#3 in my ranking of Sergio Leone’s films.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly felt like the work of someone in over his head, unsure of how to spend the massive amount of money for the large production. Once Upon a Time in the West feels like the work of a mature filmmaker with a fuller understanding of how to use a large budget. The interesting thing to me in the credits is the story by credits for Sergio Leone that he shares with Dario Argento and, in particular, Bernardo Bertolucci. It’s documented that Bertolucci was responsible for the idea of making the main character a woman, but the film has a certain structural feel that reminds me of some of Bertolucci’s own work like 1900 and The Last Emperor. There’s a cohesiveness to the central story with the larger canvas that was simply missing from the previous film.
The story is of the dying of the Old West. It’s a common motif and theme of Westerns since the beginning of the genre because even the earliest movies understood that the time of the West was over, that the personalities were either getting older or already dead. Leone takes the familiar and sad tale in his own deconstructionist and cynical direction, highlighting the violence and greed of the personalities that pushed the country westward and pulling in references to many familiar and unfamiliar Westerns along the way. The story overall covers similar ground to John Fords 3 Bad Men that told of Hell on Wheels, the effort to push the railroad construction as fast as possible (though, it’s not like Ford’s film was free of devious antagonists willing to kill to get what they wanted or anything). That’s the epic scope part of the story, anchored by Jill (Claudia Cardinale), the New Orleans prostitute who married the farmer Brett McBain (Frank Wolff).
He had gone to New Orleans, met the beautiful woman, married her in secret, and then paid for her passage out West to his dusty farm where nothing grew with promises of wealth and finery. However, Brett and his three children get shot down by Frank (Henry Fonda) before Jill even arrives at the remote little town of Flagstone, some miles from the town. Along the same time, the mysterious figure known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives, kills three men dressed as the men of the local bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), and begins his search for Frank. Cheyenne himself escapes from custody on his own (his men lagging a few minutes behind) and needs to untangle the mystery of the men, who were not his, dressed like his men and what they were doing on the remote, worthless McBain farm.
Jill arrives to find her husband and stepchildren dead, knowing that they were killed for something, but she doesn’t know what. Cheyenne shows up as well with questions, hoping to find something. He’s menacing in look and gruff in demeanor, but he’s less interested in what Jill could find than the mystery itself. Amongst the items of the late McBain Jill finds a toy train station.
Frank, though, is not some random madman, he’s working for the train company, represented as the dying cripple Mr. Morton (Gabriele Frezetti), traveling up and down the line in his resplendent train car, moving around the car by brass bars that extend from the ceiling since he can barely walk. He has dreams of making it to the Pacific, seeing the expanse of water before he dies, and in order to make that, the railroad must complete fast, giving our bad guy a tangible reason for his villainy which is nice.
The story moves towards confrontation (of course) between all of them in different ways, especially when Jill learns the truth of her husband’s plans. He had purchased the worthless land on purpose, knowing that the railroad had to go through that property, and in order to maintain his ownership he needed to build a station, the wood for which arrives after Jill.
What’s really interesting about the story here is how much more important to the movie it is than in Leone’s previous films. Story always felt like a secondary concern, little more than a bare excuse to hang great moments on, but here everything feels of a piece, working towards a common narrative goal. The story actually feels like its coming to a point instead of just genre thrills, and that point is the dying of the Old West. Cheyenne, Harmonica, and Frank represent the wild version of the West. They are the gunslingers who dominated the myth of the Old West. Jill, an Eastern woman of fine tastes, represents the new West, the civilizing influence coming into the wild parts of the country on a path forged by the railway man Morton. As I said to start this review, there’s a mature feeling to this film that’s missing from Leone’s previous work, and I strongly suspect the influence of Bertolucci.
There is one story bit that falls a bit flat to me, though, and that’s the reveal of Harmonica’s connection to Frank. We’re not even really given hints through the film beyond the idea that there is a connection, and then the connection is revealed as this deeply emotional moment for Harmonica. And yet, it just doesn’t really work, probably because the slivers of slow-motion flashback were just too bare to establish the emotional connection with the audience.
Of course, just story isn’t Leone, even in a more refined form. His distinct style is still on display and it is both a strength and one of the film’s smaller weaknesses. I think, at this point, Leone didn’t know when to quit and some of these moments just go on for a bit too long (I’m thinking of when Morton has to bribe his way out from under some gunmen during a card game), but the rest of the time he’s using his combination of slow action and active editing to create wonderful tension, like in the opening scene at the train station as Harmonica arrives or Jill’s arrival at Flagstone (that Zemeckis would imitate in Back to the Future Part III).
I don’t think Once Upon a Time in the West quite rises to greatness, a key emotional beat doesn’t work and Leone’s style occasionally gets in the way of things, but it’s a consistently entertaining and intelligent work by a filmmaker who suddenly discovered the art of telling a story rather than just having great individual moments strung together. Leone really grew here as a filmmaker.