Thursday, 27 June 2019

Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una Volta il West) (1968)

Vestens hårde halse
When discussing the best opening of a movie there is no avoiding “Once Upon a Time in the West”. If you do not remember anything else from the movie you will always remember that. At least that is how it was for me. For years that was the only part that really stuck with me, though a few years ago I got that remedied and now my mental picture is a lot more detailed.

Anyway, the opening is a five-minute-long sequence of three men waiting on a station in the American Southwest, sweaty and dusty and very menacing looking. A fly is buzzing around a face, water drips on to a hat and in the silence every sound is exaggerated. The windmill, the telegraph, the fly. Then the train arrive. Apparently, nobody gets out, but the behind the train a lone guy appears with a haunting harmonica. Soon after three dead men. Only then does the music starts and the movie is on.

Sergio Leone refined his techniques through the “Dollars” trilogy and in “Once Upon a Time in the West” it reaches its zenith. Long, drawn out scenes, loaded with tension, extreme close ups, and sweeping vistas. Little dialogue, but pictures that tells more than many words and a story that both taps into the heart and soul of westerns and yet approach with a very different sentiment. All that is “Once Upon a Time in the West”.

The story is not that complicated. The railroad is arriving to this particular part of the Southwest. Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) is preparing for it by building a station, but the railroad tycoon, Mr Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) does not want to share the profits and has his little gang to remove obstacles, led by Frank (Henry Fonda). Disguised as a local outlaw gang in long dusters they massacre McBain and his three children on the very day he was to receive his new bride. When she, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), arrives all are gone and she is pretty much alone with a house in the middle of nowhere and an awful lot of timber and enemies she is not yet aware of.

A guy called Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has also arrived looking for Frank and the local outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is mightily offended that somebody is doing stuff in his name… and not a little taken by the young widow.

Everything comes to a head of course with many deaths all round, all wanting a share of the fortune.

This is a great movie with a lot of things going for it, not least the four leads where especially Henry Fonda shines as one of his career’s few bad guys. The music, written before filming the movie, is exquisite, Morricone at his best, and the sets are more lavish than ever before in Sergio Leones production.

Yet, this is not a perfect movie, not like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. It is as if Leone is going a bit too far on his style. The scenes are drawn out a little too much, things are a bit too mysterious due to lack of dialogue and the patos threatens to tumble the entire structure. Personally, I felt there was too much happening off camera as if large chunks had been cut out of the movie, yet it was the longer, European edition, I was watching. Turns out it was a suspense trick where the gaps would be filled later, but not all of them and there are still things I have to guess at and in the meantime I have been rather confused. An example is Cheyenne being taken away to a maximum security prison, only to show up a few scenes later under a train.

The balance is a bit off in “Once Upon a Time in the West”, not enough to ruin it, but enough to annoy and that is a shame. Apparently, the American audience upon release was very annoyed, one reviewer calling it “Tedium in the Tumbleweed”, and it tanked. It takes patience to watch it, but then the reward is also great for as slow as the scenes are, they are also packed with detail and cinematic beauty and it has so many legendary moments.

Despite its flaws I would not hesitate to recommend it.


  1. With you all the way on this one! I do find I like it more each time I see it.

    1. The funny thing is that I was actually a bit disappointed. I recall it as being flawless, but watching it so shortly after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I cannot help comparing them and for me that one had a better balance and structure.

  2. The casting of Henry Fonda as a bad guy is inspired. We're so trained to like and respect Fonda--you see him and think of The Ox-Bow Incident, and The Grapes of Wrath, and 12 Angry Men...and then you get this and it's such a gut punch.

    A true classic, and yes, one of the great movie openings regardless of genre in film history.

    1. Rumor has it that Leone wanted Eastwood, van Cleef and Wallach to wait there on the lonely train station and have them shot within the first 10 minutes, just to make a break with the Dollars trilogy, but that they did not want to. Would have been awesome, but I do not think you can top the actual opening as it turned out.
      Using Fonda this was was indeed inspired. According to the extra material had no idea what he was going into but was urged by his colleagues to accept the role.

  3. It's easy to determine whether or not you are going to be a Leone fan by how you react to the first scene in this. I have a friend who finds the scene insufferable boring. I find the tension almost too much (in a good way) and the pay off is great. I've watched the opening scene of this movie probably twenty times...I like it that much.

    1. Yeah, I am a member of that club. That opening is still simply brilliant. One of the best opening in movie history. I can imagine people who would find it dull, but for me it is insanely intense.