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Story of a young woman, Mrs. McBain, who moves from New Orleans to frontier Utah, on the very edge of the American West. She arrives to find her new husband and family slaughtered, but by who? The prime suspect, coffee-lover Cheyenne, befriends her and offers to go after the real killer, assassin gang leader Frank, in her honor. He is accompanied by Harmonica on his quest to get even. Get-rich-quick subplots and intricate character histories intertwine with such artistic flair that this could in fact be the movie-to-end-all-movies. Written by
Co-writer Bernardo Bertolucci says on the film's DVD that when he first suggested to director Sergio Leone that the film's central character be a woman, Leone was hesitant. Leone first budged on this subject by suggesting the introductory shot of Jill would be from below the train platform so the camera could see under Jill's dress and show she wasn't wearing any undergarments. Claudia Cardinale says she was never told this idea and says she probably wouldn't have agreed to be in the movie if it required this shot (suggesting that Leone, mercifully, gave up on the idea in the writing process). See more »
The shadows change direction between cuts throughout the gunfight scene between Frank and Harmonica. See more »
Hey - hey hey hey hey, if you want any tickets, you'll have to go around to, eh, to, eh, the front of the, eh... oooh, well, I s'pose it'll be all right.
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Sergio Leone's director credit swings down in an arc as if to stop the train. See more »
A railroad magnate named Morton, Gabriele Ferzetti, hires a cruel gunman named Frank, Henry Fonda, to "remove obstacles from the track." One of the obstacles is Brett McBain, who owns some water rich land the railroad must pass through. Frank massacres McBain and his family, framing a local bandit named Cheyenne, Jason Robards, in the process. Unbeknownst to Frank, McBain married Jill, Claudia Cardinale, on a recent trip to New Orleans. Jill arrives to find her new family dead and herself in possession of the land Frank will certainly kill again to obtain. Jill's survival depends on Cheyenne, who wants to find out who framed him, and a mysterious stranger called Harmonica, Charles Bronson, who has his own business to conduct with Frank.
"Once Upon A Time In The West" is perhaps the most beautiful western ever filmed. Employing his signature style, director Sergio Leone uses the wide screen format with the skill of a master painter, alternating breath-taking vistas with stunning close-ups against the magnificent score by Ennio Morricone. Leone lets the story unfold slowly. Characters surrender their motivations only grudgingly, all the while slowly building to a powerful conclusion. The pace of the film, which I credit as one of its strengths, may also be its main drawback today. Many members of the post-MTV generation accustomed to quick editing may not have the patience to let themselves be swept up by this film. That is a pity.
"Once Upon A Time In The West" stands as Leone's homage to the great, and not so great, western films that came before him. "Johnny Guitar" certainly springs to mind and the opening sequence makes an undeniable nod toward "High Noon." However, unlike Quentin Tarantino's recent homage to his roots, "Kill Bill, Vol. 1," this film not only stands on its own two feet, it expands the genre.
These characters are more than a group of archetypes wandering about under the western sun. Jill isn't your traditional victimized widow. A New Orleans prostitute taking a chance on a new life on the frontier, she's an independent woman who knows men. If sleeping with Frank is the only way to save her life, she will, knowing that after a hot bath she'll be the same as she was before. Frank, in a brilliant performance against type by Henry Fonda, is also a man in transition. He envies the power flowing from Morton's money. He would like to become more like Morton, but his propensity toward baser evil deprives him of the discipline he needs to become a businessman. Cheyenne seeks revenge for being framed and pretends to interested in the wealth the McBain land will bring, but he is mainly motivated by growing feelings for Jill. He's the most sentimental character in the film. He's a bandit with a heart of gold, which is more than can be said for Harmonica. Harmonica, the man with no name, develops a liking for both Jill and Cheyenne, but one gets the feeling he would sacrifice either or both of them if there was no other way to get Frank. He is not the classic, selfless western hero of old.
When I originally saw this film, I was disappointed by Bronson. I didn't think he made the most of a role obviously tailor-made for Clint Eastwood. I was mistaken. Bronson brought nuance to the role I doubt Eastwood would have at that stage of his career. In his three films with Leone, Eastwood's "Man with No Name" character tended toward smug amorality motivated only by self-interest. Harmonica has a little more depth and introspection than Eastwood's characters. He plays him with a certain sadness in his eyes; a doomed self-awareness. Harmonica realizes when he kills Frank the remainder of his life will be devoid of meaning or purpose. He doesn't speak much, but he tellingly attempts to wax philosophically with Frank about the nature of men of like themselves and the changing West. In a sense, he knows Frank is the only person who could understand him, since he had to become a gunman like Frank in order to achieve his well- deserved revenge. The characters Eastwood played for Leone were less troubled about their place in the universe than Bronson's Harmonica. This might be Bronson's best performance.
"Once Upon A Time In The West" deserves an esteemed place among the canon of great westerns.
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