The Great Movies – The 100 Years of Film book returns me to the western genre with this Sergio Leone epic that stars Jason Robards, Chalres Bronson, Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale.
Playing against type, Fonda is the villain, Frank, who is working for the railroad, and trying to drive a woman, Jill McBain (Cardinale), off her land, after she discovers her entire family slaughtered upon arriving in town.
She is joined by Cheyenne (Robards), who is the prime suspect in her family’s murder and wants vengeance for it, as well as Harmonica (Bronson) who has a mission of his own.
All three men have a connection to Mrs. McBain, who has a secret of her own, and they’ll all use her in their own ways.
The story, admittedly is very basic, the land grab, the railroad, the revenge tale, the fallen woman, the taciturn anti-hero, it’s all been done before, but it’s not the story that drives this film, it’s Ennio Morricone’s score, it’s the iconic imagery, and the moments.
Fonda’s first appearance as Frank in the film is brilliant, it shows us a face we know and recognise, even respect, and then he murders in cold blood. Stunning.
Sprawling over it’s two hours and forty minute runtime, one could complain that the film is too slow, but the camera moves, the close-ups, the character beats, the music, it just makes for an engaging experience.
Now, I don’t feel this film is anywhere near the calibre of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, those are films I love to revisit. Once Upon a Time in the West, however is one I can watch and say, one and done. It’s a solid film, but for me, it doesn’t have a re-watchability that the Dollars films did.
Leone paces the film out, and it never quite reaches the level of a boil, there are some great moments to it, and it’s bookended with two fantastic showdowns, both of them featuring Bronson’s character.
All of the actors seem perfectly at ease in this film, settling into the costumes and sets, all of which have a lived in look. The reveal of the late McBain’s plans for the land is nice, and seeing Jill, Cheyenne and Harmonica coming together in their own way to follow through on it, all of it for their own reasons, is very well done.
But through it all, the thing that truly stood out for me is Morricone’s score. It’s haunting, lovely, and powerful, eliciting beauty, loneliness and violence. It’s easy to see why his work has influenced so many other composers, and served as inspiration to so many artists from all walks of life. This, along side his score for The Thing, may be my favourite works by him.
It’s a classic western, settle in, get comfy, and draw!