People scare better when they're dyin'
Scene 1: Three scoundrels wait at a train station at the end of the world. Everything is silent except the creaking of doors and buzzing of flies. No music. The train shows up, and suddenly we hear harmonica music. But it’s no Morricone cue… it’s Charles Bronson, harmonica on his lips. When the scoundrels ambush him, he slays all three. Meet: the angel of vengeance.
Scene 2: A decent family with a widowed father prepares for the arrival of his new bride. Bugs and critters buzz everywhere, until they suddenly go quiet. And who appears? A gang of outlaws led by Henry Fonda, his inviting blue eyes now steely and evil. They gun down the whole family, including the children. Meet: the devil.
Scene 3: The beautiful Claudia Cardinale arrives on a train, searches the horizon for her new family (whom we know to be dead). She walks through the station and into a classic Old West town, which unfolds before us in one of cinema’s greatest long takes. Meet: the stakes, a woman’s heart, and the soul of the frontier.
At this point, we’re 35 minutes into a nearly-3-hour movie. Three huge, unimpeachably perfect scenes.
The rest of the movie doesn’t always live up to that opening. There’s a plot about land deeds and secret marriages and bribery that is fine: solid drama well-filmed, but not transcendent filmmaking. The film also runs too long, but there’s some value in the length: every additional scene piles on the film’s theme about modern industry and classic ruggedness battling for the Wild West’s future so that the stakes feel massive.
The film never drops too far below near-brilliant, and occasionally eclipses that “masterpiece” threshold: there is, for example, an astonishing set piece on a train that is bravura work by Sergio Leone. Countless beautiful shots of arid landscapes shot in Spain and Monument Valley are breathtaking in their scope.
The acting is great, too: Fonda in particular delivers a tour de force as an against-type villain, all seductive power and menacing charisma. Charles Bronson gives a suitably imposing and inscrutable performance as the nameless harmonica-player.
Once Upon a Time in the West is a towering accomplishment, enduring and triumphant: If it’s anything short of a masterpiece (and it really is right on the cusp), it’s simply because so much of the connective tissue between the great stuff drags on. After all, a high bar has been set in one of the greatest opening half hours of any film you’ll ever see.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100