After completing the Dollars trilogy, one would come to expect Sergio Leone to have reached his peak with “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” just two years earlier, but he doesn’t let up an inch with “Once Upon A Time in the West.” The Italian-born filmmaker delivers once again the kind of western the genre will be remembered by.
Then there’s Ennio Morricone, Leone’s longtime composer. He is the glue of “West” if not arguably all Leone’s films. Assigning musical themes to each of the film’s three main outlaws, he gives us something to truly remember the film by, something to cushion his intense close-ups and lengthy takes. What makes his work in “West” so special, however, is that it carries so much more weight. It’s a living, breathing part of the script and it gives the conflict energy considering these characters don’t say much, at least compared to Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dollars trilogy. Although Morricone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” theme is his most memorable, that film has more to hang its hat on.
“West” is Leone’s dream spaghetti western, an American western done in his style. Admiring Henry Fonda, he convinced Fonda to play one of his most unique roles as the outlaw Frank, a merciless killer employed by a railroad owner. Then he brings in Charles Bronson as the quiet but hardened Harmonica, who offers his help to the beautiful widow Jill McBain, whose husband and family were killed by Frank because their huge property stood in the way of railroad expansion.
It’s classic revenge-driven western, where every scene feels on the verge of something big. The use of the Techniscope when filming, which helped make “Ugly” a step above its predecessors, continues to serve Leone well for close-ups and various camera movements. Faces are so important in Leone’s work and he has some excellent ones to work with such as the blue-eyed Fonda.
Then there’s the way this film quietly revolves around the railroad, the wheels of progress, the symbolism of movement — all of which are inherently American while also making great material for Leone. One of the film’s best scenes, for example, is when the third outlaw, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who Harmonica enlists as help, takes out a bunch of guys on a moving train.
But what this film keeps coming back to is the way Morricone’s score tells this story, or as I’ve read, even dictates the story at points. Every time his music is at its fullest, electric guitar riffs and all, the film is just infused with this great power. Even when what’s on screen doesn’t completely say everything you need to know, this masterful score fills in the gaps.