- Directed by Sergio Leone
- December 20, 1968 (Rome) / December 21, 1968 (Italy) / May 28, 1969 (New York)
A mysterious stranger joins forces with a notorious outlaw to protect a beautiful widow.
Once Upon a Time in the West was a film filled with tough and dangerous men who were not two dimensional nor were they milquetoast. They were not bad just to be bad but had reasons behind what they did. These were characters that reacted realistically.
Something else here is that the characters in Once Upon a Time in the West come off as genuinely tough. Projecting authentic or authentic feeling on-screen toughness in my opinion was a rare thing then. Even rarer now. Some can look good playing tough man, but it is the rare actor that convinces you they are genuinely tough. I am not talking going around beating people up needlessly, but they have a presence that you believe could intimidate you in real life and I believe Charles Bronson was one such person. He is one of the great on-screen toughs.
As the mysterious Harmonica (no other name given) from his first seconds in front of the camera you know his character means business even if you do not know what that business is. Harmonica has a plan and moves slow and purposeful through the story to enact it. Bronson gives steely gazes and few but strongly uttered words that along with his physical presence let you know that Harmonica is a dangerous man.
The legendary Henry Fonda shows up here as Frank who is a dangerous killer employed by corrupt land baron Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Fonda was one of the great screen actors. I do not think he would be actually intimidating in real life, but he was convincing as an intimidating and cold killer here. Plus it helped that he largely played good guys or misguided characters during his career and seeing him as a truly terrible individual was a shock. His character of Frank kills a small boy early on!
This is probably the third film I have seen with Jason Robards in it. Here he is cast as the outlaw Cheyenne. I have caught very little of Robards’s work and I do not know the extent of his filmography. The first film I recall seeing him in was Max Dugan Returns. Parenthood was next on that list and this would make number three. Neither one of the previously to mentioned films indicated he could be a good Western outlaw but to my surprise I was wrong. And I am happy I was wrong. He was threatening with a touch of slime to his character.
Old school Italian sex symbol Claudia Cardinale is Jill McBain who is the newly widowed wife of the man Frank kills. In my perception she is a woman who appears to be playing both sides in this story to the best of her ability. She is a former prostitute who “encountered” landowner Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and married him only to arrive at his home a widow.
We also get some good character actors in supporting roles. Woody Strode and Jack Elam show up in this film as two gunmen. Lionel Stander, who is probably most famous for his work in Hart to Hart but the man did plenty more than that, shows up as a roadhouse barman. Keenan Wynn who is recognizable more for his mustache than anything else is a sheriff. Not too bad of a cast right there.
In a roadhouse Harmonica encounters Cheyenne in one of the great Western scenes. It is all acting and atmosphere that creates a sense of tension as Harmonica messes with Cheyenne. A lot is done in this film with dialogue and eyes. Often it can be a psychological game of cat and mouse between two characters on the screen. When action hits it hits fast but it is not that much in the film. And that is just fine.
This movie builds and then gives you a release and then builds again and gives you another release. It is almost like they are trying to get you addicted to the movie to keep coming back for more and you do. I watched the restored version (European Cut) and not much happens in it action wise, but plenty happens acting wise and you keep wanting more.
Part of the story is about a land scheme to take the property away from the farmer killed in the beginning of the film. You see underneath of all the land he has bought is the only water for miles and the railroad in its ever westward expansion would eventually come his way because cause trains need water. Whoever controls the water would become very rich. That has to be one of the more unique landgrab schemes in a Western. Usually when it involves land, they’re trying to get the land mostly for the purposes of raising more cattle or just getting control of more land.
Part of what keeps you hooked on the film is why is Harmonica doing what he is doing. Why is he there and creating all these problems? It becomes clear he has a beef with Frank, but Frank is clearly clueless as to why. The flashback which explains it all is rather shocking in my opinion. This is all an act of vengeance upon Frank but there are so many bodies in Frank’s past that recalling how his life intersected with Harmonica’s is all but impossible. Not until the final moments before he dies does he finally know why Harmonica hates him.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a different kind of Western from a director who always did that with the genre. It is a highly stylized film with an engaging story and dangerous characters facing off against one another. This is a great film and I am not sure why it took me so long to see it. This is most definitely a watch it not only for the general film buff but for Western fans as well!