Once Upon a Time in the West was Sergio Leone’s second-last foray out west (he finished up with A Fistful of Dynamite), a film he was originally uninterested in making, but that now stands as his finest movie. Long, serious and slow as hell, the lack of Clint Eastwood means that it has perhaps been overshadowed by the Dollars trilogy, but it is deeper and darker than its more action-packed predecessors.
Claudia Cardinale plays Jill McBain, a Lousiana whore who has recently married an Irish-American landowner from Arizona. Upon arriving in her new home, she discovers that her new husband and his two children have been murdered, and all the evidence points towards a gang led by rogue bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). The real culprit however is the ruthless Frank (Henry Fonda), who is working for a railroad developer, desperate to get his hands on the land that Jill has now inherited. Our heroine soon finds herself in a triangle between three men – Cheyenne, murderous Frank, and Harmonica (Charles Bronson), a stoney-faced, harp-blowing mystery man out for revenge.
Leone makes his intentions for the pace and mood of the film clear from the very start, opening with one of the most striking title sequences in cinema. Three surly villains wait at a desolate train station for nearly ten minutes with barely a word of dialogue, Leone building the tension with a mini-symphony of natural sounds and dangerous looks as the credits appear slowly on screen. At long last their quarry – Bronson’s Harmonica – steps off the train, and despite being out numbered, dispatches them in a blast of effortless gunfire. It’s then over to Cardinale, with the next 45 minutes spent establishing her story and the situation she finds herself in – with nearly three hours to play with, Leone consistently refuses to rush either plot or character development.
As in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (made a year later), Once Upon a Time in the West is as much about the death of the Old West as it is a tale of bandits, whores and gunfights. Frank’s employer is a terminally-ill railroad developer whose tracks will run right past the McBain ranch, making the property worth a huge amount to whoever owns the land and is able to build a community around it. The metaphor is clear – industrialised America forcing its way across the traditional landscape of the west – and those who refuse to embrace it, like Frank and Cheyenne, will be those will die with the old way of life. Although Leone’s characters (developed with unlikely collaborators Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento) are stock types – the whore with a heart of gold, the ruthless mercenary, the stoic stranger out for revenge – the committed performances and time that Leone spends on each one provides far more depth than any protagonist in the Dollars trilogy.
But if this film is to be remembered for anything, it’s is Leone’s absolute mastery of his medium. The director is equally happy to dwell in extreme close-up on the craggy features of Charles Bronson as he is to take in the glorious vistas of Monument Valley (although most of the film was filmed in Spain, Leone did head to the US for some location shooting), and the shot where the camera rises above the station house just after Cardinale has arrived in Arizona is a spectacular moment that shows just how the previous era was being consumed by industrialised progress. There is less emphasis on gunplay here than in the Dollars movies, but Leone still delivers some knockout setpieces – the tense sequence where Fonda is stalked in broad daylight by hidden assassins, Cheyenne's one-man ambush of a moving train and the climactic showdown between Frank and Harmonica, where we learn the reasons for his quest for vengeance. While hardly 'unknown', Once Upon a Time in the West does sometimes get a little forgotten against the genre-defining work of John Ford, the taboo-busting films of Sam Peckinpah and indeed Leone's more commercial (and Clint-starring) previous westerns. But this really is monumental filmmaking, as artistic as the genre ever got, with both style and substance to burn.