Director Sergio Leone never really made anything better or more entertaining than The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, in my opinion, but he did come incredibly close to repeating that cinematic feat with this spaghetti western epic. A stunning work of blazing originality that features precision craftsmanship in nearly all departments of filmmaking, especially direction, cinematography & music, Once Upon a Time in the West is spaghetti western at its most artistic that fuses breathtaking art into the legacy of Wild West unlike any other example before or after and cements Sergio Leone’s status as the finest western filmmaker in cinema industry while, in the process, also becoming one of the most respected, honoured & significant motion picture masterpieces of all time, not just in its category but in the entire cinema landscape.
The story of Once Upon a Time in the West is set in Flagstone, a fictional town in the American Old West, and mainly revolves around the struggle for a small chunk of land, known as Sweetwater, containing the region’s only water source. The land is owned by McBain family, who are mercilessly slaughtered by Frank & his gang before the arrival of their newest family member, Jill McBain, who later inherits the ownership of the property. During that night, she is confronted by the notorious bandit named Cheyenne, the assumed suspect, who proves to her his innocence behind the murders & offers to go after the real killer. Also new in the town is a mysterious, harmonica-playing gunman, known as Harmonica, who eventually joins forces with Jill & Cheyenne in protecting the Sweetwater property from getting seized by Frank and who also has a personal vendetta to settle with him.
Director Sergio Leone already became the master of westerns with his genre-defining Dollars Trilogy but with this film, he not only strengthened his position further but also added the ‘undisputed’ tag to his status as Once Upon a Time in the West presents a very different & much more mature side of Sergio Leone along with his keen eye for stunning detail, visual narration & cinematic art that is evident from the film’s very first scene. It opens with three men waiting at a railway station for someone or something due in the next train. It’s a long sequence with no dialogues or action but just the waiting for the train, something which any other director would’ve easily decided to skip over & show the train’s arrival but not Leone. He makes us wait for the inevitable, turns each frame into a visual feast, captures the boredom of the characters reflecting our own impatience and yet throughout this entire scene, effortlessly manages to create an aura of anxiety, thus making it one of cinema’s most captivating moments.
Next up is the film’s flawless technical execution. Cinematography goes beyond capturing the story on film as it ended up narrating a story of its own. There is very little dialogue in the film yet it didn’t matter as the masterwork exhibited in the use of camera brilliantly captures all the emotions of its characters and effortlessly develops & conveys everything about their complex personalities through the controlled slow zooms, fluid movements & perfect close-ups. Thanks to editing, the movie clocks in at 166 minutes & the pacing is deliberately slow when compared to Leone’s previous works but the slowness also amplifies the intense moments & steadily immerses us into its raw territory. Finally, the one thing that can never go unnoticed in a Sergio Leone’s film is the background score. Ennio Morricone impresses once again by composing an even more haunting soundtrack for this film compared to his previous compositions which seamlessly integrate into the narrative and is easily one of his finest soundtracks, if not the finest.
Coming to the performances, the movie features an ensemble cast of Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards & Claudia Cardinale, who all chip in with strong & genuine performances. Henry Fonda goes against his usual roles & plays the antagonist Frank, the ruthless, murderous psychopath with zero empathy, and delivers an absolutely cold-blooded performance. Jason Robards stars as Cheyenne, the falsely accused bandit who befriends Jill and who while on his quest to find the real killer behind the murders he is charged with is accompanied by a mysterious gunslinger whom he dubs as “Harmonica”, personated impressively by Charles Bronson, who also has an unfinished business with Frank which is magnificently revealed in the climax. And last we have Claudia Cardinale playing Jill McBain, a newly widowed owner of Sweetwater with a past as an infamous prostitute in New Orleans. The supporting cast also does a fine job and each & every character in this film looks very convincing.
The best thing about Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns is that they look unbelievably real. His depiction of the Wild West is highly uncompromising with the absence of any law & order, just the way it’s supposed to be. The characters in his films are dark, brooding & morally ambiguous, not just from the outside appearance but inside too. The camera angles used in his films do far more than just capturing the film and manage to transform even the barren desert into a visual feast, plus it can visually narrate the story as well. The gun violence is glamorously stylised but it always stays in the realms of reality and the entire build up to that one deciding gunfire is pure gem. And always elevating the film’s status is the music by Ennio Morricone, who keeps delivering incredibly epic scores for his films, which are at its best during the climactic moments.
And this spaghetti western epic embraces all the above attributes & brings many more things to the table. It marks the birth of a new style, new approach & striking maturity in Leone’s work & creativity and is, arguably, the most perfect film of his celebrated career. In short, his magnum opus, at least for me. Overall, Once Upon a Time in the West is one epic that shouldn’t be missed by any cinema lover, especially the fans of westerns, Sergio Leone or Henry Fonda. Yes, the film is very slow but then, it’s incredibly smart as well. Universally hailed as one of the greatest spaghetti westerns ever made & certainly the most artistic, Once Upon a Time in the West is a landmark film not just for Leone but for cinema as a whole and its legacy is as classic as Sergio Leone’s direction, Ennio Morricone’s scores and their legendary, unparalleled & unprecedented collaboration.