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Once Upon a Time in the West
USA, Italy, Spain
IMDB rating:
Sergio Leone
Henry Fonda as Frank
Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain
Jason Robards as Cheyenne
Charles Bronson as Harmonica
Gabriele Ferzetti as Morton (railroad baron)
Woody Strode as Stony - Member of Frank's Gang
Jack Elam as Snaky - Member of Frank's Gang
Keenan Wynn as Sheriff (auctioneer)
Frank Wolff as Brett McBain
Storyline: Story of a young woman, Mrs. McBain, who moves from New Orleans to frontier Utah, on the very edge of the American West. She arrives to find her new husband and family slaughtered, but by whom? The prime suspect, coffee-lover Cheyenne, befriends her and offers to go after the real killer, assassin gang leader Frank, in her honor. He is accompanied by Harmonica, a man already on a quest to get even.
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A Spectacular Movie
I just saw Once Upon a Time in the West on TV last night...probably for the 10th time, and it still blows me away. It is one of the greatest movies of all time, and along with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, High Noon, and Red River, one of the best westerns ever made. Every scene, every word, every musical note is magnificent. For scale and pure cinema it is on par with Lawrence of Arabia, another of my "10s". Henry Fonda made a great bad guy; another example of how effective casting against type can be. I was thinking it would be interesting to see a sequel, where the Charles Bronson character returns to Sweetwater to be with the Claudia Cardinale character... But these days, who would play those parts?
"I have a feelin' when he stops whittlin', somethin's gonna happen."
When composer Ennio Morricone first got the script for "Once Upon A Time In The West", he was so impressed with the story that he began writing the music for it immediately. The entire movie was scored before even a single frame was shot, and Sergio Leone liked it so much that he had portions played for the actors while rehearsing to get them to 'flow' with the music. One could go so far as to say that a good part of the picture was filmed to the score!

It took me a long time to get around to this film, but it was certainly worth the wait. Any movie that opens with Jack Elam and Woody Strode has got to get your attention, but when their characters didn't survive the opening sequence, I knew this was going to be something special. Actually, having seen Elam in countless movies and TV Western episodes, I can safely say that this is the best performance I've ever seen him in. His sparring with the fly to the omnipresent creak of the windmill was an inspired piece of work, and if you didn't know anything about the story going in, you would think that these players would have a major role in the story to come. And then Bronson appears!

And then Henry Fonda appears. Curiously, his character's name was Frank. It didn't take until the end of the movie to make the connection to Frank James, brother of outlaw Jesse, and the character Fonda portrayed in two much earlier movies - 1939's "Jesse James", and the sequel, 1940's "The Return of Frank James". It made me wonder if Sergio Leone's original script named the character Frank, or if it was a result of getting Fonda for the part. It's no secret that Leone had been after Fonda to appear in one of his Westerns for a few years, with Fonda declining because every script he ever read was in Leone's fractured English. Fonda eventually relied on friend Eli Wallach's (Tuco/The Ugly in "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) advice, who said he would have the time of his life.

More than most, this is a Western that in turn, defines and is defined by the music. Even Bronson's character is called Harmonica, and his tunes are played to haunting effect. They mask a much deadlier nature to the quiet stranger - "He not only plays, he can shoot too".

It took me a bit into the story to figure out it was Jason Robards under the beard of Cheyenne. I think it was interesting the way his character was written, leaving it ambiguous whether he was a lawman or an outlaw. The bigger surprise though had to do with a female character in the lead role, capably performed by Claudia Cardinale. She manages to arc through a wide range of characterizations throughout the story as situations call for, holding her own well against each of the male principals.

This is certainly a film I'll have to watch a few more times for some of the points noted above. In particular, the single scene I could watch over and over, one that is inextricably linked with it's musical score, is Fonda's death scene set to the strain of Morricone's dying harmonica. Not only creative, but as effective as any finale in a Western I can think of.

As a final thought, I was considering how Sergio Leone could have used the title "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" for this movie if it hadn't already been taken by another one of his legendary classics. But then again, Robards wasn't that ugly.
The classic Western it sets out to be
Everything about this film indicates that Leone set out to make a masterpiece. Having set the bar so high for himself it is even more remarkable that he has succeeded. The slow pacing, Monument Valley setting, typical Morricone score and all star cast are testament to how memorable he wants this film to be. You can picture him poring over each detail of every scene, even before shooting any footage.

The story is a familiar Western tale of a railway baron trying to get his hands on the land he needs by hook or by crook. Unfortunately for him his chief henchman has not bargained on a figure from his past returning to wreak long awaited revenge.

As the plot advances Leone treats us to a series of set pieces, with plenty of lingering looks, unspoken hatred and usually a dramatic and violent conclusion.

The coup de grace is the casting of Henry Fonda, so often the good guy in his movies, as the black-hearted henchman who clearly loves his job. Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards are all excellent.

There isn't much point in going into much more detail in a mere review. The only way to appreciate this film is to set aside about three hours, draw the curtains and let Leone transport you to his vision of the coming of the railways to the West.
A perfect western movie! Highest recommendations.
Awe-strucked! A completely different type of Cinema.. Who needs words and explanations when the powerful force of cinematic mastery and some heart- tearing music can do it all! Leone blends all the actors also beautifully and typically into his style... None of these actors would have acted again in the way they did for a Sergio Leone movie, I'm sure!

A beautifully shot movie and those typical Sergio Leone Close Up scenes just build the tension and suspense... I'm waiting to see these typical Leone Close Ups in 'Django Unchained' as promised by Tarantino!

Leone's best movie for me! A full 5; nothing I could come up with that was less than perfect about this movie.
lumbering and interminable
I recently purchased a double DVD package of "Once Upon a Time in the West" and re-watched this film after having revisited the "Dollars" trilogy...and what a comedown. First the positives: a lovely score from Ennio Morricone (especially the "Jill"/Claudia Cardinale theme), gorgeous photography, sets, locations, lighting, and some decent (but not terribly great) acting - Gabriele Ferzetti probably comes off best in his role. You know you're in trouble when the very last bit in the documentary extras is a quotation of Sergio Leone worriedly admitting to co-scripter Bernardo Bertolucci that he had set the pace far too slow when filming the opening sequences, and that the ensuing film would probably be five hours long as a result. It was almost three, and it barely moves along at all. The plot is paper thin and could have easily been filmed in 90 minutes. Perhaps then the much-needed forward momentum and suspense would be in place. As it is, the film has far too protracted silences which do not advance it at all.

Henry Fonda's villain Frank is rather drab and one dimensional, especially in comparison to Gian Maria Volonté's romanticized villains Ramon and Indio in the first two "Dollars" films. Fonda is also not even remotely formidable as a physical opponent for Charles Bronson. I'm not certain why Jason Robards' Cheyenne character is even in the film---perhaps as comic relief, but he does not ever really seem to belong in the Old West, despite his grizzled appearance. He and Bronson have none of the chemistry and camaraderie that Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef had in "For a Few Dollars More." Claudia Cardinale is beautiful and beautifully photographed, but even her character is rather one dimensional.

Back to the music: for this film Ennio Morricone recorded the score in advance (unlike the "Dollars" films), and some of the soaring themes arrive early in the film and are far too stridently emotional for characters and situations which have not yet won the viewers' hearts. He should have subdued some of his orchestration of the same themes earlier in the film, then revisited them in full intensity after some of the drama had likewise escalated. As such it is a bad marriage of sound and celluloid at the outset.

In the end it is director Sergio Leone's fault for not shooting this film so that the story would unfold at a much faster pace. It seems he didn't learn his lesson, though, as his next film "A Fistful of Dynamite" (1972) suffered from the very same problems. I donated the "West" DVD set to my local library just before writing this review; perhaps someone else will enjoy it.
An epic western – with all the pros and cons that come with that
As the railroad spreads western, bringing with it progress and development, the west is a changing place. The rule of gunmen is ending with the new men of power being land owners and developers. A young woman arrives in one such small town to find her new husband and family murdered by gunman Frank under the lead of a railroad developer. Meanwhile a mysterious man arrives in the town looking for Frank for some reasons. Both he and convict Manuel Gutierrez join forces to try and hold onto what remains of `their' west and deal with Frank.

From the opening ten minutes you should be able to judge whether or not this film will frustrate you or not. The opening scene is one of the best of cinema but, on paper, very little actually happens. This is what you need to carry into the film – as it is so very long there is plenty of silence and pauses. If you feel that these are unnecessary then the running time of this film will feel even longer to you. On the other hand if you, as I do, feel that the silences in this film are just as important and telling as the dialogue or action, then this film should move quite quickly.

The plot is a mix of revenge western while also looking at the death of the West associated with the American movies – the strong gunman, the frontier town etc, they exist here but are being pushed out with every frame of the film. What Leone manages to do which confounds me is he fills the film with so much silence but yet little of it brings boredom, instead the film has it's steady pace and never lets it dip into flagging but just keeps enough happening to keep things moving. I must admit that some of the deeper meaning was lost on me but still felt that the central threads of the three or four main characters were more than enough to hold my interest on their own. Of course, bits did work better than other bits but that is to be expected – I know I got more from the cat and mouse between Harmonica and Frank than I did from the relationship between Gutierrez and Jill. However these minor problems are lost in the sheer scale of the film itself.

The acting is great and some of it could be considered the actors at their best. Certainly I can't think of another role where Charles Bronson was required to do so well. Here he has to have a stone face but still give over character – he manages it and pulls off an iconic type of cool that I'd usually associate with big stars. Fonda plays very naturally as a bad guy. When I first saw this film I was quite young and hadn't seen a lot of his more famous roles, now that I have it is very strange to see him as a bad guy, but the counter casting of him does work anyway. Cardinale is a strong role but I must confess that her character was lost to me a little – this was one of the threads I was weakest on and I'll watch the film again with more focus. Support cast are all pretty good and have a few famous western faces in there.

One of the strongest parts of the film is the score. From the first time you hear that scarring harmonica you know to associate it with bitterness, likewise other parts of the score are very strong and used well. Part of it did remind me of Steptoe & Son but it still worked in it's context! The plot all goes sort of where you expect it to but we are left with the wider picture of the West of Frank coming to an end and the West of Morton moving unstoppably to replace it – the film never suggests that one is better than the other, in fact it highlights that there may be no difference at all. Meanwhile the frontier men are pushed on into a shrinking horizon.

Overall this is an epic, which means it is sweeping in scope, resulting in the occasional stretch showing. The running time is sparsely filled with dialogue which may frustrate some, however Leone has made the silence as loud as the dialogue and the actors provide him with performances that deliver so much without words at times that the time is easily eaten up. Not the most accessible western he made (simply because others are more entertaining) but still an epic and well worth three hours of anyone's time.
One for all time !!!
I thought I knew westerns, I'd seen John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Glen Ford, Audie Murphy, Richard Widmark, Alan Ladd, all of them save the day many times. I was wrong, I was 14 yrs old when I went to the local movie house to see this movie in 1969. My grandmother took me, she had always been a huge fan of Henry Fonda's, and even though she didn't care for western's, she dragged me to this one. I'll never forget how engrossed I was from beginning to end. And this one movie was the basis for all my future wish's to have been born a cowboy. Everything about this movie impressed me one way or the other.

Simply put, this movie is the most visually stimulating and engrossing movie I have ever watched.

I have seen plenty of great movies in my in my fifty years of life, but this one, is in my opinion more than a movie, it's a piece of history unfolding in front of your eyes with no censorship or BS added for flavor. True, the movie has been chopped up some for TV and other forms of presentation, but when I was in that theater in 1969, the movie was, to use a semi modern term "AWESOME".

No one, not even if you dislike westerns, should pass on this one.
The Best Western of All Time bar none!
The "fourth" and best of Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy, 'Once Upon A Time In The West' is a sprawling, operatic masterpiece of cinematography. The languid pacing only accentuates the meticulously presented scenes and the Ennio Morricone score is powerful, poignant and haunting. Each major character has his own musical theme. Henry Fonda's character has a menacing and jarring score which chills and thrills me every time I hear it (I bought the soundtrack too!). Fonda as Frank is the "coldest villain in screen history" as I have read in other reviews and was cast against type in this film. When the camera pans up into his passionless blue eyes early in the movie, one sees what a brilliant piece of casting it was to have him as the villain. This movie is a metaphor on the death of The Old West and the final word on how a (spaghetti) Western should be. Not to be missed!
This film was beautifully filmed with impressive scenery and well-designed sets against a beautiful musical score. The story line is pretty standard, but okay. Water rights, railroad coming in, new town, etc. However this film can't quite decide whether it wants to be a horse opera or a soap opera. At over three hours it's something like watching a full season of Days of our Lives meets The Young and the Restless in the Old West. A good half of that three plus hours is spent on close ups of the different characters staring at each other, or into mirrors, or just staring with gritty expressions on their weathered faces.

Henry Fonda gets to show us how bad a bad guy he can be, but that's just not the Henry Fonda we knew and loved and it didn't really work for me. But he was really bad. I'll give him that. Overall I found this film very tedious and I had to watch it in short increments or I'd never have got through it at all.
once upon a time in the west is the greatest western, and in my opinion, the greatest movie ever made. the cinematography, dialogue, music, and sets are flawless. the best dialogue in the film occurs before the showdown between harmonica and frank. harmonica is whittling on a piece of wood when frank rides up on his horse. harmonica says, "I knew you'd come. frank says, "nothing matters now, not the money, not land, not the woman." harmonica says, "so you found out you're not a businessman after all." frank says, "just the man." harmonica says, "a dying race. other mortons will come along and they will kill it off." one innovative feature of leone's work is the closeups of characters' faces that was perfected in this film. any film critic who doesn't rate this one in the top ten of all time isn't worth his salt.
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