Once Upon a Time in the West at 50

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<i>Once Upon a Time in the West</i> at 50

“Several great directors of Westerns came from Europe: Ford is Irish, Zinnemann Austrian, Wyler is from Alsace; Tourneur, French. I don’t see why an Italian should not be added to the bunch.” —Sergio Leone, quoted in his biography Once Upon a Time in Italy

A lot of subgenres are particular to their culture of origin, but the Spaghetti Western was international right from its birth. Sergio Leone (about whose lifelong interests in macho Americana I’ve written about in reference to another genre milestone) gave birth to that subgenre using American stars, Italian bit players and crew, all while filming in the Spanish desert. Faced with the peculiar artistic adversity posed by this babel of foreign collaborators, he kept dialogue spare and focused on sweeping operatic staging and focusing on emotions.

While Leone was not the first Italian director to tackle the Western, he codified the tropes and conventions we now associate with the Spaghetti Western. It’s safe to say he struck pay-dirt while doing so.

Leone’s so-called “Dollars Trilogy,” which ended with 1966’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly did not make it to American shores until a couple years later, having already catapulted Clint Eastwood to international, first-name-only super-stardom. When the genre did finally arrive in 1967, it ushered in a new age of the Western—harsher even than 1956’s The Searchers and more disillusioned than 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 1969 would see two major films that set a new tone for the changing genre forever: The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West, which came over to America after having been released internationally the previous year.

A lot of people think of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or even For a Few Dollars More as Leone’s best Westerns. I still argue that Once Upon a Time in the West holds that spot for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it was perhaps his most ambitious film to that point, and crystallizes ideas that Leone was just forming in those former two.

For a Few Million More

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It’s difficult to overstate just how successful Leone’s earlier films had been financially. For relatively paltry budgets at the time, United Artists was seeing incredibly high returns. A Fistful of Dollars was made for about $200,000 (a figure slyly inserted into The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and pulled in $14.5 million from the United States alone. Leone used about $5 million to make Once Upon a Time in the West, an astronomical sum compared to his earlier budgets. Yet, the movie almost didn’t happen for the simple reason that Leone did not want to make another Western.

Fortunately for audiences, United Artists only wanted to give Leone money to make more of them, and they sweetened the deal by promising him Henry Fonda—an actor for whom Leone had expressed deep respect. Clint Eastwood turned down the role of Harmonica, and it went to Charles Bronson, starting him on the path that would eventually lead him to Death Wish.

It’s worth it to mention, too, that composer Ennio Morricone, who is doing some of the best work of his long and distinguished career in this movie, never had much affection for his Spaghetti Western compositions at all. It boggles the mind to conceive how he could unleash iconic score after iconic score while eyeing the clock like that.

“Now that you’ve called me by name…”

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Like its precursors, the story here isn’t tough to follow. A nameless and silent Bronson (he goes by “Harmonica” for his musical preference) arrives in town to find a posse of gunmen waiting for him. A hopeful family (in unfortunate red hair dye, because, you know, they’re Irish) is mercilessly gunned down by Fonda’s grinning sociopath Frank, who was going to leave the youngest boy alive until his associate slips up and says his name. The wife of the murdered landowner (Claudia Cardinale, the only principal character to be speaking Italian and have her English lines dubbed in) arrives to learn she’s inherited her husband’s seemingly useless land.

It’s not useless, though: Frank, an assassin working for the railroad, killed her husband so that the rail company could take possession and turn the place into a station—a plan her husband tried to beat them to. Implicated in her husband’s murder is the outlaw Cheyenne (a devilishly self-assured Jason Robards)—who teams up with Bronson to get Frank, defend Cardinale and clear his own name.

It’s a plot with the usual twists, turns and reversals that characterize Leone’s earlier films, and it does feature somewhat fewer shootouts than the others. That’s because it lingers plenty on the outright villainy of Frank and builds anticipation for his comeuppance throughout the course of film. Which, incidentally, is where Once Upon a Time in the West transcends its forebears.

At the Point of Dying

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Leone always intended Once Upon a Time in the West to be his last Western, and it was one of only seven films the man ever directed. Responding to criticism from one American writer who accused his characters of amorality, Leone promised that “Ruthlessness will be counterbalanced by such pioneer qualities as instinctive honesty and empathy.”

He delivered on it—perhaps in ways that don’t always hold up well today. Cardinale is expected to bear the burden of male desire as she becomes a railroad magnate, and this is passed off as some Christ-like aspect of her pioneer spirit. That it’s Robards forlornly begging her to put up with it as a means of spreading kindness right before he wanders into the desert to die is the kind of vulnerability and sensitivity that was always waiting for the right moment to come out in Leone’s earlier works, though.

More affecting and less manipulative than the same plot point in For a Few Dollars More, too, is the reveal of just exactly why Harmonica has stalked Frank obsessively from the film’s first scene, even taking steps to protect his wicked life so that he can kill the rotten sonuvabitch himself. The inimitable Lee Van Cleef’s tortured protagonist in For a Few Dollars More is out to avenge the death of his daughter by El Indio. Her (topless) death scene is lurid and exploitative, and there’s really nothing about it that adds anything to the relationship between the two foes. The movie really could have just not given Van Cleef any motivation apart from money and we’d still have gotten a great flick.

Conversely, Harmonica’s grim quest for revenge is a clear motivator right from the start, but like Frank, we wonder why—Leone gives us no more than teases of the final reveal until the very end. In a way, we kind of root for Frank to somehow figure it out. When he does, we are treated to perhaps the defining scene in Leone’s career as a Western director: The one in which we learn that Frank’s crime is an order of magnitude more sadistic than simply killing someone Harmonica loved.

Every low-down trick in Leone’s book is on display here in a tableau made by a master of tableau. Cuts of a young Frank gradually emerging out of soft focus have teased this scene for the whole film. We see the close-up of the young version of Harmonica, whose face says everything. Henry Fonda (who was talked into the role by Eli Wallach and later called Leone one of the best directors he’d ever worked with in his then-33 years in the biz) unleashes the full glorious power of his leering villainy, filling audiences with a visceral feeling of betrayal. Morricone joins in on the fun, too, suddenly introducing discord from the harmonica into his score as we watch the kid struggle, all while we know exactly what’s going to happen. And of course, there’s the sweeping camera work that pulls out from this close-up scene of desperation into a wide shot of the uncaring beauty of the surrounding desert (one of the few shots of Monument Valley in the film)—a land as indifferent to Harmonica’s tragedy as it is to his justice.

I need to stress that this is a more thrilling and satisfying final battle than almost any I’ve seen in, say, the last decade of filmmaking, despite the fact that it is not in any literal sense a battle. There’s no “fight” here, no “duel.” Nobody takes cover or reloads or grabs a soaking bullet-wound, neither belligerent trades any barbs or proclaims any moral stances. In one moment there’s a sneering jackal of a bad guy, and in the next there’s a man broken by a revelation before the bullet even reaches him. It’s true to the fierce desire for justice that’s pervaded this transcontinental genre—from Toshiro Mifune’s jaded but secretly righteous ronin wanderer to Clint’s avenging scoundrel—and it’s also the final word on it.

Leone died at age 60, not long after another magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in America. The genre didn’t exactly die with him, but no practitioner working inside its confines has ever matched his achievements. Westerns—Spaghetti or otherwise—were done in another decade. 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, one of film history’s most spectacular flops, saw United Artists bankrupted and sold off to MGM. It would be revived as an MGM subsidiary later, but it was the end of the studio as an independent entity. By the time Eastwood made his last Western in 1992’s deconstructionist Unforgiven, it felt like he was looking a long, long way back into a different time.


Kenneth Lowe does not know how to play. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.

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