Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

The beautiful thing about Once Upon a Time in the West is, in fact, it’s beauty. It’s a fairly simple story, not much density to it. It’s not a very meaty plot, shall we say. Then again, not many Westerns are or ever were. It’s the execution that’s key, and here there’s expert execution in spades!

The opening sequence stands alone as a brilliant moment in cinema, perfectly timed and wonderfully executed. With barely any dialogue, the scene is one to remember with simple but effective body language, and quirky facial expressions.

When Claudia Cardinale first realizes she’s alone at the train station, and the score picks up, I was really pleasantly surprised. I never expected something quite so operatic in a Western. At times, some Westerns are known to have some classical undertones to their scores, this is true, however I’m more used to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly type Western music. This was utterly beautiful.

The film is set against these breathtaking, sweeping landscapes of the Wild West that really steal the whole show. Digital remastering really serves the movie well, as everything comes out crystal clear, the sky the brightest blue and the desert sand a stunning earthy red.

In a movie like this the moments of silence are just as significant, if not more, than the moments filled with dialogue. Westerns are about long lingering stares, twitching fingers above the holster of a gun, and the clinking of spurs across the ground. It’s atmospheric. Once Upon a Time masters the art of atmosphere, keeping you engaged and mesmerized from start to finish, in spite of it’s lengthy run time of nearly three hours.

Claudia Cardinale, an absolute stunner, stunned me with her performance. She’s beautiful, truly, but she doesn’t rely on her beauty to carry her performance. She has an intensity and a power in her gaze that really surprised me. I was prepared for another Kim Novak experience.

The art directly clearly makes the film, as it’s a simple story brilliantly executed. Jason Robards as Cheyenne starts off as the dirty, rotten, scoundrel, and steadily seems to transform into the gruff anti-hero you want to win at the end of the day. There’s an element of compassion to him, a wizened, paternalistic figure, in a way.

The man of few words, Harmonica, is played with a kind of stoic genius by a steely eyed Charles Bronson. His is a timeless story of revenge, simple in its construction but perfectly played.

Sergio Leoni undoubtedly created a stunning masterpiece. Hands down it’s the best Western I’ve ever seen (considering, of course, I’ve not seen many to begin with), and is perhaps the first traditional Western I’ve seen where the length and pace were perfectly timed. Normally, Westerns are as long and slow as the West itself was expansive and sprawling. At two hours and forty minutes you’d expect this sprawling masterpiece to be the same. Alas, no such thing can be said of it. Long, most definitely. Slow, at times. However, the moments of long-held pauses and silent action are so well acted and filmed that you find yourself forgetting no one’s talking.

This, in my eyes, is one of the marks of a truly great film: where even the silence is expository, and the performances are so good you find yourself with an in depth character study in spite of the lack of dialogue. Not only do the performances speak for themselves, but the location and cinematography are absolutely legendary. In a time when Westerns were starting to go the way of the Do-Do, this film captivates and moves.

This post was originally published on my tumblr on September 8, 2011.