The Western genre has always dealt in mythologies. Some Westerns could be accurately labelled as revisionist propaganda—a nation trying to get to grips with shameful episodes from its own history by pretending things were different. There was a time when good Christian settlers were brutally victimised by the heathen redskins, the sheriff was always righteous, the good guys had square jaws and wore white hats, and the bad guys sported stubble and preferred black Stetsons. It was a history to be proud of, but that was just the movies. Perhaps that’s why it was down to European filmmakers to re-invent and reinvigorate the genre just as it was falling from grace in the mid-1960s.
Sergio Leone is certainly one of the most important film directors. I was just about to qualify that statement by adding “to come out of Italian cinema of the 1960s” but I realise that would only be a disservice to his standing! His mother, Edvige Maria Valcarenghi, was a popular actress of the silent age, best-known by her stage name Bice Valerian. His father, Vincenzo Leone (usually credited as Roberto Roberti), was an actor and writer who’d directed around 50 films and a baker’s dozen of shorts before 1930. So, young Sergio grew up against a cinematic backdrop of movie sets and matinees. He said it was film, above all else, that “nourished” him as a child, and most of his favourites were American Westerns.
Growing up in wartime Italy, there was a huge cultural disconnect with what he saw on the silver screen. To him it must have seemed an almost fantastical world of fabled heroes and stereotypical evil. Perhaps he would have recognised some parallels with the Wild West as the pre-war order crumbled around him, and the post-war rise of Mafia rule replaced the dictatorial fascism of Benito Mussolini. But as he grew wiser, he understood that these idealistic Westerns were more akin to fairy tales. They were ‘Once Upon a Time’ stories…
As a 10-year-old, Sergio Leone had appeared in one of his father’s films, Man on the Street / La Bocca Sulla Strada (1941). By the time he was 18, he’d dropped out of law school to work with Vittorio de Sica as an assistant director on The Bicycle Thieves (1948), in which he also made a brief appearance. He then penned a few screenplays for ‘sword and sandal’ epics, or ‘Pepla’, the most popular Italian genre in his native land during the 1950s. He then found work as a resident assistant director at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, which he’d long-frequented with his father. There, he got to work on some major international productions, including Quo Vadis (1951), Helen of Troy (1954) and Ben-Hur (1959), and finally fell into the director’s chair on The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) when Mario Bonnard was taken ill.
His true directorial debut was The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), but it was with his second feature that he would innovate the visual language of cinema and re-invent the genre he had loved as a child. A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was one of a handful of films (along with Duccio Tessari’s Ringo films) that defined the emergent ‘Spaghetti Western’ genre, and the first of its kind to break the international market with distribution in the US, three years later.
Introducing Clint Eastwood’s now iconic super-cool, poncho-clad character of ‘The Man With No Name’, A Fistful of Dollars was unlike any Western America had seen, and ditched the Cowboys and Indians cliché in favour of a more timeless Shakespearian fable. Leone deliberately treated landscape in the familiar expansive style of a classic John Ford Western but looked to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film, Yojimbo (1961), for its narrative pace and gestural approach. It was a box office hit, made Eastwood a superstar, and became the first of the three classic films we now know as ‘The Dollar Trilogy’, continuing over the next two consecutive years with A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). Leone made a huge stylistic impact on cinema, in general, and upon the Western genre in particular. In some respects, he became a victim of his own success and found he had no shortage of film projects coming his way from Hollywood, but they were all Westerns, a genre he wanted to step away from.
Leone changed his mind when Paramount waved a substantial budget in front of him, along with an offer that included the veteran actor Henry Fonda in the package. Well, that was enough to tempt the director back! Leone had dreamed of working with Fonda, one of his childhood idols from those classic westerns he’d been so captivated by. Consequently, late in 1966, he hired two fellow cinema aficionados to work on writing a Western that would hark back to those films and yet put a new twist on the outmoded all-American ideology they represented. Those two film buff buddies were Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, who both became great filmmakers in their own right. After being handed the title and some guidelines by Leone, they spent days watching classic Westerns, including John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). They were joined in the writing task by Sergio Donati, who had a hand in A Few Dollars More, and later contributed to the screenplay for Duck, You Sucker (1971).
They deliberately dissected these shared favourites, devising an elaborate post-modern collage of their iconography. Part of the fun in watching Once Upon a Time in the West is spotting all those interwoven references—some explicit, others more covert or even the reversal of the familiar tropes. It’s a masterpiece of what Leone termed “cinema-cinema”, by which he meant films that consciously draw upon film history to create a meta-layer of meaning, built-up from visual quotes and a clever reworking of established themes. The deliberate deployment of clichés. That’s something Quentin Tarantino later built his career on in the 1990s. Of course, this approach enabled Leone to be self-referential, quoting the startling stylistic innovations that typified his Dollar Trilogy: extreme close-ups and vast depth of field.
Henry Fonda was known as a good guy and had become the Western’s archetypal ‘white-hat’, so when he read their script, he turned down the part of Frank. He didn’t think he was the right choice to play such a cold-blooded villain, but after some convincing from actor friend Eli Wallach (who’d enjoyed his experience of working on The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) and after Leone himself flew over from Rome to talk him round, he changed his mind and decided it was time to do something that would challenge the preconceptions of casting directors.
When Fonda turned up to test for the part, he’d hidden his famous baby-blue eyes beneath dark brown contact lenses to give himself a more brooding look, and had grown a moustache to appear more rugged. He didn’t realise that Leone wanted to play with the conflict of that clean-cut boyish exterior and the cold sadistic character that would lurk beneath the surface. He knew this would contradict the audience’s expectations and be all the more shocking. It turned out to be a perfect piece of (mis)casting…
The opening 20-minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West are utterly absorbing and a near perfect slice of cinema. To begin with, we’re presented with a rich composition of textures: rude wooden walls and shutters, a chalkboard declaring delayed train times, the Station Agent’s wizened face, leather boots, canvas duster coat, the polished stock of a well-used rifle, the strong features of Woody Strode, recognisable from a run of John Ford westerns including Sergeant Rutledge (1960), Two Rode Together (1961), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He’s soon joined by two other familiar figures who are momentarily framed within the frame by doorways, backlit by desert glare. Jack Elam had appeared in numerous westerns including classics like Rawhide (1951), High Noon, and Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)—usually as a baddie, sometimes as a comedic sidekick. Al Mulock, who was a prolific Italian B Movie actor, had played a bounty hunter in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. After being a bit sinister, and menacing the elderly Station Agent’s canary and the cleaning woman (a cameo for Woody Strode’s wife), this grimy and very consciously cast trio wait on the sun-drenched platform for the delayed train.
This is an inspired and beautifully crafted sequence, devised and storyboarded by Dario Argento, and is still studied in film and media classes to this day. We are treated to wide shots with incredible depth of focus that often place two figures (one huge and one tiny) into a landscape, intercut with extreme close-ups of what could be called ‘face-scapes’ that had been established as a Leone ‘trademark’ in the Dollars Trilogy. The sequence contains clear visual quotes from The Iron Horse and references a similar scene in High Noon when three men wait at a station for a train and the confrontation it will bring.
Although Leone had once again hired his former school-friend and movie music maestro, Ennio Morricone, to compose what is another brilliant musical score, his characteristic Spaghetti Western music is conspicuously absent from this opening sequence. Instead, the soundscape is provided by an ingenious arrangement of natural sounds: first the rhythms of a squeaky wind-pump and clicking telegraph machine, then water dripping from the storage tower onto Strode’s head, until he replaces his hat and anticipates the cool drink that it will gradually collect. Mulock dabbles his fingers in the horse trough and cracks his knuckles. These two references to water are important clues, but their meaning only becomes apparent much later.
There is the intermittent buzz of a fly annoying Elam until, with crack-shot precision, he traps it in the barrel of his pistol and then enjoys its more subdued whine from within. Finally, the found sound overture closes with the chuffs, squeals and clanks of the train as it slows to a halt. The three gunslingers stand poised, clearly prepared to dispatch whoever it is they have been waiting for the moment they alight from their carriage. But no one does. As the train pulls away again, the three men turn to leave but are stopped in their tracks by the mournful strains of harmonica music and as the last carriage is drawn aside, a lone figure is revealed. I mean, what an entrance!
This ‘Man With No Name’ is played by Charles Bronson, who was already a well-established actor known for Westerns and war films and had recently starred in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). He’d been Leone’s second choice to play the lead in A Fistful of Dollars, after Henry Fonda! Both turned him down, as did James Coburn, forcing him to settle for the young and relatively unknown TV actor, Clint Eastwood! This time around, he managed to nab both Fonda and Bronson, and Coburn would star in his follow-up, A Fistful of Dynamite (a.k.a Duck, You Sucker).
We’re more than 10-minutes in and, apart from the Station Agent attempting to sell the three gunmen some train tickets, there has been no dialogue. Even now, much of the interaction is through stares and changing expressions as all the men try to get the measure of this stranger they’ve been sent to meet and presumably murder. But when it comes, the dialogue is worth waiting for and, in pure Leone-style, it’s at once both humorous and menacing. “You brought a horse for me?” Bronson asks. Elam chuckles “looks like we’re shy of one horse.” With a cool, almost imperceptible shake of the head and in extreme, pore-revealing close-up Bronson says, “You brought two too many…” and after the assuredly slow-paced build it’s all over in seconds. Violence as short and sharp as a gunshot. Only one man walks away from the exchange. Bronson plays his nameless mystery man with more solemnity than Eastwood’s, but he’s still stoically super-cool and at times hints at a supernatural force that Eastwood himself would personify in his self-directed lone avenger story, High Plains Drifter (1971).
We spend the next 10-minutes or so being introduced to the McBain family, as they prepare a celebration feast on their gingham-draped tables in front of a rather impressive ranch-house built from sturdy lumber—just one of the film’s magnificent sets designed by Carlo Simi, who also worked on all three Dollars movies. Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) deals out some old-school kid-slapping but also shows some affection to his three children and when he witnesses his daughter drop at the crack of a gunshot, he’s suitably distraught and ineffectually heroic as he and his eldest son are also shot dead.
From the dusty wilderness, a gang of gunmen emerge dressed in the long duster coats that seem ubiquitous in Leone Westerns—but pay attention, an important plot point hangs on them here. As the gang approach the ranch house, little Timmy (Enzo Santaniello), the youngest McBain, runs out to see the rest of his family lying dead in the dust. We don’t know it at the time, but this is a poetic re-enactment of another character’s backstory. Then we get another of the film’s early reveals.
As dramatic guitar chords ring out, the camera curves round to give us the first close-up of this monster who’s just killed the little boy’s father, brother, and sister… and lo, it’s none other than Henry Fonda, his laughing blue eyes twinkling in the shadow under the brim of his black hat. The intensity of the scene, aided by Morricone’s emotive score becomes almost unbearable until Frank’s evil is confirmed beyond doubt with a gunshot edit. So far, most of the characters we have spent any time with have died within minutes—clearly, nobody is safe in this movie.
Sergio Leone once said:
…the rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasp that a person takes just before dying. Once Upon a Time in the West was, from start to finish, a dance of death, all of the characters in the film, except Claudia are conscious of the fact they will not arrive at the end alive…”
It’s a fine quote that, although slightly misleading (and I’m not saying how so), has been used in subsequent marketing. Which brings us to the leading lady, Claudia Cardinale.
It was Bernardo Bertolucci who wrote in the character of Jill McBain and, after overcoming some resistance from Leone, worked her into the central role and rearranged the plot around her. Leone was reluctant to feature a female character so prominently, partly because he hadn’t directed a strong female lead, and perhaps feared it may detract from his tried-and-tested formula of intense macho menace. The women in his Dollars Trilogy had been little more than plot devices to move things along, but Jill McBain is central to the entire narrative which only really kicks off when she arrives in the frontier town of Flagstone. Apparently, the cost of building the Flagstone set was greater than the entire budget for A Fistful of Dollars and Leone uses it to great effect, first revealing it during an ingenious, uncut sequence that involves some carefully planned tracking, and an audacious crane shot…
We soon learn that Jill’s an ex-prostitute who Brett McBain met in New Orleans and had offered her a new life with his ‘ready-made’ family after his first wife died. However, when she turns up for what was to be her wedding, she finds it is now a wake for her entire family-to-be. It’s unclear whether she speaks the truth or simply thinks on her feet when she explains that they were already legally married in New Orleans. The ranch now falls to her but when she tries to sell it off, she begins to realise its importance as a water-source positioned strategically in the path of the approaching railroad.
Claudia Cardinale is superb in the lead role and this film wouldn’t have worked without her. She manages to balance aspects of the shrewd whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, the widow, the women in peril, and the matriarch in control. Clearly, she has a sexually-charged screen presence and the male characters are circling her like sharks throughout, but she’s not punished for being sexy. We feel the sense of threat she always endures, yet she remains courageously defiant and empowered. She is forced to use her charms to manipulate the men around her, but is strong enough to do this strategically, manages to stay alive and is as in control of her own destiny as any of the characters…
She forges links between the three male leads, ‘Harmonica’ (Charles Bronson), the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), and Frank (Henry Fonda), who are, respectively, this film’s versions of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. She uses her powers to play them off against each other, believing for part of the film at least, that Cheyenne is responsible for the murder of her family but gradually learning the truth about each man and finally being tragically attracted to ‘Harmonica’. As with much of the script, the dialogue is often only implied through body language and facial expressions and Cardinale totally nails this, adding a whole extra psychological dimension to her character.
Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) resembles a James Bond villain. He’s a powerful railroad magnate who’s as morally bankrupt as he’s monetarily bank-rolled. Yet he’s physically weak, suffering from progressive skeletal-tuberculosis and can’t freely move out of his specially adapted train carriage. He’s obsessed with seeing his tracks connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, spanning the continent and consolidating man’s control over the land. Indeed, Ferzetti was to play crime boss Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) just a year later.
The performances are all superb, even when verging on the expressionistic. Admittedly, this arises from masterful casting. I mean Henry Fonda just has to play his own ‘evil twin’, albeit with some nice new nuances. Bronson has to maintain a granite exterior and seem detached from pretty much everything except his enigmatic quest, giving very little away. He may not be the most versatile actor, but I think his restraint here makes this his best performance and it defines the single-minded tough-guy persona he would continue to exploit through the 1970s.
Cheyenne could easily have veered into either broad comedy or pantomime villainy, but Jason Robards humanises his character as a loveable rogue and imbues him with pathos. Interestingly, Robards was to star in another post-modern western about a water source and the passing of an era, Sam Peckinpah’s partly pretentious broad comedy The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), in which he plays a luckless hobo who accidentally discovers a desert spring and builds a trading post and way station on the site.
The unusual dual narrative structure can be confusing and does fall apart a little in the middle, but really it’s this along with perfect pacing, and Leone’s inimitable visual flair, that has made Once Upon a Time in the West the enduring classic it’s become. It’s the stylistic culmination of everything that made the Dollars Trilogy stand out: the extreme close-ups in unforgiving widescreen, the striking innovation of the double close-ups and the deep-deep focus (all realised with the help of Tonino Delli Colli’s clever cinematography), the assured pacing that hits the beat of a scene so perfectly that it never drags nor bores, even when there’s very little happening. And the essential contribution of Morricone’s distinctive music can’t be overstated. The final act builds inexorably to a more than satisfying denouement and the full explanation of Harmonica’s motivation, told in a cleverly shared flashback sequence, is emotionally devastating.
The magic of Once Upon a Time in the West is how Leone managed to capture the essence of those classic Westerns that had enchanted him as a boy and cast the same spell over a modern audience. For all its brutality, violence, and pessimism, it retains a sense of glee and an almost fetishistic fascination with all the regalia of the Old West; the livery, the barrels, the trigger guards, boot buckles, bustles, buttons, and bows. Those kinds of details are all celebrated. And there’s that Italian flippancy and sense of fun that pervaded its pulp cinema through the 1960s and ’70s. For example, keep a lookout during the protracted shootout between Frank and his unloyal henchmen for a super-clever High Noon-inspired visual joke when the shadow of a sniper’s rifle extends down the painted face of an unfinished clock that has no hands fitted, creating the illusion of the clock striking noon.
After completing the principal photography in Spain—which, for the final scenes, involved laying functional railway track, moving a mountain (well, actually a sandy hill more like a dune), and trucking in a full-size steam locomotive to be craned onto those tracks—Leone went the extra distance, literally, and finished up with location filming in the US. He wanted to capture some of the expansive establishing shots in the famous Monument Valley, Arizona, to place the story more definitely in Wild West territory. One suspects what he really wanted was to visit those distinctive locations that John Ford had adopted into his iconography—to finally break that fourth fantastical wall and walk in the footsteps of his childhood heroes.
At 175-minutes, the original cut was deemed too long. Leone agreed and did some trimming here and there, but the distributors chopped a further half-hour off the US print, which included the key scene that introduced Cheyenne, established a rapport between him and ‘Harmonica’, and set-up a key plot point. They also trimmed some of the more protracted death scenes and excised the death of one main character entirely! Not surprisingly, it didn’t perform well at the box office and struggled to recoup its $5M budget. By contrast, the international theatrical release did very well in Europe, where it ranked as 1969’s most popular film in France and Germany and made the all-time Top 10 in both countries. A restored print of 165-minutes was given a successful re-run in 1984 and subsequently released on home video. There have been various versions available on DVD and now Blu-ray, but the 159-minute cut is generally accepted as the original.
Critically, it’s close to perfection and deserves its ranking in many greatest films of all-time lists. In 2009, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, recognising it as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Once Upon a Time in the West formed the first part of what Leone was to refer to as his ‘Once Upon a Time Trilogy’, which continued with Duck, You Sucker and concluded with the director’s final feature Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It’s hard to believe that, apart from his debut, The Colossus of Rhodes, these two trilogies represent Sergio Leone’s entire output as a film director, and yet there’s no denying his importance and resounding influence. A fine example of quality over quantity.
In memory of writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci,
16 March 1941 – 26 November 2018.
Cast & Crew
director: Sergio Leone.
writers: Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci & Sergio Leone.
starring: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Lionel Stander, Paolo Stoppa, Frank Wolff & Keenan Wynn.