Sergio Leone made a fistful of great films, but none better than 1968’s ode to the fading American frontier, Once Upon a Time in the West. The film, about four lives headed on a collision course in a grimy, ramshackle town of the Western plains, is set against the backdrop of the encroaching railroad, which promises to bring civilization to this unruly, harsh country. And with progress, the coal-devouring locomotives also bring death—death for the American West’s unspoiled beauty, death for an uncomplicated rugged individualism, and death to the cowboy, who has no place in the newfangled modern world of corporate villainy and commerce.
Leone, an Italian stylist who made a career out of transforming melodramatic genre pictures into wild, fiery, violent statements about the country that had inspired his cinematic dreams, uses West as a means of dramatizing that fateful instant when the Old West of gunslingers and shootouts mutated into the New West of manifest destiny-inspired greed and corruption. But as its fairy-tale title implies, the film is also interested in casting this historical turning point as a parable about the death of the western itself. Much like The Wild Bunch (except with more beauty and pathos than Sam Peckinpah would ever deign to muster), Leone wants his multi-pronged fable to be not only history, but myth as well.
This mythologizing was a somewhat predictable turn for Leone—his cinematic landscapes had grown more expansive and daring throughout the course of his Clint Eastwood-headlined Man With No Name trilogy. On the other hand, West’s devotion to classic western iconography and archetypes can be seen as a mildly startling departure from the revisionist westerns he had become famous for. The Man With No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) was infamous for its upending of traditional western tropes, the most obvious being the notion of the cowboy as a noble, stabilizing force of purity and honesty.
With West, Leone made certain that surface similarities existed between the film’s characters and those found in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—Charles Bronson’s stoic harmonica-playing loner can be equated with Eastwood’s “Good” Man With No Name; Henry Fonda’s vicious Frank is Lee Van Cleef’s “Bad” Sentenza; and Jason Robards’s wily bandit Cheyenne is Eli Wallach’s “Ugly” Tuco. But unlike his previous work, Leone eschews the pervasive amorality that gave his earlier films their groundbreaking vitality, choosing not to overhaul western clichés, but to incorporate them into essential components of his majestic mise-en-scène.
This modus operandi can be gleaned from the film’s riveting opening scene, in which a trio of rough-and-tumble killers quietly awaits the arrival of a train at a dilapidated local station. The men, calmly standing in the noonday sun with the sweaty swagger and bloodthirsty eyes of desperados, are stock characters from a hundred previous westerns. The way Leone orchestrates their waiting game, however, is something akin to the way Beethoven arranged his symphonies. Using a mixture of intense close-ups (Leone’s signature stylistic flourish) and painterly long shots, and casting the scene in almost complete silence (thus enhancing the immediacy of the environment’s sounds), Leone instills this rather routine setup with near bibilical grandiosity.
One of the men’s vain attempts to dissuade a fly from resting on his face becomes transfixing in Leone’s tight Panavision close-up, and the director’s patient camera wisely lingers on these nasty, no-nonsense thugs just long enough to instill in them a sense of legendary vileness. When the train finally arrives with Bronson in tow, Leone marries Ennio Morricone’s hauntingly skuzzy guitar riffs to a gorgeous deep-focus shot angled upward from the ground near the trio’s boots, with Bronson a tiny but nonetheless imposing speck in the distance. The effect is a transcendent moment that encapsulates the quintessential, doom-laden instance in all westerns that occurs right before hands flash down to holsters and gunfire erupts.
Bronson’s Harmonica (he gets no formal name, as befitting a ghostly renegade) has arrived in town to meet with Henry Fonda’s wicked, power-hungry Frank. After disposing of Frank’s goons at the station, Harmonica slowly finds himself drawn into a drama involving Claudia Cardinale’s Jill McBain—the feisty and jaw-droppingly gorgeous widow of a slain local businessman—and Robards’s scruffy outlaw Cheyenne, who’s being framed for the murder of Mr. McBain and his three children. Since Leone shows us their execution, we know that Frank has killed the McBains, but the motivation for their murder is revealed with great prudence.
Repeatedly, West’s most flawlessly executed moments involve acts of exposure or revelation. Each character’s face is initially revealed to the audience either through measured zooms or graceful, swirling pans around the character’s body, and Leone uses his elegantly dreamy pace to consistently tantalize us with hints of things to come. Mrs. McBain, a former prostitute, arrives from New Orleans at her new home to find a funeral procession, and Leone conceals the scene’s payoff—the sight of McBain and his children’s corpses sprawled out on picnic tables—only after his delicate tracking shot, positioned from Mrs. McBain’s perspective, has leisurely moved down the line of mourners. Similarly, the identity of the man present in Harmonica’s periodic visions remains cloaked in an unfocused haze, so that Leone may intrigue his audience without divulging key information too soon.
Much has been made about the influence of Italian filmmakers Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci—who are credited with helping Leone conceive the story (written by Leone and Sergio Donati)—on the film. Still, even though West’s pensive, tragic romanticism recalls vintage Bertolucci, and its abundant use of visual and aural signifiers brings to mind Argento, the film’s seductive interplay between image and sound—a relationship that would reach its apex with the director’s final film Once Upon a Time in America—is trademark Leone. The director harmoniously links disparate sounds and images: the buzz of a fly or a gunshot segues into the howling whistle of a train and the squeaking of a weathervane becomes the plaintive whine of a harmonica. Leone similarly uses the sounds of the natural world as a means of slowly revealing information—when the crickets stop chirping while McBain and his kids prepare for Mrs. McBain’s welcoming feast, it’s clear that trouble is brewing—and punctuates the action with Morricone’s passionate, haunting score.
Leone employs his florid, expressionistic directorial style to convey an overriding tone of wistful resignation over the land barons’ arrival. Although Mr. Morton, the sickly railroad tycoon who wants McBain’s strategically-situated plot of land, pays the dastardly Frank to do his dirty work, Leone reserves compassion for this frail man intent on fulfilling his dream of seeing the Pacific Ocean before he dies of tuberculosis. Morton—who doesn’t entirely agree with Frank’s methods, and dies as a result of his naïveté and bad luck—isn’t evil but merely pathetic, and his quest to trample through the West is portrayed not as reprehensible but merely inevitable. West recognizes that Morton is only the first in what will be a long line of industrialists plundering the land, and that the future he brings is no more distasteful, and might be slightly more tolerable, than the ugliness, corruption, and immorality of the old world embodied by Frank.
Inside his opulent cable car, Morton asks Frank (who is seated in Morton’s throne-like chair), “How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?” Frank, sensing the changing tides, replies, “It’s almost like holding a gun. Except much more powerful.” Frank desperately desires the power that Morton’s money and influence commands, and the film becomes, in part, a portrait of his failure to straddle the line between old world (shoot first, ask questions never) and new world (wielding money as a weapon) criminality. “You’ve learned some new ways,” Harmonica tells Frank before their climactic showdown, “even if you haven’t given up the old ones.” This, ultimately, is his undoing. Frank dies not because of a lack of proficiency with a six-shooter, but from an inability to wholeheartedly reject the gun in favor of the checkbook.
If Frank’s death provides a fitting conclusion to the film’s conventional good-versus-evil conflict, it provides little closure for Harmonica or Cheyenne. Like Frank, the two men are relics of an earlier, extinct species that cannot exist in the burgeoning modern world. Harmonica tells Frank they’re “an ancient race. Other Mortons will be along, and they’ll kill it off.” Frank knows it’s true, admitting that his desire to kill Harmonica makes him not a shrewd businessman but “just a man” who knows “the future doesn’t matter to us.” In their long dust jackets, tall leather boots, and Stetson hats, these nomadic, mythic gladiators accept their fateful destinies and, with a mixture of sadness and inexorableness, ride off into legend. It may not have been the final eulogy for the western the director had envisioned—even Leone himself would return to the high plains for the Mexican Revolution pseudo-western Duck, You Sucker just three years later—but in its beguiling, magnificent depiction of the end of an era, Once Upon a Time in the West has become what Leone had perhaps always hoped: the antiquated genre’s triumphant final masterpiece.