Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Sergio Leone | 2hr 55min

Sergio Leone isn’t exactly known for his conciseness, and yet there are few directors as skilled as him in stringing along audiences through extended sequences of agonising suspense rendered in painstaking detail, right down to the timing of each sound effect and cutaway. We cling to these minor shifts in mood like drops of water in an arid desert, promising to quench our thirst for action if we hang on for a little longer. Just as cutting Once Upon a Time in the West down from its epic 175-minute run time would be a grave mistake, so too would it be to cut down its 15-minute opening scene, as it is partially through the sheer length of both that we feel the gravity of the situation at hand, and remain compelled to learn the clandestine motives of the mysterious characters we spend time with.

On the surface of this opening, we are watching three gunmen swagger into a train depot and forcefully take it over with barely a word spoken, but then in the background a windmill-powered pump squeaks to its own rhythm, a fly buzzes around the men, and water drips slowly into a bucket. Leone’s status as one of the great cinematic montagists who can stand proudly alongside Sergei Eisenstein is on full display here in the precise rhythm of each individual edit, and the understanding of how a simple cut from a wide to a tightly-framed close-up can keep us in the grip of the narrative. These shadowy men continue to wait around, and although very little happens, we can’t tear our eyes away. Then, very faintly, we hear the whistle of a train, they all stand to attention anticipating some unknown arrival, and we too lean forward in our seats.

One of cinema’s great montagists at work in the opening credits spread out over fifteen minutes. Totally gripping with very few words of dialogue and no musical score.
A fluid transition from one remarkable composition…
…to yet another, without so much as a cut.

If that first scene feels like it stretches out to oblivion, then it is even more astounding that Leone holds off for a full 21 minutes to bring in Ennio Morricone’s glorious score – a minor chord struck on an electric guitar, punctuating the moment a young boy runs right into a close-up and is hit with the devastating realisation that his entire family has been massacred. As for the identity of the perpetrators, we are left to watch from a low angle as several men in flapping, dark coats emerge from the distance, lit from behind like angels of death. And then, as Leone’s camera moves into close-ups, we finally discover their identities. Henry Fonda, the Hollywood actor known for his characters of pure goodness, appears with his bright blue eyes appearing more malevolent than we have ever seen them before, piercing through his greasy visage. Charles Bronson’s turn as the heroic gunman Harmonica certainly impresses in his quiet reservation and mystique, but there is no competing with Fonda as the frightening outlaw Frank, delivering a landmark performance that belongs among the best of both the Western genre and his own illustrious career.

Outlaws emerging from the bushes and advancing towards the camera in this low angle like angels of death.
One of the most terrifying western villains of the screen, played by Henry Fonda no less.

As outlaws, lawmen, and pioneers face off against each other in wide, open spaces for precious resources and personal vengeance, the impact of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films on Leone’s exquisite staging of actors in both static shots and action scenes becomes visible, manifesting the imposing presence of these characters and the tension between them. This widescreen aspect ratio may not be designed for close-ups, and yet with his deep focus photography he still continuously finds the most exciting ways to frame them against their environment, often with his subject off to the side while another occupies the background next to them in equally sharp focus.

Tremendous depth of field in Leone’s staging of actors.
Leone filling his widescreen images with faces, each in separate layers of the frame.

His flair for staging goes beyond small groups though, as in one early scene we follow Mrs McBain, a new arrival in town, along the outside of a train station, before we are lifted high into the air through a magnificent crane shot, expanding the scope of this environment before our eyes as we discover an entire bustling town of horses, carriages, and villagers. Just outside its borders, we find a photographic vision of Monument Valley that hasn’t looked this beautiful since The Searchers, caught in some of the film’s greatest establishing shots. Much like Kurosawa, Leone possesses a keen eye for compositions that range in scale from personal to epic, and here in Once Upon a Time in the West he puts that to use in delivering a tale that creates mythical figures out of complicated, nuanced characters.

One magnificent crane shot lifting the camera from here…
…to here, elevating this film to an epic scale.

That said, it is hard to ignore the fundamental difference between the chosen genres of the Italian and Japanese directors. Given the abrupt nature of pistol duels, the climactic eruptions of violence that Leone promises in his long, tense build-ups are often over far quicker than a sword fight. It is almost cruel, given how much of everyone’s lives seem built around the anticipation of conflict. Still, these pay-offs are never unsatisfying, as it is in Leone’s compelling characters that he invests his time and attention, even more so than the physical struggles themselves, and so the moment that their survival is decided in a lightning-fast pull of a trigger becomes absolutely paramount to all our hopes and fears. 

Leone’s first western shot in America, and he makes great use of its identifiable natural landscapes.

As for those motivations which drive such vicious confrontations, one must dive a little deeper than the surface level plot that follows a conflict over land ownership. These characters are complex and fluid in their loyalties, shifting their allegiance to whomever aligns most with their own personal objectives, whether that is a business tycoon’s desire to build a railroad that will let him see the ocean before he dies, or a former prostitute’s hope of a more prosperous life. For the two forces of good and evil that circle each other at the centre of this narrative, Harmonica and Frank, we are left for a long time wondering what specifically is binding these adversaries together within such a complicated, thorny relationship. We are assured though that any answers we might receive regarding Harmonica’s true nature will emerge “only at the point of dying”, whether that it be Frank’s or his own. Within this cryptic piece of foreshadowing lies a quiet acknowledgement of death being the single moment in our lives that we gain all the perspective and wisdom we could have ever wished for, even if it arrives far too late.

And indeed, it isn’t just the source of Harmonica’s motivation that is revealed in these final minutes though, but the very creation of his essence in the cruel hands of Frank himself. In a poetic mirroring of the past and present, both men deliver the humiliating gesture of placing a harmonica in the mouth of their incapacitated victim, though Frank’s defeat carries more mortal consequences. Just before collapsing in the dirt, he nods with a conspicuous look in his eyes. Is it regret? A recognition of his own sins? The resigned acceptance of a fate he inadvertently carved out for himself decades ago? Just as its title suggests, Once Upon a Time in the West is more a legend than anything else, and so perhaps as he looks back on his life with his dying breath, that is exactly what Frank is seeing – his own despicable place in the saga of American history, immortalised as a monster for centuries to come.

Another sweeping camera movement from the above close-up into this horrifying wide, gradually revealing the peril of the situation.
Poetic justice in Frank’s fate, and a haunting silent recognition in his eyes.

Once Upon a Time in the West is available to stream on SBS On Demand, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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