My Review of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968)

This movie is notable for several reasons. I suppose the most obvious is its length. It is something of a drawn out experience, which you could argue befits the grandness of the director’s vision. It is the quintessential Western drenched in spaghetti sauce and pumped up on steroids.

Via Public Transportation Snob.

Further, any movie that starts with three men (one of whom is played by Woody Strode, for Pete’s sake) waiting to ambush a guy at a deserted train station only to have the tables turned on them by a harmonica-playing gunslinger … well, that’s not quite but almost like having A-list star Janet Leigh knifed to death in the shower less than halfway through a film.

Although director Sergio Leone had initially thought to stop making Westerns (with the intention of producing a film based on The Hoods, which ended up becoming Once Upon a Time in America), he accepted an offer from Paramount to make this film. Unlike Leone’s previous Spaghetti Westerns, Clint Eastwood turned down the protagonist’s role, which instead was played (harmonica in hand) by Charles Bronson.

Via Public Transportation Snob.

Which brings me to another unique aspect of this film: not only is Eastwood MIA, but Bronson’s protagonist—known only as “Harmonica”—has an uneasy semi-partnership with outlaw Cheyenne (played with the perfect combination of insouciance and menace by Jason Robards). Not that the pairing of unlikely allies is new in Leone’s world. We’ve seen that before in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But there’s something about the actors’ chemistry—and the harmonica—that makes this relationship feel different. Somehow more exciting and dangerous. It doesn’t hurt any that the actors are top notch.

Via Lost Coast Output.

As for the plot, let’s put it this way. Things kick off when Jill McBain, a retired prostitute with the biggest … heart in the West arrives in town. Just in time to find her husband and his children butchered at their home in the middle of nowhere. Murdered by a thug named Frank, the nastiest part I’ve ever seen Henry Fonda play.

You see, Frank wants to force the Widow McBain to sell the property to him. The dismal outpost, which had made McBain a laughing stock in town, must have some value. It’s up to Mrs. McBain to figure out what’s up. Don’t look for the answer here. It’s much more fun learning as you watch the story unfold.

Oh, and Frank is associated (let us say) with a crippled handicapped disabled health-compromised railroad tycoon named Morton. And Frank is so nasty by comparison, one almost feels sorry for this particular bad guy.

Via YouTube.

Is it any surprise that the three main male characters—Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank—eventually end up in a shootout? I won’t spoil the ending, but it is both poignant and deeply satisfying.

The men give such powerhouse performances that it nearly threatens to overshadow Claudia Cardinale as the newlywed Mrs. McBain. I’m lying. Cardinale has a steely resolve and likability that make her a winner no matter what the consequences. She holds her own amid three heavyweight male actors with grit to spare, balanced with a touching vulnerability. But she’s no pushover. Mrs. McBain isn’t going down without a fight.

Don’t mess with me!

As always, Leone uses location to maximum advantage. The camera moves through the wide open spaces fluidly and with dynamic grace. Unlike Leone’s previous Spaghetti Westerns, the pacing is snail-like slow, with long scenes and shots featuring little dialogue and not much happening. Not much physical action, I should say. But those long, slow scenes are punctuated with intense moments of violence and conflict that may or may not make up for the crawling languid pace between them.

The music is by—who else?—the awesome Ennio Morricone.

For a movie Leone didn’t plan to make, it comes across rather grandly. Almost in the manner of an overwritten love letter to the Western genre.

And yet I love watching it! Slow parts and all.

I would give this FIVE STARS (!!!), but for the length, which I’m sure challenges more than a few modern movie lovers. Ah, well … some of us can appreciate the epics! 🙂

Apropos of nothing, here’s a still from another of my favs!

To Aqaba!

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6 Responses to My Review of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968)

  1. moviefanman says:

    I fully understand that the length can deter viewers, especially first timers, but I think that once the film gets going, the visuals engross viewers so much that the length becomes void. Since this was really Leone’s love letter to the Western, it’s a film to be viewed trough the images rather than the story. Several years ago I was watching my DVD of the film with my Mom, and she told me at the end she really enjoyed it, and she normally doesn’t like Italian style Westerns. In the end it really depends on the mindset and interest of the particular viewer, but that’s part of the fun and differences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      I’m with you, for sure. It’s just that, since I’m married to someone who isn’t as enchanted by visual style and other cinematic techniques as I am, I tend to allow for them in assessing a movie.

      Alfred Hitchcock once said something to the effect that a film should be no longer than the amount of time the viewer can hold his or her bladder. Since he was a visual stylist, I wonder how he’d come down on this! 🙂


  2. J-Dub says:

    “I didn’t want you kill them. I just wanted you to scare them.”

    “I ‘ve always found people scare better when they are dying.”

    Henry Fonda’s “Frank” is a seriously bad dude.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t believe I still haven’t seen this. The clip you posted, where Fonda & Co descend on that family’s home, is mesmerizing. Fonda looks absolutely chilling as a bad guy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debbi says:

      When I saw the movie, I was flabbergasted by just how chilling Fonda was in that scene. And a few others!

      I think you’d probably like this one. Lots going on in it. It’s a feast for the senses. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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