RELEASED 1968 RUNTIME 165 MIN LANGUAGE ENGLISH DIRECTION SERGIO LEONE SCREENPLAY SERGIO DONATI, SERGIO LEONE, MICKEY KNOX STARRING CLAUDIA CARDINALE, HENRY FONDA, JASON ROBARDS, CHARLES BRONSON, GABRIELE FERZETTI MUSIC ENNIO MORRICONE
Once Upon A Time In The West takes place in Wild West Utah and stars Charles Bronson as the lone drifter Harmonica, Jason Robards as Cheyenne, Claudia Cardinale as Miss Jill McBain and Henry Fonda as gang boss Frank.
Former prostitute Jill moves from New Orleans to Utah just to find her husband dead on their property, killed by band of bandits working for Frank.
Cheyenne, a lone drifter offers his help to kill Frank and protect Jill from further attacks on her property, which seems to hold some important value. He is being joined by Harmonica, another drifter who wants to take vengeance on Frank by personal reason.
I love me some good western. And this is one of the absolute best. You can already tell by Sergio Leone’s name on it that it will be most likely awesome. But, if you think it’s going to play like one of the films from the Dollars trilogy, you are wrong. In fact, this film feels so much different.
Whereas the Dollars films feel like fast paced western action-adventures, Once Upon A Time In The West is a very slow paced gangster drama with action sprinkled in between. And by slow I mean slow! If you have ADHD you better look for something else. This movie requires attention. And it’s not that kind of attention that you need to understand what the story is about, but the kind of attention to really appreciate all the detail in esthetics.
This film looks incredible. It’s like a moving artwork portraying the Wild West as how it really feels. Yes, the Wild West wasn’t this exciting place where you would get into revolver fights on a daily basis. It actually was a very boring place where time seemed to move in a slower pace. You have sand a bushes everywhere. There is not much to do. You drift around until you find something of interest or something to earn money with.
The opening scene really portrays that feeling perfectly. There is not a single line of dialogue for the first 15 minutes. Just a gang of 3 dudes sitting at a train station and waiting for something. What that is I won’t spoil, but the point I’m trying to make is that this film makes you feel like you really are in the western plains.
To fully appreciate the movie you need to be able to appreciate the “art” of filmmaking.
Whereas the Dollars trilogy portrayed the violence of the Wild West, this movie portrays the act before the violence – the focus, the pressure, the wait for the right move. It’s totally different, but still Sergio Leone. You have the extreme closeups, the cool to-the-point dialogue and the snappy action sequences. But the emphasis is another.
The performances are great throughout. Charles Bronson plays an even more reserved protagonist than we are used from Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy. Harmonica seems like the role model for someone who speaks with action than words. I’m not sure how much lines of dialogue he gets in the total runtime of 3 hours, but I feel like he plays more notes with his harmonica, hence his nickname Harmonica. But there is a difference between him and the Man With No Name. His motivation is revenge and not money. Therefore, he feels more like a hero protagonist than an anti-hero.
Jason Robards as Chayenne is also incredible and sometimes it feels like it’s more his movie than Charles Bronson’s. He gets more to do and it’s him who moves the story forward most of the time.
Then again, the character the movie focuses most on is Jill McBain. Claudia Cardinale not only looks stunningly beautiful, but she plays a strong woman who knows what she wants. Also, her backstory is very interesting.
Just overall, the movie is filled with extremely well realized characters.
Henry Fonda as Frank is a really great villain because he also seems very human and not over the top. Great stuff!
What would be a review for a Sergio Leone film without mentioning the music? Ennio Morricone again proves why he is considered one of the best film composers in history. He is the European John Williams and shows off once again with two beautiful themes. The main theme is a very melodic, romanticizing the western plains, while the Harmonica theme is very reduced, reflecting the minimalistic approach of the scenery. But he also restrains himself when needed and let’s the cinematography take the reigns. Never has the combo Leone-Morricone worked so hand in hand. Perfect chemistry!
Another masterpiece by Sergio Leone. Even though very long and slowly paced you can’t help but appreciate the esthetic filmmaking and the tension Leone is bringing to the screen. A great plot with great characters and amazing atmosphere makes this a must see for every fan of Westerns and cinema in general.