Once Upon a Time Leone Made a Great Western
I like a good western and I have watched a lot of good westerns and a few great ones as well but Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" is in another league and quite possibly the greatest western ever made. It may have essentially a simple storyline of the good versus the bad but it is brimming over with style, atmosphere, action, great acting as well as a touch of comedy. And from the opening beautifully constructed scene right through to the credits it sucks you into this twisting tale of 3 men and a woman and the land which she owns. For some "Once Upon a Time in the West" may feel like Leone has repeated what he achieved in his spaghetti western trilogy but for me he takes it to the next level almost bringing all those elements which made the likes of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" and "For A Few Dollars More" so good and concentrating them into one spectacular western.
Having secretly married land owner Brett McBain, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) leaves New Orleans for his ranch on the outskirts of a small town called Flagstone. But on arriving she discovers that Brett and his children have been murdered leaving her in ownership of this land. Determined to get revenge she initially suspects Cheyenne (Jason Robards - Philadelphia), a rough and ready bandit, of her husband's murder but he protests his innocence and agrees to help her as they discover the murders are to do with the railroad and the land she now owns. But the question is where does the stranger known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson - The Dirty Dozen) come into this and what is his problem with cold blooded murdered Frank (Henry Fonda - Firecreek)?
I am not going to lie and say that the underlying storyline to "Once Upon a Time in the West" is the greatest because it isn't. There are many elements to the storyline which have been seen not in just Leone's other westerns but westerns across the board. But whilst familiar it is also embellished by a sense of ambiguity. What I mean is that central to everything is this woman McBain who returns home to discover that her husband and children have been murdered but she isn't sure who murdered them as there are 3 potential killers. And the reason for the murder of her husband is to do with the land she owns and a railway line. What this basically boils down to is that as the movie progresses it is a case of the good versus the bad for various reasons and not just to do with the land as certain characters such as Harmonica have history with others such as Frank. As a viewer we may be able to guess associations and are given back histories to support how we feel but at the same time we are kept guessing because we are never entirely sure who will survive when it comes to the big showdown, which being a western is expected.
It is credit to Leone for taking what is an obvious storyline and turning it into more and one of those things is a stylistic movie. Now as you may expect Leone fills "Once Upon a Time in the West" with his trademarks, from the close ups of faces and a dominant soundtrack but there is something else about the movie which makes it so visually spectacular. That thing is a depth of vision, there is scene after scene where in every level there are things going on so in the foreground we maybe moving along on a carriage, at the back there is the hustle bustle of the street and then in between another carriage comes flying past. This brilliant use of making a scene come to life gives it so much depth and in many ways feels 3D like especially with scenes where the camera appears to be on the front of a train and goes through a group of workers. As such many modern directors who resort to tricks such as 3D could learn something from watching "Once Upon a Time in the West" as it shows that a movie scene can come to life when captured correctly.
But aside from the style and "Once Upon a Time in the West" is brimming over with it Leone also creates an intoxicating blend of action, tension as well as comedy. The opening scene where we watch 3 cowboys waiting for the train to come in is a prime example as nothing seems to happen as they wait around but it creates this atmosphere that something is going to happen. At the same time he delivers amusement from something inconsequential such as a fly buzzing around or a drip coming from the roof and it makes you smile. Before then bringing the scene to life with a brilliant split second moment of action. This opening scene is great but it is just one of many throughout "Once Upon a Time in the West" which deliver all the components from atmosphere through to action as well as comedy.
And a Sergio Leone movie isn't complete without a combination of great characters and great acting and "Once Upon a Time in the West" certainly has them both. From the pure evilness of Henry Fonda as Frank, a man who smiles when he shoots a child, through to the mysterious Harmonica played by Charles Bronson they are all fascinating and well acted. You can add to that Jason Robards who has an almost rough and ready quality as Cheyenne and Claudia Cardinale who creates a surprisingly complex character in Jill McBain. As such "Once Upon a Time in the West" features first rate acting especially from Fonda who is pure evil, but with Leone's styling the close focus on the eyes it feels like that all the characters are more real as we get inside their minds.
What this all boils down to is that "Once Upon a Time in the West" is for me one of the greatest if not the greatest western ever made. It may have what is quite a simple storyline but the embellishments, the twists and the back stories make it so much more. And with Leone creating a visually stylish masterpiece it is a movie which sucks you in and never lets you go. Plus of course you can't ignore the acting from any of the cast especially Henry Fonda who creates one of the evilest bad guys to ever grace a western.