The opening scene to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time is a masterclass in patience and building tension. To shoot it, Leone had to overcome a unique problem: how to render boredom cinematic. The sequence features three men waiting for a train in a sleepy western town. We do not know why they are waiting, but we suspect that their intentions are malevolent, as Leone makes a point of showing us that they are all armed, a literal manifestation of the Chekhov’s gun principle. Ambient noise from the station and a nearby rocking chair takes on a haunting quality as the scene plays out in real time, showing us every painful second of their wait, building anticipation to a fever pitch. Yet while the audience might be languishing in expectancy or dread, the characters themselves seem rather spiritless, and look for whatever banal way they can to occupy themselves. To Leone’s camera, which both adopts their point of view and turns it at them, a leaking ceiling becomes of tantamount importance, each drip of water feeling cacophonous against the eerie silence of the scene. We see the gunmen play with everything from the water in a feeding trough to an irritating fly. Not a word is exchanged between them for most of this scene. Finally, after almost six agonizing minutes of waiting, the train begins to pull in. Leone once again takes his time, milking every second of the train’s slow grinding to a halt. Just as slowly, it departs, and three ghostly notes on a harmonica play as a new arrival is revealed – a lone figure with a low-brimmed hat, holding the aforementioned instrument. Some threatening dialogue is exchanged, and then the shooting begins. The gunfight is over in less than two seconds.
One would be forgiven for assuming, based on this opening, that Leone was aiming for some sort of restrained naturalism when making Once Upon a Time in the West. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Leone was, first and foremost, a stylist, most well-remembered for his spaghetti westerns, which rejected the righteous moralizing of John Ford’s work in the genre in favor of aesthetic and sonic experimentation. Here he perfects the formula that he developed in his Dollars trilogy, ending his Western work with one of the most ambitious projects of his career. Once Upon a Time cannot simply be regarded as an unofficial fourth entry in his previous trilogy, however, as it marks a drastic tonal departure from the tongue-in-cheek attitude of those films, favoring instead a darker thematic undertone that gives it a sense of emotional realism that his previous works choose not to explore in much depth.
In the Man With No Name films, misery is simply part of the backdrop against which the films are set. Characters suffer so that they can be saved from their suffering, or so that we might have a tangible reason to hate the villain, and Clint Eastwood’s protagonist always remains pointedly detached from these emotions. In Once Upon a Time, this sense of anguish is the driving force of the plot. The protagonist, Harmonica (Charles Bronson,) isn’t just some aimless wandering hero. He has a personal stake in the events taking place, as well as a connection to the villain. There’s more humanity to the characters here, which doesn’t automatically make for a better film, but here it invests us in the emotional arcs in the characters rather than simply inviting us to superficially celebrate their triumphs.
Even more impressive is the balancing act that Leone performs between the real and the mythic, especially with regards to the west. After all, what is the American west if not the mythology, for better and for worse, of the founding of America? The characters in Once Upon a Type in the West aren’t real people; they’re centuries-old fictional archetypes. Harmonica is, of course, the wandering, mysterious drifter, as well as the wronged hero thirsting for revenge. The villain, Frank (Henry Fonda) is a mercurial, ruthless murderer for whom death is both business and pleasure. The victim (for all such heroic narratives seem obligated to have one) is Jill McBain, a comely young woman whose entire family Frank murders and who struggles to maintain her family’s homestead in the wake of this tragedy. Gabriele Ferzetti plays Mr. Morton, a local railroad tycoon who seeks to buy her land, or coerce it out of her if necessary (a more recent archetype in heroic fiction, which in recent years has sometimes set the rugged individualism of classical heroism with the corporate collectivism of late capitalism.) Rounding out the cast is Jason Robards as Cheyenne, the bandit with a heart of gold, who eventually decides to help Jill hold on to her land. It doesn’t take a storytelling expert to recognize these figures; we’ve seen them all in different mediums a thousand times over. But Leone understands that it takes more than a popular formula to speak to an audience; it has to at least feel distinct, which is why Leone gives it such a heavy infusion of style, helped, of course, by the inimitable Enio Morricone, who composed one of his finest scores for the film.
Of all the characters in this film, the most memorable is easily Frank, if only because of the unusual casting choice of Henry Fonda. At the time when Once Upon a Time was made, you could not find a more likable actor than Fonda (think Tom Hanks today.) The characters he played were kind, gentle, and virtuous. To see him play a character as devoid of moral fiber as Frank is simply shocking. What’s more, Leone clearly knows this. The scene where he massacres Jill’s family deliberately hides his face until the very end, playing the reveal of Fonda in the role for shock value. It’s another brilliant example of how Leone excels at building tension and introducing his characters in suitably inventive ways. We meet Frank first not as a man, but as a gun, the tool he so gleefully dispenses death with. Only when he stares down the only survivor of the slaughter, a young boy, does the camera pan up to reveal one of Hollywood’s friendliest faces, its affable smile made sinister by its context. Then, without a hint of remorse, he finishes the job.
Moments like this wouldn’t be possible if, like most modern-day action directors, Leone was constantly in a rush to get to the next action sequences. But Leone wisely takes his time, letting the audience drink up every moment. The film is almost three hours in length despite its fairly insubstantial plot, and it’s all the better for it. What would otherwise be short scenes of dialogue are stretched out due to the characters’ proclivity to pause in between sentences to glare at one another and size each other up. Dramatic moments and reveals take place wordlessly, with Morricone’s score kicking in and the action halting so that the music can build up the tension unhindered. It’s a style that may be too slow for some, but it can be incredibly rewarding for those patient enough to stop and marvel at the sheer craft that goes into every shot and every movement. In Leone’s world, everything in the frame feels deliberately put there, and the slow pace at which he tells his story let us appreciate that more fully.
This is most evident in his famous shootouts, which here rank among his best. The scene where Cheyenne picks off Morton’s men on a moving train is a lot of fun, but of even greater note are the tense standoffs featuring Harmonica, usually featuring the same amount of shots fired as there are participants. Those looking for pulse-pounding, adrenaline-fueled action would best be served looking elsewhere. Leone chooses to once again use his talents at drawing out tension from a scene, emphasizing the stare-down leading up to the shootout rather than the shootout itself, having the latter act as the defusion of the tension that the rest of the scene has been slowly building up. For most of these scenes, the characters don’t even hold guns, choosing instead to size one another up, the camera getting right in their faces and cutting in between them with increasing speed as Morricone’s score amps up. While my favorite example of this will always be the climactic showdown in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, this film is bookended by two worthy runner-ups that deserve praise in their own right.
The film culminates in a shocking, satisfying revelation that lays bare the mystery surrounding Harmonica’s past. The film’s ending makes one realize how brilliantly Leone set up the reveal, placing subtle set-ups that pay off brilliantly. Leone also uses Bronson’s one-note performance to brilliant effect, demanding little of him to allow the viewer to wonder what is going on behind his piercing gaze. The harmonica itself does most of the heavy lifting, adding a much-needed air of mystery to the character.
I’ve given Leone a great deal of praise throughout this review, and it’s well-deserved. Yet Once Upon a Time in the West also succeeds because of the brilliant creative team that he assembled. His cast, as I’ve mentioned, is excellent, as is Morricone, whose name always seems to come up when Leone’s films are discussed. The screenplay is also the best in his filmography, thanks to screenwriter Sergio Donati, which gives the dialogue that lethal, sharp, stutter-free quality that typifies the best Hollywood films. Even the story itself has a jaw-dropping pedigree, with legendary Italian filmmakers Bernardo Bertollucci and Dario Argento both making contributions. It is a film where every member of the production is perfectly suited to their task, making for a film that is sonically, aesthetically, and narratively near-perfect.