Once Upon a Time in the West

Movie Review #806: Sergio Leone’s knack for beautiful cinematography and building rich atmospheres remains as potent as ever.

★★★½
By Red Stewart
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Action, Mystery, Western
Rated PG-13 (contains violence, mild sexual content)
175 minutes

I suppose after he was done making his Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone wanted to craft something more so in the opposite direction of what he had built his career on. While his collaborations with Clint Eastwood had been fast-paced with plenty of shootouts, “Once Upon a Time in the West” relies on a much slower buildup, with few shots fired between the heroes and villains. The result is proof that Leone has mastery over both sides of the spectrum.

The story follows the murder of a landowner and his family by a ruthless gunman named Frank (Henry Fonda) hired by a railroad tycoon with the intention of obtaining the landowner’s profitable property, called Sweetwater. Unbeknownst to both of them, the landowner had married an out-of-town girl (Claudia Cardinale) a month ago, who has just arrived to meet with him, thereby making her the sole proprietor. At the same time, a mysterious harmonica-playing sharpshooter (Charles Bronson) also appears with a hidden agenda against Frank. The two narratives collide in a stylistic way only Leone could create, with Leone’s frequent collaborator Ennio Morricone composing yet another brilliant score of haunting high and low pitches. While the plot is good, it does suffer time to time from parts that drag on for what seems like forever. Building up a tense atmosphere is one thing, but spending practically a minute showing an outlaw trying to blow a fly off his face or Cardinale searching around her house is another.

Leone’s cast is perhaps the biggest surprise “Once Upon a Time” brings to the western genre. Henry Fonda, known for playing the good guy in films like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “12 Angry Men”, is really effective as the sociopathic Frank; his blue eyes bringing out the icy coldness in the character as Leone supposedly described. Bronson does an admirable job as well, playing the almost polar opposite of Fonda’s antagonist, whilst still keeping that cool exterior of a ticking time bomb. Supporting him is Jason Robards as Cheyenne, a bandit whom Frank frames for his murders. While Robards doesn’t bring anything special to the table, his charisma does add some necessary dry humor to otherwise tense situations. To be honest, Cardinale was the only star who disappointed me in this film. I found her to be too emotionless in the scenes that required her to be anything but angry, and she’s only given a few good moments to release her passive rage.

If you’re familiar with Leone’s work, or the western genre in general, then you’ll find “Once Upon a Time in the West” to be a classic that takes its time slowly creating the intricate moods that make up the tense setting of Sweetwater. Note, however, that it does drag in parts and Claudia Cardinale is, in my opinion, not up to par with the rest of the cast, despite getting first billing. ✴

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