Sergio Leone's masterpiece. In ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Leone pulls together all the themes, characterizations, visuals, humor, and musical experiments of the three "Dollars" films and comes up with a true epic western. It is a stunning, operatic film of breadth, detail, and stature
that deserves to be considered among the greatest westerns ever made. Although the original release in America was a severely edited version (Paramount wanted to cram an extra show in every night to sell more popcorn), the film was rereleased, uncut, in 1984. (The videotape version is also uncut.)
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST's credit sequence is perhaps one of the most famous in cinema history. It unfolds slowly, deliberately, as Leone lingers on the strange behavior of Frank's (Fonda) three hired killers (two of whom are Jack Elam and Woody Strode in unforgettable cameos) who await the
arrival of a train carrying "the Man" (Bronson), a stranger who has asked for an audience with Frank. The perfectly realized details--water dripping on Strode's bald head, Elam trying to shoo a pesky fly, and the third gang member cracking his knuckles--brings the scene immediately to life and
create an almost unbearable sense of anticipation. It doesn't let up from there.
A series of galvanizing confrontations and shootouts built around a landowning whore-turned-widow (Cardinale), a scheming railroad magnate (Ferzetti), and the Man's mysterious reason for stalking the cold-blooded Frank, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is often mesmerizing cinema. Casting baby
blue-eyed, open-faced Fonda, with that underlying edge of hardness which Leone loved in Fonda's John Ford films, as a ruthless killer was a stroke of genius. His best bits: Frank's murder of a little boy, and the finale with the harmonica. Another major distinction is Morricone's brilliant score,
featuring distinct themes for each of the four main characters (tuneless harmonica for Bronson, biting electric guitar for Fonda, humorous banjo for Robards's charming outlaw, and a lush, romantic score for Cardinale). What is really striking, though, is that Morricone based his composition on the
script rather than shot footage, and Leone had his cast adapt their body rhythms to the score. The paths Leone was struggling to develop in his previous three westerns finally merge and take shape here. Called a "dance of death" by some critics who picked up on the strange relationship between the
music and the actors, the film is an operatic eulogy for the western hero.
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- Review: Sergio Leone's masterpiece. In ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Leone pulls together all the themes, characterizations, visuals, humor, and musical experiments of the three "Dollars" films and comes up with a true epic western. It is a stunning, operatic film… (more)