Classic Corner: Once Upon a Time in the West

Before a recent 35mm screening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West at the historic Somerville Theatre, our projectionist introduced the film as “a movie for movie people.” I suppose you could argue that technically all movies are movies for movie people, but especially this one. Leone’s 1968 love letter to the American Western is a gorgeously swollen pageant that takes every tired trope of a then-disreputable genre and it blows it out to mythic proportions. The picture is massive, sometimes self-consciously so; its affectations and allusions entirely deliberate. Leone, his film critic pal Dario Argento and a hotshot young director named Bernardo Bertolucci spent two months binging on every old Hollywood oater they could find while coming up with the story, stealing characters, scenes and scenarios willy-nilly. Once Upon a Time in the West isn’t just any Western, it’s all of them.

Funny thing is, Leone didn’t even want to make any more Westerns. He felt like he’d closed that book with his “Man With No Name” trilogy and was already trying to get an adaptation of Harry Grey’s The Hoods – later to be known as Once Upon a Time in America – off the ground. But then Paramount dangled Henry Fonda in front of the director. The ever stalwart, all-American icon was Leone’s favorite actor, and his original choice for Clint Eastwood’s role in A Fistful of Dollars. (The mind reels.)

Leone’s most subversive move was casting this cinematic embodiment of decency – the man who played Tom Joad and Wyatt Earp for John Ford – as the story’s most cold-blooded son of a bitch. Fonda famously showed up for work wearing dark contact lenses and scruffy, sinister facial hair. Leone was having none of it, demanding those baby blue eyes and the clean-shaven visage we all knew as Young Mr. Lincoln. The star makes a delayed entrance in the film’s second scene, as his gang of desert marauders massacres a family of ranchers. A young child attempts to flee, coming face to face with Fonda’s pistol. My projectionist pal described sitting in the movie theater back in 1968, saying to himself, “Whatever. Henry Fonda’s not gonna shoot a kid. THEN HE SHOOTS THE KID.”

The characters are all larger-than-life archetypes. Claudia Cardinale’s whore with a heart of gold gets off the train from New Orleans to discover her new husband and his family have been slaughtered by Fonda’s hired gunslinger. There’s a crooked railroad baron (Gabriele Ferzetti) who needs their land and the water beneath it. But the widow McBain finds a couple of unlikely allies in Charles Bronson’s squinting, silent avenger and a colorful, rascally bandit played – in another bit of wonderfully counterintuitive casting – by Jason Robards. (An actor of Robards’ natural gravitas taking on what’s essentially the Eli Wallach role brings an entirely original friction to the character. Cheyenne should be ranked higher on lists of the great Western badasses.) 

There are 15 pages of dialogue in the script for Once Upon a Time in the West, and probably less than that in the way of story, if you want to define story as “stuff happening.” But Leone was never a filmmaker particularly interested in stuff happening, savoring instead the buildup and aftermath. Take, for example, the legendary opening sequence, in which three gunsels in cowboy dusters (played by Western fixtures Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock) arrive to ambush a train bringing Bronson to town. The scene stretches out for a full 14 minutes while the characters sit and wait. In lieu of musical accompaniment, Leone composes a John Cage-styled symphony of sound effects – a squeaky windmill, the buzzing of a fly, leaky water droplets and cracking knuckles – building an ominous, almost unbearable tension for almost a quarter of an hour. Then the shootout’s over in five seconds. 

The whole movie is like that, with scenes gloriously engorged until they abruptly explode. Inverting their usual working method, Leone’s constant collaborator Ennio Morricone composed the music for the movie before a frame of film was shot, assigning each character a specific leitmotif and mixing and matching them depending who was onscreen. (I think it’s his finest work, with wordless, soaring vocals by Edda Dell’Orso that send chills up my spine every time.) The score was then played on the set during filming, so the actors and the camera could move in time to Morricone’s tempos. When they saw how slowly these scenes were playing out, Leone and co-screenwriter Sergio Donati started frantically rewriting the script, scrapping subplots in order to bring the movie in at a manageable running time.

It still wasn’t manageable enough for Paramount. The studio chopped more than 20 minutes out of the movie –including the death of a major character—but it still bombed in American theaters. France was another story, where the uncut film proved so popular among cinephile youths it played at one Paris theater for 48 months straight. (Leone liked to joke that the projectionist at that place wanted to kill him, having had to screen “the same boring movie” for four years.) In America, it remained infuriatingly difficult to find an unmutilated copy of the picture until Paramount finally released a proper DVD restoration in 2003.

In Christopher Frayling’s 2005 book Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone, the author attempts to cite all of the references and homages to other movies included in the picture. The list is five pages long. But one doesn’t need to be familiar with the sources cited to be swept away by the grandeur of these images, the beauty of this music or the story’s elemental force. Once Upon a Time in the West is an archetypal Western distilled down to its core elements and then shot through a magnifying glass. It was made for more than just movie people. But especially for us. 

“Once Upon a Time in the West” is streaming on Amazon Prime, Paramount+, and MGM+. Its available for digital rental or purchase.

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