After making The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone decided to stop making westerns and began work on what would become Once Upon a Time in America (1984), a period gangster epic. Paramount Pictures, however, approached him with a tantalizing offer that he could not refuse: access to legendary actor Henry Fonda to make a western with a substantial budget. Leone had always wanted to work with Fonda – his favorite actor – and accepted the offer. The end result was a cinematic masterpiece – a brooding meditation on the end of the Wild West as symbolized by the construction of a railroad that represented the ushering in of a new way of life. More than any of his other westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West is an unabashed love letter to the genre.
The film begins with three men waiting for a train to arrive at a desolate, crudely constructed station. In typical Leone fashion, there is very little dialogue with only atmospheric sound, which creates a sense of impending dread as it becomes apparent that they’re waiting for someone to arrive and kill them. The director expertly plays on our expectations as we know what’s going to happen but he delays it for as long as he can, milking it for every ounce of tension. It isn’t until their target finally disembarks that music is finally heard and it is that of a lonesome harmonica as played by the mysterious man – latter dubbed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) – who efficiently dispatches them but is also tagged by one of their bullets.
Frank (Fonda) is an amoral killer that guns down a man and his three children in cold blood because the land they’re on is very valuable to Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a railroad tycoon that employs him. Unbeknownst to them, the man’s beautiful wife, Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in town to start a new life with him. Leone uses her first appearance to beautifully orchestrate the introduction of the town of Flagstone that has been built up around the railroad via a tracking shot that follows her from the train to the station and going right into an establishing shot of the town with Ennio Morricone’s soaring, evocative score all in one smooth camera move.
Jill’s trip to her new family’s homestead gives Leone a chance to show the breathtaking vistas of Monument Valley, immortalized in so many John Ford westerns. Leone masterfully shows the scale of this famous landmark as he juxtaposes its size against Jill’s miniscule horse and buggy. En route, she crosses paths with a grungy bandit named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who has been framed by Frank in the killing of Jill’s family. She is told to build a railway station and a small town on her property by the time the track’s construction crew arrives or she loses the land. The rest of the film plays out her struggle, Cheyenne’s desire for revenge and Harmonica’s mysterious motivations that involve Frank.
One of the things that separates Once Upon a Time in the West from Leone’s other westerns is that it is a meditation on violence. Whereas The Good, The Bad and the Ugly featured many people being gunned down rather indiscriminately, Leone dwells on the effects of it in Once Upon a Time in the West as evident in the scene where Jill arrives at her new family’s ranch only to see their dead bodies laid out. Leone lets the scene breathe, lingering on Jill’s reaction as she takes it all in. Claudia Cardinale’s acting in this scene is impressive as she has to rely on her expressive face to convey Jill’s emotions. As a result, we empathize with her and care about what happens to Jill throughout the film. We are invested in her plight.
Jill is the heart and soul of Once Upon a Time in the West – quite a significant development for Leone as all of his previous films featured male protagonists. She manages to not only survive in the harsh environment of the west but also navigates the treacherous waters of a male-dominated society. Cardinale instills Jill with a formidable inner strength and a strong will that allows her to endure evil men like Frank and gain the respect of men like Cheyenne and Harmonica. The actress does an excellent job of conveying the arc of her character as Jill goes from widow to savvy businesswoman.
The most underrated performance in the film is that of Jason Robards as the ne’er-do-well bandit Cheyenne. Initially, he seems to be out for himself but he does have a code that he follows – he doesn’t kill children – and this absolves him of the death of Jill’s family. Robards has a memorable moment with Cardinale in a scene between their characters where Cheyenne says to Jill, “You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was – for an hour or for a month – he must have been a happy man.” There’s a bit of the lovable rogue in this character as evident in the impish way he takes out three of Morton’s henchmen on the man’s train that is as clever as it is deadly (I also love how he calls Morton, “Mr. Choo-Choo.”).
Perhaps the biggest revelation is Henry Fonda’s performance. Known mostly for playing moral, upstanding men in films up to that point, he plays an irredeemable killer that has no problem gunning down women and children. It is all in those piercing, cold blue eyes of his, which Leone captures in close-ups to chilling effect. Frank is at his creepiest when he rapes Jill, speaking to her seductive tones as he toys with keeping her alive. He plays the dastardly villain that you can wait to see get his comeuppance.
Watching Once Upon a Time in the West again was a potent reminder of how good an actor Charles Bronson was in the right role. Much like contemporary Clint Eastwood, he had a limited range but knew how to work within it. Harmonica speaks little in the film but doesn’t have to because he works best as an enigmatic figure. For most of the film we don’t know why he wants to kill Frank except for some past offence that gradually comes into focus as the film progresses until all is revealed during the climactic showdown. Harmonica’s storyline represents the repercussions of violence for he is the living embodiment of karma as he reminds Frank of all the people he’s killed over the years. He’s the one time that Frank let someone live – a mistake he didn’t make again – and it has come back to haunt him.
They say that the eyes are the window to the soul and Leone certainly understands this with the many close-ups he has of actors’ faces, lingering on their expressions, from weathered hired guns to the fresh face of a beautiful widow, and, most significantly, the ways to convey what their characters are feeling.
If Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica represent the old way of doing things – through violence and intimidation – then Jill represents the new way – building something from nothing through an honest day’s work. There is an important exchange between Frank and Morton that illustrates the transition from the old way of doing things to the new as the tycoon says, “How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?” The gunslinger replies, “It’s almost like holding a gun. Only much more powerful.” This scene shows that Frank is self-aware; he knows that his way of dealing with problems is on its way out and that big business, as represented by men like Morton, are the future.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a more somber film than The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, which is a triumphant celebration of the western, while the former is a eulogy of the genre. With it, Leone took it as far as he could. By showing the end of the Wild West, of a certain way of life led by men like Cheyenne, Frank and Harmonica, the filmmaker was saying goodbye to the genre. If those three men represent “something to do with death,” as Cheyenne pufgvcvfts it, then Jill represents life and so it is rather fitting that the film ends with her giving the men working on her station water, providing them with sustenance so that they can continue building a soon to be thriving town out in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, Once Upon a Time in the West wasn’t Leone’s last western as he went on to direct Duck, You Sucker! (1971), a fine film in its own right, but after the masterpiece that was the previous effort, it feels a tad unnecessary. Leone would finally make his last film, the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, where he did for that genre what he did for the western – make it completely his own in a way that feels like a personal, artistic statement.