The great Sergio Leone brought his series of revisionist "spaghetti westerns" (including the Man with No Name trilogy) to a magnificent climax with 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West. In this sweeping, grandiose homage to the genre, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Henry Fonda star in the epic story of an enigmatic gunman who arrives in a small western town on a mysterious vendetta. The film raises the genre to the level of grand opera, with a tour de force score by Ennio Morricone and Leone's unrivaled wide-screen direction. Shot mostly in gorgeously grotesque close-ups, the characters are archetypes whose brilliantly choreographed introductions alone are worth the price of admission. There's the quiet drifter with a 1,000-yard stare (Bronson), the grizzled but principled outlaw (Robards), and the strong yet vulnerable ex-prostitute (Cardinale). But most striking is the legendary Fonda as a heartless, cold-blooded killer. His ice-blue eyes and subtle sneer redefine the Wild West villain in a single performance, conjuring a latent cruelty that's all the more remarkable coming from a beloved movie star. From the elegantly unfolding story to the superbly layered sound -- and possibly the finest gun duel in the history of film -- Once Upon a Time in the West stands as so complete and thoroughly realized a work as to be a textbook on the art and craft of filmmaking itself. It is unquestionably one of the greatest movies ever made.
One of numerous '60s revisionist Westerns, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) turns a revenge story into a contemplation of the Western past. As in his "Dollars" trilogy, Leone transforms the standard Western plot through the visual impact of widescreen landscapes and the figures who populate them, as Harmonica appears out of nowhere and Frank chillingly commands the center of the frame. The opening credit sequence of three Western toughs (including Woody Strode and Jack Elam) preparing to kill someone at a train station artfully plays off Leone's fixation with faces and locales and the epic effect of his meticulous narrative pace. The sense of suspended time speaks to the concerns with past, future, and history that drive the plot; Jill oversees the literal tracks of "progress," while Frank is undone by the past he shares with memory-driven Harmonica. Among a number of "quotations" from classical Westerns, Henry Fonda's presence as the sadistic Frank and the Monument Valley location evoke the Western movie past of John Ford, as Leone exposes the dark reverse of Fonda's staunch Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946). Ennio Morricone's haunting score emphasizes the elegiac, quasi-mystical atmosphere. After the success of the "Dollars" films starring Clint Eastwood, Paramount gave Leone the money to make his monumental saga as he wished. When the film opened to critical indifference and little business, Paramount chopped 25 minutes out to speed the pace, but to no financial avail. Leone's directorial career never quite recovered. Those 25 minutes, and Once Upon a Time in the West's critical stature, have since been restored; the film is now considered to be Leone's operatic masterpiece.
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