Sergio Leone begins his masterpiece by making us wait for a train. Like commuters on the delayed 07:45 to London Bridge, not a word is spoken between those waiting as they sit by a railroad that stretches out to infinity. The creaking of a chair, the squeaky windmill, the clattering of the tickertape, all these things serve to create a kind of unnatural hyper-silence as the director stretches the scene out beyond breaking point. Three gunmen are waiting for another man to get off the train. At first it seems he isn’t on it after all, but he’s jumped off the other side, alerting them and us to his presence by sucking plaintively on a harmonica, a sound that reverberates far too much given we’re in a desert.
“Did you bring a horse for me?”
“Looks like we’re shy one horse.”
“You brought two too many.”
What better way to make a film about the death of the Old American West, and the death of the American Western, than to not even make it in America? Add to that Henry Fonda (Tom Joad, the man in the white suit, the Hollywood embodiment of truth, justice and the American way) gunning down a family of farmers in cold blood and you have one of the boldest, most bombastic films of the sixties. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is an unapologetic Marxist saga of capitalist exploitation and the battle over natural resources in the rapidly changing West (throughout the film, water is a recurring visual motif). It’s hard to now imagine the impact Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns must have had on an audience raised on a diet of Johns Ford and Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.
The plot matters little here, its main focus is not explained until the 90 minute mark, but all the other ingredients are exemplary: Ennio Morricone’s operatic soundtrack combined with Tonino Delli Colli’s iconic cinematography. As one blogger puts it: “Has anyone ever photographed sunlight to such powerful effect as Delli Colli? Even the shadows appear scorching.” His camera dances with the stunning Claudia Cardinale as she gives her greatest performance, even if her musical theme is now unfortunately reminiscent of ‘Save Your Love’ by Renée and Renato. Fonda, as the villainous Frank riding around the old West in his fully customised “Train of Crime”, subverts his good guy persona effortlessly, whilst Charles Bronson does an impressive amount of squinting. The whole experience is strangely hypnotic and its two and a half hour running time flies by every time.
Leone had perfected the formula begun with his “Dollars” trilogy: stylised and melodramatic, yes, his characers are often literally archetypes in that they don’t have histories or, of course, even names, but the films unfold like games of chess with the music and the visuals central to the action, to the point where Leone would sometimes shoot scenes with the soundtrack playing in the background. He subverts some of his older clichés here, notably with Cardinale’s young widow providing the moral backbone of the film as a rare strong female character for a Leone Western, and Bronson’s “Harmonica” getting a brief but memorable origin scene (if not an actual name) which is perhaps the ultimate distillation of Leone’s method. At this time Leone was actually eager to move on to his next project ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, which would eventually see the light of day in 1984, but the studio wanted to capitalise on the success of his previous Westerns. He borrowed the title of his work in progress and agreed to “one last job”, no doubt bearing in mind Fonda’s infamous words:
Keep your lovin’ brother happy.