Oh man, what a film this is! Legendary director Sergio Leone said he was done with westerns after the Dollars Trilogy but thankfully he decided to return to the genre for this dark and grim epic. This is basically the perfect movie. Really. It’s that good!
The story seems like a simple battle between multiple parties over some land where a railroad will be travelling through, but really it’s rather more complex than that. Charles Bronson’s Harmonica is chasing down Henry Fonda’s Frank to settle an old grudge. Frank is working for some business sleaze who wants to intimidate Claudia Cardinale’s Jill into giving them her land so that they can profit from the railroad that will run through there. Throw in outlaw Cheyenne played by Jason Robards who doesn’t really have a side in this for a while and the plot gets a whole lot thicker and much more interesting.
The cast are all perfect. Bronson as Harmonica says little words but a lot with his face. He’s a complex character and you can tell there’s so much going on inside his head. He’s really awesome and steals almost every scene he’s in without saying a word. Similarly, Henry Fonda’s villainous turn works amazingly well. He’s so menacing and evil and yet also strangely charming too. He’s a really great baddie and has an introduction for the ages in the early part of the film. Claudia Cardinale doesn’t fall into the trope of being a damsel in distress too much here, and has some great moments of her own. Jason Robards similarly gets some awesome scenes as Cheyenne, tiptoeing the line between hero and villain.
But a lot of the credit here has to go to Sergio Leone. His writing and directing here is above top form! The opening scene alone should go down in history as one of the greatest scenes of all time. Three men arrive at a train station and wait. For 10 minutes. All they do is wait. There’s no music, only the soundtrack of the noises from around the location. The scene is pure tension and suspense as you wait for the train as anxiously as the three men do. And then the train turns up and Charles Bronson gets off and utters one of the greatest lines ever and the film begins. It’s all so amazingly well shot and staged.
The score is provided by the incredible Ennio Morricone who, as always, is amazing. It’s slow and morose and amps up the tension to 11. The harmonica theme is unforgettable and sticks with you and always means great things whenever it crops up in the film. Everything works so well together. The pace of the film is very slow. Leone said he wanted it to feel like a series of dying breaths, something reflected in the characters and their journeys. The direction of the acting and the shots is perfected from all Leone’s previous westerns and, though ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly‘ is my favourite, this one might be his best. Almost…
‘Once Upon a Time in the West‘ is basically a perfect film. It’s all completely fantastic and everything just works so well. It’s all super enjoyable and there’s so many filmmaking lessons that can be learned from it. All in all, it’s the best.
JACK’S SCORE: 5/5