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Sergio Leone


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Henry Fonda as Frank
Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain
Jason Robards as Cheyenne
Charles Bronson as Harmonica
Gabriele Ferzetti as Morton (railroad baron)
Woody Strode as Stony - Member of Frank's Gang
Jack Elam as Snaky - Member of Frank's Gang
Keenan Wynn as Sheriff (auctioneer)
Frank Wolff as Brett McBain
Once Upon a Time in the West Storyline: 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 whom? 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, a man already on a quest to get even.
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"I have a feelin' when he stops whittlin', somethin's gonna happen."
When composer Ennio Morricone first got the script for "Once Upon A Time In The West", he was so impressed with the story that he began writing the music for it immediately. The entire movie was scored before even a single frame was shot, and Sergio Leone liked it so much that he had portions played for the actors while rehearsing to get them to 'flow' with the music. One could go so far as to say that a good part of the picture was filmed to the score!

It took me a long time to get around to this film, but it was certainly worth the wait. Any movie that opens with Jack Elam and Woody Strode has got to get your attention, but when their characters didn't survive the opening sequence, I knew this was going to be something special. Actually, having seen Elam in countless movies and TV Western episodes, I can safely say that this is the best performance I've ever seen him in. His sparring with the fly to the omnipresent creak of the windmill was an inspired piece of work, and if you didn't know anything about the story going in, you would think that these players would have a major role in the story to come. And then Bronson appears!

And then Henry Fonda appears. Curiously, his character's name was Frank. It didn't take until the end of the movie to make the connection to Frank James, brother of outlaw Jesse, and the character Fonda portrayed in two much earlier movies - 1939's "Jesse James", and the sequel, 1940's "The Return of Frank James". It made me wonder if Sergio Leone's original script named the character Frank, or if it was a result of getting Fonda for the part. It's no secret that Leone had been after Fonda to appear in one of his Westerns for a few years, with Fonda declining because every script he ever read was in Leone's fractured English. Fonda eventually relied on friend Eli Wallach's (Tuco/The Ugly in "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) advice, who said he would have the time of his life.

More than most, this is a Western that in turn, defines and is defined by the music. Even Bronson's character is called Harmonica, and his tunes are played to haunting effect. They mask a much deadlier nature to the quiet stranger - "He not only plays, he can shoot too".

It took me a bit into the story to figure out it was Jason Robards under the beard of Cheyenne. I think it was interesting the way his character was written, leaving it ambiguous whether he was a lawman or an outlaw. The bigger surprise though had to do with a female character in the lead role, capably performed by Claudia Cardinale. She manages to arc through a wide range of characterizations throughout the story as situations call for, holding her own well against each of the male principals.

This is certainly a film I'll have to watch a few more times for some of the points noted above. In particular, the single scene I could watch over and over, one that is inextricably linked with it's musical score, is Fonda's death scene set to the strain of Morricone's dying harmonica. Not only creative, but as effective as any finale in a Western I can think of.

As a final thought, I was considering how Sergio Leone could have used the title "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" for this movie if it hadn't already been taken by another one of his legendary classics. But then again, Robards wasn't that ugly.
Much more than a movie

I consider Ennio Morricone far the best composer for film scores. Everyone who doubts that should get himself the theme from "El Mercenario" and listen to it with his eyes closed.

And Sergio Leone knew like only few others how to create a picture, frame by frame, position by position, action by action, face by face.

It is clear that when these two masterminds come together in a almost unique way, the result has to be breathtaking. The fact that Morricone wrote the music before Leone started shooting the film fortifies my opinion that this movie had two directors, working like one.

But even the best painter is powerless without paint. Luckily, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale and, above all others, Charles Bronson had the specific look Leone needed to create this epic.

It is a simple and yet impressive way, Morricone and Leone cook up the tension in this tale. First, the main characters are presented in a breathtaking way. Cheyenne freezes with his appearance a whole cowboy stop. Frank exposes some of the most devastating cruelties ever to be carried by a villain. Jill, the flower in the wilderness. And then of course Harmonica, starting with killing three western legends and going on by mocking even scary Cheyenne.

After the characters are portrayed, the interaction starts. And step by step, more relations are exposed or created. Just the first meeting of Cheyenne, Jill and Harmonica is the most thrilling moment I have experienced with a movie so far. The bouncing shadow of Bronson's hat, covering and revealing his unique face while he plays, silent and calm as a monk, his harmonica always snatches me like the freezing squall of a blizzard.

One thing, everyone in the film loses just in the right moment: The mystery. You never know, why Harmonica chases Frank, just until the end. You never know, why Cheyenne becomes a noble guy, just until the end. But be aware: When the curtain falls down, thunder hits you and a storm is blowing when Frank and Harmonica finally have their showdown.

This is film-making up to perfection, when the movie is an experience. An adventure. An epic.

I haven't felt anything like the emotions I had in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST after or before I watched it. I'd say, this is the best motion picture I have seen so far and I'm pretty sure, nothing is gonna replace it.
The classic Western it sets out to be
Everything about this film indicates that Leone set out to make a masterpiece. Having set the bar so high for himself it is even more remarkable that he has succeeded. The slow pacing, Monument Valley setting, typical Morricone score and all star cast are testament to how memorable he wants this film to be. You can picture him poring over each detail of every scene, even before shooting any footage.

The story is a familiar Western tale of a railway baron trying to get his hands on the land he needs by hook or by crook. Unfortunately for him his chief henchman has not bargained on a figure from his past returning to wreak long awaited revenge.

As the plot advances Leone treats us to a series of set pieces, with plenty of lingering looks, unspoken hatred and usually a dramatic and violent conclusion.

The coup de grace is the casting of Henry Fonda, so often the good guy in his movies, as the black-hearted henchman who clearly loves his job. Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards are all excellent.

There isn't much point in going into much more detail in a mere review. The only way to appreciate this film is to set aside about three hours, draw the curtains and let Leone transport you to his vision of the coming of the railways to the West.
Once Upon A Time Is The Best
"My weapons might look simple to you, Mr. Morton, but they can still shoot holes big enough for our little problems."

Leone gets a budget that's proportional to his expertise, and now we want to complain about length. Shoot, the more the merrier, in my case. It could be speculated that Al Mulock would have postponed his unfortunate suicide for a chance to survive the first showdown. But at 164 minutes, this is hardly overkill.

"Get the costume! We need the costume!"

Dario Argento, one of my personal favorites, takes writing credit alongside the usual suspects; Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone. Call it the good, bad, and ugly of Italian screenwriters. Ennio Morriccone returns for the soundtrack, and once again composes a masterpiece. The cinematographer was the man who masterminded the spinning graveyard scene that enthralled us at the end of "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly", so expect this one to up the ante. The actors, though, is where the credibility of Leone's previous work is really evident. Henry Fonda plays a villain named Frank, need I say more? Well, yes I need, because that tasty, zesty widow is quite easily one of my top picks for hottest women to lead a role in a film, Claudia Cardinale. So hot, in fact, that I have to admit I didn't know whether to cheer or cry for her during the softcore sex scene. I mean, for real, John Landis of all people has credits in the film. As a stunt double.

Well enough credit-talk, let's get to the plot. If money is indeed the root of all evil, it must have been intentional that for once, after the "Fistful Of Dollars" series, that the green bill doesn't enter much into the scene of the film. These guys are just plain bad. Most of the fighting goes on over an empty, unwanted plot of land. Prospects can be almost as important as respect, the story seems to tell us. No, really. We see money only a handful of times in the duration of the film. It's probably used most effectively here, when it's refused. But as the body count rises, and rises, and rises, it reminds us that where there is a serious power struggle, emotions fly just as often as bullets. Revenge, it must be, yet we don't ever truly know why.

So, if we accept that Frank is indeed one of the toughest sons of a gun in film making history, which he is, then it only leads to reason that lone gunners won't stand a chance. Enter Jason Robarbs, and the resulting factor of breaking typecast will bring a smile to your face. It sure better. Because the heroic Harmonica, played by Charles Bronson, couldn't play a harmonica to save his life. But who is going to deny a protagonist who doesn't stop smiling while being tied to a train and smacked around by an angry, angry man with a gun.

In another turn of events, Leone finally writes a piece where the ending will leave you reeling back when you see who the final profiteer is. Well I suppose that's the way these types of triangles work.

If you don't like westerns in general, don't expect that this will change your mind that much. It probably will, anyway, because the epic proportions of the storyline are undeniable. But as usual in Sergio Leone's films, you might have no idea why there are so many people getting shot until about midway through the film. Remember, this is an intelligent western from an intelligent man. It's his prerogative to create something sort of like a good Italian spaghetti bowl; lots of long strands, that when twisted around each other just right, make for a delicious bite.

"He not only plays. He can shoot too."

"Once Upon A Time In The West" (1968) 10/10
Another epic western from Sergio Leone
I never thought Leone could ever top The Good The Bad The Ugly, one of his greatest works, but with Once Upon A Time In The West he comes really close.

Once Upon A Time In The West (I'll just call it The West for this review) tells the tale of Jil McBain(Claudia Cardinale)who comes from New Orleans to be with her husband in the west. Once she gets there she discovers she has been widowed because her husband and his entire family have been wiped out by a ruthless assassin named Frank(Henry Fonda). The land, which was owned by her late husband, was going to be used to build a railroad station which would've made them all rich. However Frank and a railroad baron named Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) have there own plans for getting rich the same way and that's why Morton had Frank kill them. Neither one of them knew about Jil though, and soon their vile plans turn on her.

However there is one man (Charles Bronson) who plays a harmonica and steps in to keep her safe. With the help of a desperado named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) they work to protect her from the evil clutches of Frank and Morton. Harmonica however has other reasons for wanting Frank dead, and it is left as a guessing game up to the end when we finally discover the real reason why Harmonica was after Frank in the first place.

Just like with The Good The Bad The Ugly, Leone uses extreme closeups of peoples faces as well as wide long shots of large opened settings to tell a wonderful story about the west. With TGTBTU he told a story during Civil War times, but with this movie he talks about the time period when railroads were being created to stretch across the country.

The acting in this film was phenomenal. I loved the expanded shots of the characters which said more than any words could ever say. Don't get me wrong though. The West had a lot of interesting dialoque which helped embellish the characters flaws and behaviors even more.

The movie is long, as was TGTBTU, but like that earlier film, this one never becomes boring either. If I were to compare the two films and make a choice, I would say that both were great movies. However TGTBTU would edge out The West as the better movie.
The Best Western of All Time bar none!
The "fourth" and best of Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy, 'Once Upon A Time In The West' is a sprawling, operatic masterpiece of cinematography. The languid pacing only accentuates the meticulously presented scenes and the Ennio Morricone score is powerful, poignant and haunting. Each major character has his own musical theme. Henry Fonda's character has a menacing and jarring score which chills and thrills me every time I hear it (I bought the soundtrack too!). Fonda as Frank is the "coldest villain in screen history" as I have read in other reviews and was cast against type in this film. When the camera pans up into his passionless blue eyes early in the movie, one sees what a brilliant piece of casting it was to have him as the villain. This movie is a metaphor on the death of The Old West and the final word on how a (spaghetti) Western should be. Not to be missed!
So good it hurts
This film is so good it hurts. The cast. Oh my God, the cast. Henry Fonda was the perfect bad guy. He even fit the look. Charles Bronson is always top perfect in a western, and Jason Robards was fantastic as a grungy gang leader. Claudia Cardinal. Need I say more. The story is excellent, and Leone's direction is never at fault. While Morricone is not known for this score, it is quite good and fitting as always. It all just adds up to a perfect film in my eyes. On a side note, nobody builds up tension prior to a shootout like Leone. See The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for another perfect example.
A bit embarrassed to say I just got around to watching this...
I just got around to viewing this last week on Netflix... Since last weekend I have watched it a further three times and will readily concur with many others on this board that this is my favourite film of all time... It has to be; I've wracked my cranium for the last few days trying to think of another that moved me so profoundly, and nothing comes to mind... The ten minute (or so) gun battle/flashback sequence with Frank and Harmonica had me both crying and goosebump-ridden, Morricone's soaring, amplified guitar playing throughout that sequence left me in such a state of exhilaration that I can't quite express it properly... I found myself having to pull it together to watch the last brilliant 15 or so minutes... Others have described the pace of this film as being "slow"; to those who haven't seen this film, doing confuse this with boring! Like a great book I was sad to see it end, and have returned to it repeatedly over the past few days, appreciating it more every time...
Take a good look at the long shots!!
This great movie is sometimes called slow. In my opinion it can not be long enough. Not all movies should be over in 90 minutes, while others are already boring from the first minute. It is clear that this movie is of the first category. Sergio Leone really took time for beautiful shots. Watch the scene in which Claudia Cardinale gets out of the train carefully. The shot starts when she gets out, and continues when she walks over the platform, through the railway station building, and out of it on the other side. All in one shot!!! The MTV-ation of the cinema is not always a good thing. It sometimes makes it more exciting, but the truly long, good shots should never be forgotten. Of course the long shots of Sergio Leone are backed up by the stunning music of the great composer Ennio Moricone. I know of no better director/composer duo.
Great movie, but overrated
I saw this movie as a youngster when it first came out and was enthralled by it. Subsequently, I re watched it over the years a number of times and it has always been one of my favorites.

However, recently I decided to begin a hobby of becoming an amateur critic of the Western genre. I have begun a multi-year project to review and rank all "A" Westerns ever released.

I understand why some fans may consider this one of the best Westerns of all time. It is a high psychedelic opera that can be mesmerizing. I am sad to say, however, that "OUTITW" if fairing very poorly in my rankings.

As much as I used to like it, when I take a harder look at "OUTITW" and compare it against other top Westerns, it comes up woefully short in a number to critical categories I use to rank the great Westerns.

I'll start with a list of positives:

- Of course, this movie is mostly about style and Leone gives this movie the full treatment. For me this is both a positive and a negative. A positive because style is what's great about a Leone Western. A negative, because in this case he overdoes it. Details in my negative list below

- The casting of Henry Fonda is a stroke of genius. Frank might be the most effective heavy in the history of Westerns. His blue eyes are perfect for the Leone close-ups

- The opening segment "High Noon" tribute is classic Leone

- Claudia Cardinale is one of the sexiest females to ever appear in a Western. She is also well characterized and her role is integral to plot developments i.e. she's not a gratuitous sex object.

- It's not often remarked on, but Morton, the railroad baron, is very well characterized. Nice touch to have him be a cripple, but the important thing is that he is not one-dimensionally evil. He is humanized not just by his infirmity, but also by the painting of the ocean on the wall of his train car.

- The soundtrack is very effective, as usual with Leone.

- It's a good looking film and Cardinale's carriage ride through Monument Valley is one of the most visually beautiful segments in the history of cinema, let along Westerns.

Now for the negatives:

- Leone's strength is his style. In "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" he managed to integrate his style into a compelling storyline, replete with clever plot twists, snappy dialog and excellent comic relief. "OUTITW" has none of these things. To make matters worse, he slows the pace down to a crawl and adds an hour of running time.

- This might have worked if he had created another compelling character except Frank. The fact is that we don't care about anybody in this movie. The only sympathetic character is Harmonica, but we don't have any reason to feel for him until the movie's final scene.

- There is virtually no comic relief, outside of Harmonica's "two horses too many" line at the beginning and Cheyenne's antics on top of the train. Compare to "TGTBTU" where Eli Wallach created one of the most fascinating comic villains in the history of cinema. Not only that, but you actually CARED about Tuco more than you do anybody in "OUTITW". What an achievement!

- Leone even messed up the landscape. After Cardinale's stunning buggy ride through Monument Valley, we are immediately aware that the movie is really being filmed in Spain or somewhere, certainly not in Monument Valley. The film then gets stuck in the ugly town they built and stays there.

- Jason Robard's character is beyond dull. The movie would have been much better if they had just deleted this character, who really serves no purpose. And Cardinale can't act her way out of a paper bag. First billing over Fonda too. Go figure that.

- The fundamental plot is too thin to support a three hour film.

- Finally, Leone seems to think that all Indians had been fully exterminated from the region in the 1880's Arizona. I didn't see one. In fact, Leone deserves some kind of career Razzie award for making five Westerns without a single Indian. I don't mean no Indian characters, I mean not even the presence of a single Indian. Some "student" of Westerns.
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