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With: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Lionel Stander, Paolo Stoppa, Frank Wolff, Keenan Wynn
Written by: Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Donati
Directed by: Sergio Leone
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Western violence and brief sensuality
Language: English
Running Time: 165
Date: 12/20/1968

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Best of the West

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Italian master Sergio Leone followed up his Clint Eastwood Man with No Name/Dollars trilogy with the even bigger, bolder epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). It begins with its stunning, nearly silent ten-minute opening sequence: three men in long duster coats wait at a train station. The train arrives, and the man they are sent to kill, simply known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) instead dispatches them.

Meanwhile, a newly married woman in a black dress, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) heads to the small settlement of Sweetwater to join her new husband, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), and his children. Unfortunately, the entire McBain family has been viciously gunned down, leaving Jill a widow. Jason Robards plays Cheyenne, the trash-talking bandit who is wrongly accused of the slaughter.

The killer is cold-blooded low-down dirty dog Frank (Henry Fonda), so damn mean he kicks the crutches out from under a crippled man. (John Ford cast Henry Fonda as a villain only once, in Fort Apache, but Fonda was never quite as ruthless as he is here.)

It turns out that the McBain land is valuable, a prime spot to build a depot for the coming railroad, and that a terminally ill railroad magnate (Gabriele Ferzetti) wishes to get his hands on it. All the players attempt to outsmart one another in the name of the land. In the end, Harmonica has a personal score to settle with Frank.

With its wide spaces, striking close-ups, and extraordinary music, this epic Western is considered by many to be Sergio Leone's best movie, as well as being one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Unlike any other filmmaker, he worked in extremes — big, operatic moments and the smallest gestures, such as the lighting of a match — using huge, empty frames smashed together with shocking close-ups, dark frames punctured by squares of light, and silence broken by squeals of astonishing music.

Western legends Woody Strode and Jack Elam appear in the movie's legendary opener, and is arguably Leone's finest moment. It's a moment that all filmmakers could benefit from studying. Ennio Morricone's music score, based around Bronson's harmonica, is still the stuff of legend, beautiful, startling, and haunting.

Additionally, Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the genre's pinnacles, exploring — along with Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch — the bitter end of the Wild West and the onset of civilization. This theme was so effective that it led to many declaring the end of the Western as a movie genre. But though Once Upon a Time in the West is still a bit convoluted in the plot department (it features a story by Leone and future filmmakers Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci), every frame of it offers pure energized excellence.

Paramount's superb disc comes with an informative commentary track (with John Carpenter and Alex Cox) and a second disc full of featurettes and other goodies.

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