Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) 100/100
– This film is perfection for me. I’ve watched it at least ten times in my life, and this time, because I watched it on an ultra 4K television, was the best. This is where Leone hit his high water mark in his directorial canon, be it story, dialog or cinematography. There are so many outstanding shots in this epic, that if you blink, you might miss them. One of my favorites is this shot, showing Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) heading out by horse carriage to Sweetwater, and the family that awaits her.
As of yet, she doesn’t know the tragedy that has befallen that family, and what that tragedy portends for her future. In the above shot, you see the famous Twin Mitten buttes, plus another butte to the right. All three buttes are cast in shadow, with the one on the right, with just a touch of sunshine on top, and her carriage is basked in brilliant sunshine. Now either this was one of the luckiest coincidences in film history or Leone was such a gifted artist, that he waited for this shot to materialize. From an allegorical viewpoint, you could see this as Jill heading into the darkness of her future. She will meet three larger than life men, who will alter her destiny. All three are dark, mysterious, foreboding and ominous in scope. The small amount of sunshine on the third butte could also signify that that only one man will survive by the end of the film, which is what happens. I’ve only heard this shot described as Leone paying homage to John Ford and his famous trilogy of westerns with John Wayne. But I’d like to think that what I see in this frame is what Leone intended.
I think the reason that this film resonates more strongly to me, as opposed to its predecessor, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
, is that GBU plays out solely like an action western. Once Upon a Time in the West
is the closest any western ever came to an operatic experience. It’s Wagner’s Die Walküre
with guns and horses, or Bizet’s Carmen
in a desert train station. And it works because you finally have a strong female lead as one of the major roles in the story. It’s what is lacking in GBU, and what makes this the much more rounded film in Leone’s canon. And you can tell that Leone knows it’s probably his last western, and he meticulously crafts every scene like it’s a portrait, leaving no one a chance to surpass his brilliance. At times, I was reminded of the famous Remington paintings, depicting the west in all its sagebrush glory.
If I could change one moment, one small thing, it would be in the closing moments, after the final duel. Frank turns away from Harmonica after he is mortally wounded. He drops to his knees as he realizes he’s going to die. Harmonica walks over, and Franks falls slightly to his left side, leaning on the ground as he looks up at Harmonica. In my change, Frank stays on his knees as Harmonica wheels around him to look him squarely in the face. Then he stuffs the harmonica into Frank’s mouth, just as Frank had done to the younger Harmonica, all those years ago. It would have bled irony, and given more time for Frank to realize who Harmonica was, as he fell forward into the dust of eternal darkness.