FIVE STAR FILMS #20: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Despite The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being amongst  my favourite films it took some serious coaxing from my contemporaries before I sat down to Once Upon A Time West. However in its wake, I would have to say that its Sergio Leone’s best Western and possibly the best Western that I’ve ever seen.

1. The Pedigree

Directed by Italian maestro Sergio Leone after his 1960’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’ (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) starring Clint Eastwood, Once Upon A Time In The West, for many Western fans, is an example of Leone’s craft turned up to eleven. He wrote the screenplay along with Sergio Donati, based on a story concocted by Leone, Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist). That’s crazy. Also a part of this pedigree is the Western genre itself. Once Upon A Time In The West is reflective on not only the ‘Dollars Trilogy’ but also works as a summation of the classic western/hero created by the likes of John Ford (The Searchers) and Fred Zinnemann (High Noon), with honorary references made to their films in the screenplay. Grand in scale this lushly photographed, impeccably scored and perfectly cast masterwork is widely considered to be THE western.

2. The Opening Credit Sequence

It is one of the great stretches of filmmaking I have ever seen and functions a bit like a short film (14 minutes approximately) preceding the main feature. To say that the rest of the film fails to live up to his scene is doing it a disservice but this is an immediate highlight and evidence that Sergio Leone was a master of building atmosphere through a brilliant collaboration of technique and texture. It features three men arriving at an isolatied train station in the middle of the Arizona desert, and setting up position waiting for the train to arrive. We cut between each of the men – usually close-ups of their sweaty, dust-stained faces – as they amuse themselves with various banal pleasures. The tension builds. There is an absence of sound so boots thudding on the wood and the squeaking of a nearby windmill are accentuated. We know something bad is going to happen when the train pulls up and by the times Charles Bronson steps off the train, to a short accompanying burst of Morricone’s ‘harmonica’ theme, we are now fully immersed in Leone’s film.

3. The epic widescreen canvas.

The visual impact of this film cannot be overlooked. The epic widescreen photography, which juxtaposes the trench coat-attired gunslingers against the sprawling, picturesque landscape, is a sight. There are back-to-back unforgettable set pieces to introduce the characters. Just as extraordinary are the extreme close-up shots of the characters faces and often their eyes. You see right into their soul and it is often enough to reveal everything we need to know about them and what they are thinking. On all levels, this is a cinematic feast for the senses, and I can only imagine how great it would look in a cinema.

Guess where you can see it? At this month’s Brisbane International Film Festival.

4. The Music

Composed by Ennio Morricone. Need I say more? It is absolutely mesmerizing – and the final crescendo (I think it is referred to as “Death Rattle”) is unforgettable. Incredibly, Morricone composed a distinct theme for each of the four main characters based entirely on the script (before shooting). Leone then instructed his cast to adapt their acting to the sounds. It is one of the most chilling musical scores I have ever heard, and Morricone is also responsible for ‘that’ famous score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

5. The Cast

Perhaps the most important casting choice/hire was Henry Fonda, who was Leone’s favourite actor at the time. Having built a screen image as a man who upholds decent American values (in 12 Angry Men for example), he uncharacteristic plays the villain here. The rest of the key cast – Bronson, Robards (the two of them share some fantastic dialogue, especially during their first meeting, which is one of the aforementioned set pieces) and Cardinale – are excellent too.

Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22