish in his quest than most heroes. Jill McBain is a woman who needs help getting justice, but she’s willing to be flexible if it serves her endgame. Even the villain, Frank, is a traditional black hat, but is played by Henry Fonda, possibly the most distractingly beautiful man in Old Hollywood. Fonda, known for his pretty-boy heroism in The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men, uses his looks to beguile his victims into thinking they have a chance to live. The juxtaposition is more chilling than his icy-blue eyes. All this is to say that Sergio Leone used this film to both sum up the traditional Western and send it galloping into a new age.
The common joke of modern streaming habits applies here: Will I watch a three-hour movie in one sitting? No. Will I binge three one-hour episodes? Sure! Once Upon a Time in the West came out during a time when languid filmmaking featuring oversaturated vistas was in vogue. These shots are gorgeous, but even this cinephile got a little antsy watching a yet another wagon truck along a dusty road backed by mesas. The plot, likewise, intrigued me, but tried my patience with its pacing.
Ironically, Paramount Pictures thought the same thing and tried to re-edit the picture before a U.S. release. Bafflingly, they decided to cut crucial plot points and character motivation scenes, so many audiences were left confused after its initial screening. Once again, film proves to be a tricky medium to balance audience wants and an artist’s intention. As is stands, the film is a rewarding Western epic that’s a little overlong. Of course, I had no problem watching the new Spiderman movie (2 hours 36 minutes), so my griping is a tad hypocritical.
Also, like the new Spiderman movie, try to go into this movie without any spoilers. Yes, it’s 60 odd years old, but it has the wonderful distinction of being SO old that it’s not in the zeitgeist. There’s an important scene in Once Upon a Time in the West that was shocking when it came out. My grandfather remembered it so vividly that it was the first thing he told me about when he mentioned it as his favorite! Love you, Grandpa Jim, but you didn’t have to tell me everything before I watched it…