ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (C’ERA UNA VOLTA IL WEST)
(director/writer: Sergio Leone; screenwriters: Sergio Donati/story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone; cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli; editor: Nino Baragli; music: Ennio Morricone; cast: Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Henry Fonda (Frank), Jason Robards (Cheyenne), Charles Bronson (“Harmonica”), Gabriele Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Woody Strode (Stony), Jack Elam (Snaky), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Lionel Stander (Barman); Runtime: 165; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Fulvio Morsella; Paramount Pictures; 1968)
“Leone shows his skills with superb mastery over the medium.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Epic, operatic western directed with visual splash, with filming at Italy’s Cinecitta Studios and on location in Spain and on location in John Ford’s Arizona based Monument Valley. Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone (“A Fistful of Dollars”/”For a Few Dollars More”/”The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”) uses familiar themes from many other classic westerns including Johnny Guitar, The Iron Horse, the Big Trail, Shane, and High Noon. It combines a revenge tale with the building of the west into a civilized society run by businessmen, when capitalism began to play a more important part in the west’s growth than did guns or folk heroes. It’s noted for Henry Fonda’s against type sadistic villain performance, for the haunting score by Ennio Morricone, its dance of death scenario, its stylized slow moving shootouts, Charles Bronson doing his best Clint Eastwood ‘man with no name’ imitation, for the eye-candy role of the vulnerable New Orleans bordello beauty played by Claudia Cardinale arriving as an outsider in the Arizona desert to start a new life as a bride with a ready made wealthy family and for Jason Robard’s role as the romantic but doomed criminal.Many critics consider it to be one of the better westerns, as Leone shows his skills with superb mastery over the medium even if the pic has questionable values in the way it exploits the Hollywood western gunplay.
In the 1870s, in dusty Flagstone, Arizona, four figures intermingle and do battle over barren desert land with water rights that’s a perfect spot to build a railroad town in the frontier and get wealthy. Frank (Henry Fonda) is a cold-blooded killer-for-hire, employed by tubercular crippled ruthless railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) to get the land from the rancher Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), who had the foresight to know where the railroad was laying its tracks when he bought what was thought a useless piece of property for farming. The Irisman’s bride from New Orleans is arriving by train. But Frank aims to get the land by killing the McBains, which includes killing his teen daughter and young boy. After killing all three Frank plants part of the duster belonging to a half-breed criminal named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) at the crime scene. Frank also sends to the railroad station some of his boys, Snaky (Jack Elam), Stony (Woody Strode) and another, to gun down Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) but are instead gunned down by a harmonica playing mystery man (Charles Bronson) gunslinger. When outlaw Cheyenne escapes from the law after falsely accused of killing the McBains, he teams up with the mystery harmonica man to go after Frank and his slimy dying boss.
There’s a long build-up to the final shoot-out between Fonda and Bronson, and at that time we learn why Bronson is stalking Fonda and the significance of the harmonica. The film’s only real survivor is Cardinale, who inherited the valuable land and plans to go from whore to wealthy entrepreneur–living the American Dream.
The story was conceived by Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. Leone co-writes it with Sergio Donati. Producers upon its American release cut it 25 minutes, making it incoherent and subject to bad reviews. It opened in Europe at its intended length and had great success. Fifteen years later it was restored to full length in America and became a much applauded film.
REVIEWED ON 8/20/2012 GRADE: A-