Movie Name: Once Upon a Time in the West
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Release Date(s): December 21, 1968
MPAA Rating: PG-13
A former prostitute named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) comes to Flagstone to marry a landowner named McBain but arrives to finds McBain and his family murdered. Jill, a mysterious man named “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson), and a convict named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) face off against Frank (Henry Fonda) and try to find what the murders all have to do with the approaching railroad.
Directed by Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in the West kicks off his “Once Upon a Time” series. The movie was met with positive reviews and often scores higher than the Man with No Name Trilogy by Leone. The movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2009.
Sergio Leone does it again with another epic story of the West. After The Man with No Name Trilogy (A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Leone wanted to be done with Westerns and was lined up to make what would become Once Upon a Time in America but was convinced to do this one (allegedly the possibility of working with Fonda was part of the motivation). The result was fantastic.
Like most of Leone’s Westerns, his framing and use of scenery is worth watching alone. It is like he is painting a picture and at times, it feels like many of the actors and their actions are incidental to the scenery. The pacing of this Leone Western is very slow and deliberate. Thematically, it feels more traditional then The Man with No Name series which had a very fast, quick editing style.
It is good to see Henry Fonda playing against his typical character by becoming the villain and shows his ability as an actor because he does feel threatening. He originally wanted to make himself look “darker” but Leone wanted him in his normal clean shaven and blue eyed appearance and turned those traits into a certain coldness. Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, and Jason Robards triangle is interesting…partially because it is very underplayed.
This movie is the start of Leone’s Once Upon a Time series that’s motif was presenting moments of change in American history (this one primarily deals with expansionism and the ideas of Manifest Destiny). It is followed by Duck, You Sucker (or A Fistful of Dynamite) starring Rod Steiger and James Coburn in 1971 and then Once Upon a Time in America starring Robert DeNiro and James Woods in 1984.