THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 18: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

by Laurent Kelly


Once upon a time in the west (1968) – Directed by: Sergio Leone  Original Screenplay:  Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati   Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale  OSCAR COUNT (0)

Once upon a time in the west is the story of Charles Bronson’s character Harmonica joining forces with Jason Robards Cheyenne in order to protect Claudia Cardinale’s widow from the grips of Henry Fonda’s villain Frank, a man who Harmonica also has a score to settle with for  murdering his brother when he was young.

It is a basic revenge plot which is not unsurprising given that the initial story was co-penned by legendary horror director Dario Argento who within his own directorial work became  far more intrigued by imaginative mastery than characterization. What makes the film stand out in its genre however is its technically outstanding style which coats the film in an unforgettable atmosphere and offers it a fresh vitality that makes it hard to believe that it is just over forty years old.

Pages could and no doubt have been written about the opening scene in which three henchmen wait at the train station for the protagonist to arrive. In this passage there is no forced back and forth exposition to expose the intricate details of the man who we are waiting for and neither is music used to try and accelerate the tension. Simply three tough looking armed men just waiting and watching the railway lines in complete silence drives forward the unbearable suspense as we wonder how on earth how hero is going to overcome these odds. Although the men are silent the opening sequence is majestic for it use of organic sound like the creaking of a windmill, the soft howling of the wind and one of the men trapping a fly in his pistol. This is the flow of nature being disturbed by the brutality of man and they too will soon find themselves outmatched by a greater beast in the form of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica character.

After ten or so minutes of stunningly crafted imagery, we are then treated to an immortal piece of dialogue as Bronson introduces himself to the gang and wonders why they only brought three horses. The men continue what they assume to be a joke by saying that they must be one too short. Bronson finishes the punchline by saying that they brought two too many before gunning them all down. In this painstakingly crafted, dramatically rewarding sequence director Sergio Leone builds up anticiptaion of the lead character and then shows him to be tough, softly spoken and quick witted when he arrives in a scene that remains so impressive for being still and patient compared to the majority of suspense which insists on being pacey and snappily edited.

The opening scene also lays down the groundwork for the essential structuring of the film which develops lengthy passages of edgy silence interspersed with moments of cool, enigmatic dialogue. Adding extra layers to this atmosphere is the gorgeous Ennio Morricone soundtrack which helps to accentuate the epic grandeur of the film’s significant events:

 Once Upon a time in the west features great performances and deft plotting but it is remembered so fondly still for its awe inspiring and unique construction that makes what you’re watching feel more like an event than just a film.

DID YOU KNOW? Back in an era when the majority of actors were typecast as either a good guy or a bad guy audiences were stunned to discover the usually clean, fresh faced and moral Henry Fonda play such an immoral villain. He had initially turned down the role until Leone flew out to convince him of the visual power of his famous character introduction.

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