Movie Classics – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

The spaghetti western took an artful turn for Sergio Leone’s slow-burning, but epic, departure from the Eastwood years

No sooner had Sergio Leone defined the western genre with the Dollars Trilogy, he mounted his horse and set off in a new direction. Not that he abandoned his home turf altogether – Once Upon a Time in the West is a hard-baked spaghetti western. But he ditched Clint Eastwood’s cheroot-chewin’ hero for an altogether more complex character set.

Where A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly had been fast-paced and fast talking, Once Upon a Time was a silent sulk of a movie. The opening sequence is one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history, filled with invisible tension. We say invisible because although Leone’s cinematographic skills are on full display, it’s Ennio Morricone’s drip-fed soundtrack and the insistent squeak of a wind pump that do the real work.

Soon enough, out come the guns, out come the witty lines and out comes a man called Harmonica (Charles Bronson), a character with his own menacing theme tune. (Eastwood had turned down the role, though purists should note that it was Bronson who’d originally declined to play the Man With No Name in Fistful.)

In fact, Leone's original plan for the opening was to have the stars of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach – playing the three bandits gunned down by Harmonica in the opening sequence, in a symbolic farewell to the Dollars trilogy. 

The star of the show, make no mistake, is Henry Fonda – taking on a rare villainous role. Frank’s a hired gun who empties his bullets into the McBain family, leaving the devastated (and devastatingly attractive) McBain widow (Claudia Cardinale) to sort out the mess. Harmonica, on the trail of Frank, befriends the girl and the plot grinds into land politics and the most drawn-out game of cat-and-mouse ever committed to celluloid.

If that sounds like a thrilling rollercoaster of a plot, consider this: Once Upon a Time in the West is two and a half hours long, and for much of that runtime, little happens. But it’s exactly this slow-burning style that gives the film its dry, gritty edge. For a reference point, the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men is a studied homage to its tense, thrilling lack of pace. Don’t knock it (either of them, actually) until you’ve tried it.

Of course, for years we couldn’t really appreciate Leone’s lingering shots of scorched earth and plodding steam locomotives. But with Once Upon a Time released on Blu-ray this year, there’s nothing but a quick shopping trip between you and a few hours of jaw-dropping cinematic indulgence.

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