Sergio Leone never met a portentous entrance he didn’t like. The simple act of walking into a frame was fraught with import, usually heralded by a bombastic theme—an electric twang, a taunting harmonica. Bordering on self-parody, such moments nonetheless demand our serious attention. Leone may been among the most self-reflexive of directors, but he also wanted us to genuflect before the myths up there in front of us.
In Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone conjures up the mother of all entrances. Three men wait wordlessly at a dilapidated train station. It’s hot, dusty, and quiet, save for the creaking of a windmill, the clatter of a telegraph, and the buzzing of a well-directed fly. At the 10-minute mark, a train rolls in. The three men stand at attention, their wait seemingly at an end. But no one gets off the train. After a minute, it pulls away. The three, puzzled, slowly turn to leave. Then, a harmonica’s wail freezes them. On the other side of the tracks stands their man. They look him over coolly, hands over holsters. “Looks like we’re shy one horse,” snarls one. A pause. “You brought two too many,” the man says—a retort that doubles as their last rite.
So far, so cool. An overheated medley of close-ups and landscapes, ominous cuts and laconic humor, the absurdly distended opening plays like an overture for a strange, languid symphony. Leone’s Olympian opus is a mess of contradictions. Epic and arty, it’s nonetheless steeped in the trashy and disreputable. Pauline Kael called Leone’s singular brand of kitsch in Once Upon a Time in America “poetry for the masses,” and that aestheticized populism is what he achieves here too.
Those impossibly tight close-ups evoke nothing so much as a child’s first gaze at the spellbinding heroes on the big screen. And indeed, Leone has cinema in his blood. He was born into a family of film artists: his father, Vincenzo Leone (a.k.a. Roberto Roberti), was a leading director in the Italian film industry, while his mother, Francesca Bertini, was an internationally known silent film actress who appeared in the first Italian western, The Indian Vampire (1914). A childhood around film sets was followed by apprenticeships in the Italian industry and Hollywood sword-and-sandal spectacles such as Quo Vadis? (1951) and Ben Hur (1959).
His directing debut, the peplum The Colossus of Rhodes (1960), is by all accounts unremarkable. For his second movie, Leone turned to a genre on the decline and a little-known American television actor named Clint Eastwood. A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a brutal, taciturn reconfiguration of the western, became a surprise hit. Hardly the first spaghetti western, Leone’s was the first to achieve international success, and, along with its companion films For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, revitalized the moribund form.
Coming at the end of that cycle and at the peak of Leone’s bankability, Once Upon a Time in the West has the heft of finality. The subject is the death of the Wild West and the coming of civilization: the birth of America. But for Leone, such themes are merely the backdrop for his personal obsessions. A hallucinatory compendium of familiar gestures and tropes—the stranger seeking revenge, the town on the threshold of nowhere, the whore with a heart of gold—Once Upon a Time in the West is a western about the western, a movie whose raw material is cinema itself. It’s not for nothing that Jean Baudrillard called Sergio Leone the first postmodern director.
The man who arrives on the train has, of course, no name. Setting foot in Flagstone, the westernmost stop on the railroad’s route, the gunslinger (Charles Bronson) has come for a villain named Frank. At a wayside saloon, he encounters Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an escaped bandit with a worldly frown who takes to calling him “Harmonica.” Meanwhile, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a New Orleans whore who just married a local man named McBain, arrives to find her new family dead, leaving her in possession of Sweetwater, her husband’s ranch in the middle of the desert.
Like his other spaghetti westerns, Leone shot much of Once Upon a Time in the West in Spain and Italy. For the first time, however, he filmed scenes in the American West as well. The inclusion here of Monument Valley, with its towering mesas and Fordian echoes, only deepens the movie’s elegiac tone. The railroad has begun its slow creep westward, and the first buds of community have begun sprouting on the edges of wilderness. At once expanding the frontier and accelerating its diminution, the railroad is the movie’s central metaphor and the hinge on which the plot turns.
The cold-blooded Frank is Leone’s wickedest joke. Our first glimpse comes after he and his posse murder McBain and his children: the camera tracks around his shoulder and, instead of a vicious killer, we see Henry Fonda’s face. By casting an actor who personified probity and decency, Leone gives his movie a frisson of the forbidden. The shock soon wears thin, however. As brave as Fonda’s decision to play against type might have been, he’s too burdened by a legacy of rectitude and a voice reeking of humility to embody a mythic baddie.
Using his inexpressive face to full effect, Bronson plays iconic better. It helps that Leone keeps the words to a minimum. With a reputed 15 pages of dialogue spread out over 165 minutes, the only thing lean about the movie is the script. (And even the pedigree for that is imposing: the story credit is shared by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento.) Infinitely quotable despite its lightness, the screenplay successfully conflates the hoary revenge plot with the narrative of westward expansion. The ritualistic duel that settles the cosmic score between Harmonica and Frank coincides with the railroad tracks’ arrival at the doorstep of Sweetwater—which, by movie’s end, emerges as civilization’s newest outpost.
Like John Wayne’s loners in Ford’s late westerns, men like Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank do not belong in the encroaching present: they’re doomed to be swallowed up by progress. The singular figure that Harmonica cuts throughout the movie contrasts sharply with the closing shots of the masses of workers, all smaller than life, who have come to build the railroad. In the movie theater, those overwhelming close-ups of Leone’s heroes and villains border on oppressive. (The crags on their faces are the closest the movie comes to nuance.) While hardly anything is lost in the translation to DVD, the full impact of Tonino Delli Colli’s ‘Scope framing is undoubtedly muffled on the small screen.
Thankfully, Paramount’s special edition compensates nicely for the downscaling. Restoring some 20 minutes of footage that had been chopped from the initial U.S. release, the DVD boasts a pristine picture and a new Dolby mix that accentuates Leone’s brilliant sound design and Ennio Morricone’s sweeping score (written, amazingly, before Leone shot the movie). The extras are no less generous. Disc one contains a commentary track with contributions from Bertolucci, Cardinale, John Milius, Alex Cox, and John Carpenter. While their comments skew more toward the anecdotal and personal, film historians Dr. Sheldon Hall and Sir Christopher Frayling (the latter the author of the first Leone biography) offer more meat, dominating the commentary with critical insights and a roll call of westerns that Leone references throughout the movie.
The second disc features the usual assemblage of old-school trailers, production galleries and cast profiles. The centerpiece is a documentary that runs just over an hour. Split into three parts—“An Opera of Violence,” “The Wages of Sin,” and “Something to Do With Death” (which, incidentally, is the title of Frayling’s book)—it features conversations with the above commentators, as well as Delli Colli and Gabriele Ferzetti, one of the movie’s stars. If Leone and his movie were taken less than seriously during his time, these reverent and perceptive interviews affirm that their critical standing has undergone a correction.
Highbrow apathy notwithstanding, Leone’s movies left an indelible imprint on moviegoers. By the time of Once Upon a Time in the West‘s release, Leone’s hyperbolic style had become embedded in the genre’s genetic code—remarkable considering it was only his fourth western. There is no question that his was a limited palette, comprised only of broad brushstrokes, bold colors, and swelling crescendos. Behind those grand flourishes, however, was an obsessiveness that gave his movies their soul. Once Upon a Time in the West nearly succumbs to elephantiasis, but its depth of feeling ultimately rescues it.
Shot through with romance and nostalgia, Once Upon a Time in the West is intoxicating in its shamelessness. Spinning something distinctly personal out of our collective reveries, it’s an imposing monument to Leone’s childhood fixations. The key to the movie is the title. A hubristic declaration of ambition, it also suggests the innocent remembrance of the fairy tales and fantasies of youth. That naïveté undercuts the arrogance of a movie that dares to supplant its hallowed forebears. Both a eulogy and resurrection, this is the western as Leone remembers it—that is, the western as it never existed, drawn partly from memory, but mostly from dreams.