"How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants..."
Upon first viewing Sergio Leone's masterpiece, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I couldn't help but think to myself, "This is the epitome of the western. It can get no better than this." Leone's unique, European-tinted vision of the American West was so fascinatingly realized that I couldn't imagine it ever being surpassed. And it is perhaps the greatest testament to Leone's genius that he did actually surpass it--although that may be open to argument.
For as sublime and transcendent as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is, I am now of the opinion that Leone actually outdid himself just a couple of years later with that magnum opus of the spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West. For whatever reason, it gets a lot less attention than its predecessor (perhaps owing to the lack of Clint Eastwood), and it deserves a lot more recognition. TGTBATU may be quite the tough act to follow, but it is my opinion that Once Upon a Time in the West not only follows it with style, but actually overshadows it in terms of quality.
Ennio Morricone's score is just as iconic, if not more so, washing over the film and commanding the viewer's attention. It literally merges with the narrative in a way that happens in very few films. Whether it's Frank's jaw-dropping theme of villainy, the happy-go-lucky Cheyenne motif, or the unforgettable Harmonica riff, this is movie music at its finest. It may not have produced the big hit that TGTBATU main theme became, but no matter. This is music worth listening to and savoring, even without the accompanying images.
Joined with the images, we get a visual feast realized in a way few films ever are. Leone's brilliant cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli, who had previously outdone himself on TGTBATU, once again triumphs, with spellbinding shot after spellbinding shot. For those who thought John Ford was the high watermark of the Western, this is material to give one pause and force a reconsideration. So many of these shots have been mimiced so many times by inferior filmmakers that it's easy for their power to be lost. But this is the kind of movie that requires viewer sto strip all preconceived notions and thoroughly immerse themselves in the experience.
Charles Bronson is no Eastwood, but the majesty and quiet, almost native nobility he brings to the role of Harmonica thoroughly grounds the film. He is truly a classic Western hero, and one only wonders what would have happened if Clint had actually accepted the role, as Leone wanted him to. I happen to believe, that as great as Eastwood was, Once Upon a Time in the West benefits from the new blood. Eastwood's Man With No Name had run its course.
Then we have Henry Fonda, whom Leone specifically chose in order to achieve the jarring juxtaposition of having one of cinema's most beloved figures playing a deeply evil, despicable character. In an interview once, Leone stated clearly that when Fonda's blue-eyed visage first appears on screen, staring down a little boy he's about to murder, he wanted his audience to mutter to themselves, "Holy shit! That's Henry Fonda!" And that was indeed my reaction, having been so trained to believe in the pathos of Fonda's screen presence. Nevertheless, he manages to turn Frank into one of the most enjoyable screen baddies of all time.
Jason Robards excels as the very memorable Cheyenne, an amoral outlaw with a heart of gold who gets caught in the middle of the epic conflict. The gorgeous Claudia Cardinale is far more than just eye candy, once again adding a unique Mediterranean flavor to one of the Western's most tried and true tropes, that of the beautiful widow with a coveted inheritance. Together, the film's four leads form an ensemble which, for my money, is more effective than that of any Leone western.
To watch Once Upon a Time in the West is to experience all that the cinematic medium is capable of, in pure, distilled form. The script, spare as always in dialogue, nevertheless crackles along with kinetic energy, and boasts one of the single most gripping opening scenes in movie history--with barely a single word uttered. This is the kind of scene that film students should be required to watch in order to understand the power that can be achieved without having to rely primarily on language. Leone and his collaborators understand that they are working in the genre of another country and language, and so choose--very effectively--to work visually, first and foremost. And we get to enjoy the fruits of that effort, which is one of the great pleasures of film.
It's almost as if Leone had learned so much about making Westerns via his previous trilogy, which began with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, that he felt the need to put all of those lessons to their best use by making one massive, stand-alone film that would synthesize everything good about the previous three, and take it to whole other level of greatness. And that is what he does, transforming the American West into a mythic place beyond any historical reality.
There are those who will always prefer The Good, The Bad and the Ugly to Once Upon a Time in the West. The former is certainly the more well-known. But I will contend that most who have actually seen and digested both of those films will side with me that the later, more underrated of the two is actually superior. I invite those who may not have seen Once Upon a Time in the West to give it a chance and decide for themselves.
The Western is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of American moviemaking, and it's quite ironic that it's greatest examples have come not from America itself, but from Italy. With an objective eye that came not from within the nation itself, but rather from an entirely different milieu, Sergio Leone was able to elevate the Western into something previously unimaginable. It's very fitting that the film's title seems like something out of a fairy tale--for Once Upon a Time in the West is more than just a period film. It is quite literally history transformed into legend. It is majestic; it is archetypal; it is absolutely glorious.
NEXT UP: The Godfather (1972)