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The word "masterpiece" gets tossed around far too often but if any film deserves that appellation, it's Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Director and writer Sergio Leone hit the international film world hard with such spaghetti Westerns as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) but for Once Upon a Time in the West he used elements and specific references from decades of Westerns as an elegiac tribute to the genre. But the film is much more than just the ultimate Western; it's an epic tale of loyalty and mystery, a study of landscapes and faces, a beautiful and all too-human film.
The plot of Once Upon a Time in the West is disarmingly simple. A powerful landowner is waiting for his new bride (Claudia Cardinale) to arrive from New Orleans when he's killed by thugs. The newly installed widow discovers that a railroad is coming through the land, which of course the local railroad boss wants for himself. Complicating things is the railroad boss's cold-blooded killer (Henry Fonda of all people) who is being stalked by a shadowy stranger (Charles Bronson). Complicating things even more is the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) who has his own plans. You can tell Once Upon a Time in the West is going to be a different kind of Western from the opening scene. It's a ten-minute-plus scene of three men waiting for a train to arrive. There's almost no dialogue and very little overt action but it's a gripping visual sequence that was praised by the great novelist Graham Greene for its "almost balletic quality." Leone had wanted the lead actors from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to play the three roles in this scene but when Clint Eastwood refused he scrapped that idea.
Leone had first thought he'd finished with the Western after making The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and started to plan a film that would later become Once Upon a Time in America. But that project proved troublesome so he turned to the idea of Once Upon a Time in the West. A chance meeting at a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly connected Leone with two collaborators on the story who would later become accomplished directors themselves: Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, 1972) and Dario Argento (Suspiria, 1977). The trio hammered out a story drawing from decades of American history and films (though much of the plot came from Johnny Guitar (1954) as they later admitted). The detailed story was expanded by Sergio Donati (The Big Gundown(1966), and uncredited work on Leone's two previous films) to a full script in about a month. Much later, the English-language dialogue would be written by Mickey Knox, a former actor who worked on numerous translations during this period. (Like nearly all Italian films, Once Upon a Time in the West was filmed without sound so all the dialogue and sound effects were dubbed later, even for the Italian version.)
Most of the cast were chosen for their memorable faces or familiarity among Western fans but Leone had always wanted to work with Henry Fonda. For Leone's earlier films, Fonda was just too expensive but now that he had the money it was a challenge to interest Fonda because of the language barrier. Fonda had passed on the film originally because the hastily translated script seemed clumsy but Eli Wallach told him that he really should meet with Leone. Fonda did so, saw Leone's earlier films and was so impressed he signed aboard almost immediately. (Oddly enough, Leone was still trying to get Clint Eastwood into the film, this time for the role that Charles Bronson would play.)
Filming took place at Italy's Cinecitta Studios and on location in Spain (for the town and ranch-house) and John Ford's favorite stomping ground Monument Valley (for the flashback and several establishing shots and short scenes). Leone turned again to his favorite composer Ennio Morricone and had most of the music already recorded before production began so that it could be played during actual filming.
Once Upon a Time in the West opened in 1969 to somewhat confused critical reaction. Audiences in France loved it but in the U.S. the distributor panicked and chopped out nearly 20 minutes. But sharp viewers (including the directors Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah) began to take notice of this masterful achievement and it soon began to acquire the reputation it deserves.
Leone only made two more films A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). However, he'd been preparing to do far more: an epic about the siege of Leningrad, a Civil War story with Richard Gere and Mickey Rourke, a version of Don Quixote in the present day. Still, the few films that Leone was able to complete remain essential viewing.
Producer: Bino Cicogna (executive producer), Fulvio Morsella
Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Dario Argento (story), Bernardo Bertolucci (story), Sergio Donati, Mickey Knox (dialogue), Sergio Leone (also story)
Production Design: Carlo Simi
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Costume Design: Carlo Simi
Film Editing: Nino Baragli
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Principal Cast: Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Henry Fonda (Frank), Jason Robards (Cheyenne), Charles Bronson ("Harmonica"), Gabriele Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Woody Strode (Stony), Jack Elam (Knuckles), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Lionel Stander (Barman).
C-166m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Lang Thompson