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Worth A Look: 8.09%
Average: 2.94%
Pretty Bad: 0.74%
Total Crap: 3.68%

3 reviews, 118 user ratings

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Once Upon a Time in the West
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by Mel Valentin

"If you see only one Western, see..."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 52ND SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The words “masterpiece” and “classic” are too often over-used by film critics, movie bloggers, and self-described cineastes. Sergio Leone’s fourth film, "Once Upon a Time in the West" ("C'era una volta il West"), an operatic, mytho-poetic Western, fully deserves to be called “masterpiece” and “classic.” After completing the “Man With No Name” trilogy ("The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "For a Few Dollars More," "A Fistful of Dollars"), Leone embarked on the definitive Western, a grand summation of the themes and ideas (visual and narrative) that drove an Italian filmmaker to write and direct films in an American-focused genre. But in making “Italo-Westerns” (Leone justifiably disliked the “Spaghetti Western” term), he helped to redefine and reinvigorate a moribund genre. Only Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch," "Major Dundee," "Ride the High Country") did as much to rejuvenate the genre.

In the first scene, three armed men (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) wait (waiting are both a given in Once Upon a Time in the West) for a train to arrive in Flagstone, Arizona. When, however, the train arrives and a stranger disembarks, a terse exchange of dialogue leads to a gunfight. Only the stranger, another iteration of Leone’s “Man With No Name” character (who Leone once envisioned Eastwood playing), identified later only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) for the musical instrument he carries around his neck and plays repeatedly, survives. The harmonica’s meaning becomes a central mystery resolved only in the climactic showdown between the stranger and the man he’s come to Flagstone to kill, for a reason (or reasons) left unspecified until the final, devastating flashback.

In just the second scene, Leone breaks a fundamental rule of the Western genre: children are, by their nature, exempt from violence. Outside of Flagstone, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his immediate family wait on their farm, the inaptly named “Sweetwater,” for a later train to arrive. They hunt, prepare food, and argue. Before the oldest son can leave for the train station, men in long dusters gun down the McBain family. The gang, led by Led by Frank (Henry Fonda, cast against type), a cold, cruel gunslinger, works for Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a railroad baron. Morton suffers from a debilitating, terminal illness that’s left him unable to walk without crutches. Morton hopes to see the railroad reach the Pacific Ocean before he dies, but the McBains owned land crucial to the railroad’s expansion. Morton and Frank, however, are unaware that McBain married Jill (Claudia Cardinale) in New Orleans weeks earlier. As a McBain (if only in name), Jill now owns the property. The fourth major character, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an outlaw with a romantic streak, runs into Jill and Harmonica at a trading post, seconds after escaping from an armed escort, later becoming enraged when he discovers he's been set up as the killer of the McBain family (he draws the line at killing children apparently).

Although Leone was ready to leave the Western behind (he already had plans for Once Upon a Time in America, which he filmed 14 years later), Paramount offered him $3,000,000, his largest budget to date, and an opportunity to work with Henry Fonda, who he cast against type, as well as other American actors associated with the American Western (e.g., Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, etc.). Leone initially turned to Dario Argento (Opera, Tenebrae, Suspiria, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, 1900, The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem) to write the story treatment. Argento and Bertolucci included references or quotations to several American Westerns, including High Noon (in the opening scene), The Searchers (in the closing scene), Shane (again, in the closing scene), as well as 3:10 to Yuma (in a line of dialogue), John Ford’s cavalry trilogy (brief shots in Monument Valley), and numerous others, in effect making Once Upon a Time in the West the first post-modern Western.

For Leone, each film was a step away from the ossified visual and narrative conventions of the Western genre and toward an increasingly baroque visual style. A Fistful of Dollars was shot on the cheap for $200,000 on unused film stock, with a then-little known TV actor named Clint Eastwood, and shot in Spain with a mixed Italian-Spanish crew. The commercial success of A Fistful of Dollars gave Leone more money and more time to plan his next film, For a Few Dollars More only a year later. Leone’s style matured with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, e.g., lengthy shots held beyond narrative or causal necessity, characters honed down into elemental archetypes, the music more operatic, and an emphasis on visual composition, including the deep-focus photography that defined his visual style, a visual style that would find its apotheosis in Once Upon a Time in the West only two years later.

Leone’s collaborators were (almost) as important to the success of Once Upon a Time in the West. Torino Delli Colli handled the stunning widescreen Techniscope cinematography. Delli Colli, a visual stylist in his own right, harnessed his talents to Leone’s. Surprisingly, Leone never storyboarded his films, relying on a combination of factors, including period authenticity, as delivered by his production designer, Carlo Simi, Delli Colli’s on-set preparations, his own, on-set creative decisions, and editing, where he molded and shaped the film into its final product. Ennio Morricone, Leone’s composer on the Man With No Name trilogy returned to write the sweeping, soaring score for Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone played Morricone’s pre-composed score during filming to give the actors emotional and tonal direction.

Along with his collaborators, Leone succeeded in creating a grand, operatic mytho-poetic Western, a summing up of the Western’s interrelated themes and preoccupations, e.g., the vanishing of the frontier, the end of the violent gunfighter era (typified in the Harmonica, Frank, Cheyenne characters), and Anglo-American colonization westward are all present in Once Upon a Time in the West. Jill represents the restless, indomitable American spirit, both in her self-conscious reinvention from a prostitute to a landowner’s wife and her desire to move west, a decision guided, perhaps subconsciously, by “manifest destiny” (American imperialism by another name). Frank, Harmonica, and Cheyenne represent the violent, retributive Old West, the romanticized, idealized past ruthlessly swept under the railroad tracks of progress.

Leone would go on to direct only two more films in the next twenty years before his death in 1989 (he was sixty), "A Fistful of Dynamite" in 1972, a film he didn’t want to direct, but did at the last minute, and "Once Upon a Time in America" in 1984. At the time of his death, Leone was working on an epic film centered on the Battle for Stalingrad. But in the "Man With No Name" trilogy and "Once Upon a Time in the West," Leone redefined and reinvigorated the Western genre.

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originally posted: 05/19/09 06:41:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/17/20 Ed Riddick A masterpiece! 5 stars
12/18/15 Gannon Roberts Should have received some academy awards. Brilliant flick. 5 stars
4/22/15 stanley welles irresistible and stylish 5 stars
2/15/15 john idiot movie 1 stars
1/06/15 steffany one word: overrated 1 stars
8/04/14 Garka Pretty good and complex western... The "Godfather Pt.II" of westerns... 4 stars
1/01/13 Butt Lives up to its reputation. 5 stars
11/18/11 Golden J. Williams Jr. One of the best Westerns done. Fonda as the villan-GOOD MOVE! 5 stars
1/27/11 brett AWESOME!! rain/snow day gem. delightfully soaks in 5 stars
8/10/10 Chad Dillon Cooper great western co-written by Dario Argento 5 stars
10/30/09 Omar Must-see! 5 stars
8/25/09 Duke of Omnium Cinematically thrilling; no character development. The apotheosis of the Western movie. 4 stars
7/14/09 Linda This is a Classic, The scene where the entire family is killed is heartbreaking! 5 stars
11/21/07 G. Webster A+ from start to finish,one of the ten best ever 5 stars
9/04/07 Double M Slow? yes. boring? no. only 2nd to GBU. Leone's TM's: cool characters, ELECTRIFYING climax. 5 stars
8/01/07 mr.mike classic leone but snail's pace may put some folks off 4 stars
5/18/07 Kelley Elder a textbook for non-verbal acting. mesmerizing to watch 5 stars
2/03/07 action movie fan outstanding production values but so dull,no story! production A+ story D- 2 stars
12/30/06 Adam Maybe it's b/c I never got the fuss over the Eastwood trilogy, but this movie floored me. 5 stars
12/13/06 Branislav Pure art! 5 stars
11/13/06 TennTexan Definitely the best Western ever made that didn't star John Wayne 5 stars
11/01/06 William Goss Despite a slow start (post-credits), a movie of many magnificent moments. 5 stars
10/27/06 Bob Miller I know of no other film which has delivered so many spell-binding scenes.....and the music! 5 stars
9/16/06 rwelsh They will never make another work of art again but Mike Bay lives, how sad 5 stars
5/22/06 jpp something to do with death... and genius 5 stars
5/07/06 dionwr A classic, and a master's class in how to use film 5 stars
5/05/06 Uri Lessing My favorite film. 5 stars
5/02/06 PaulBryant "People scare better when they're dyin'" - Fonda's superb. 5 stars
5/02/06 Ryan_A Fantastic film. 5 stars
5/02/06 EricDSnider ... 3 stars
5/02/06 David Cornelius Leone's masterpiece 5 stars
5/02/06 William Goss Still haven't seen it. 4 stars
5/02/06 HBS-SH Sparrow Goes to Space 5 stars
4/30/06 Joshua Sergio Leone is a genius. 5 stars
3/18/06 MP Bartley Yes, it's slow...but it's also masterful, superbly acted and deeply heartfelt 5 stars
1/10/06 T.N. Pool My all-time favorite Western. Superb cast, music, atmosphere. Unforgetable. 5 stars
1/02/06 John Cogar One of the very greatest. Right up there with Sgane. 5 stars
12/02/05 dreamed_realization Probably the best Western of all time. 5 stars
11/18/05 John Dog Sergio Leone is the man! 5 stars
11/08/05 Bojan Stojkovic Scenes full of energy, great acting and camera, simply the best movie! 5 stars
9/01/05 Eden Great music, buts very slow and uneventful. GB&U is better in every way 4 stars
7/13/05 JFK great movie. 5 stars
4/25/05 Erik North Sergio Leone's greatest achievement, a perfect mythical look at the taming of the Old West. 5 stars
4/09/05 K. Sear Defines the phrase "slow moving". 3 stars
3/21/05 john wayne uverrated tedious nonsense 1 stars
3/07/05 Daveman I was drunk when I wrote the last message, this film is only good for its music. 3 stars
12/14/04 Wilbert A. Elliott First saw this movie when I was day bought a harmonica. 5 stars
10/15/04 Jim A tad long and boring 3 stars
10/14/04 Kevin I saw this film first-run in 1969. It is the greatest western ever made. 5 stars
9/15/04 ChickyBaby AWESOME BABY!!! 5 stars
8/17/04 Herolder Great 5 stars
8/12/04 David blah 1 stars
7/29/04 Daveman A fabulous classic Western but it's not the greatest ever made, Leone is no John Ford. 5 stars
7/27/04 Linda Pierce Absolutely unforgettable 5 stars
7/15/04 "not a 'movie' fan....but can't see it enough....continually evokes emotion from a non emotional guy 5 stars
6/25/04 Ray Awesome 5 stars
6/25/04 yvonne Wonderful film. Used Jill's theme as my wedding march. Hauntingly beautiful. 5 stars
6/21/04 milehigh Forget Western, it's one fo the greatest films ever made. 5 stars
6/16/04 Henry Miller A film in the same class as Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence 5 stars
6/14/04 Reinaldo Alonso Rodríguez Is simple the best western ever made 5 stars
6/03/04 anthony sharp gr8 5 stars
5/31/04 Troy Kuprash Not A Big Fan Of Westerns, But An Excellent Movie 4 stars
5/31/04 June Breathtaking 5 stars
5/03/04 Greg Henry Fonda is fantastic in this movie. 5 stars
4/28/04 Douglas Brilliant, best western ever made 5 stars
4/01/04 sansho Magnificent, operatic Western; brilliant use of widescreen and accumulated tension. 5 stars
2/29/04 Brian Cohen western at its best 5 stars
2/12/04 Chima Luke Okafor A cinematic masterpiece rich in acting, music and fluid camera movements 5 stars
1/31/04 Ultron One of the pinnacles of cinema. 5 stars
1/25/04 Monster W. Kung MUCH better than Once Upon a Time in America. 5 stars
12/29/03 Now that I have it on DVD it is my favorite movie followed by TGBATU Now that I have it on DVD it is my favorite movie followed by TGTBATU 5 stars
12/25/03 Sugarfoot Tied with Teh Good The Bad And The Ugly as the best western ever! 5 stars
12/23/03 the Grinch Great western, but Leone's done better. Script (Argento cowrote, why no credit?) meanders. 4 stars
12/04/03 Agent Sands (previously Mr. Hat) Brilliant villain, great directing, and awesome score. 5 stars
11/27/03 John a cinematic opera a visual ballet- sensational! - Leone will live for ever with this film 5 stars
11/19/03 TWO TOO MANY Pure cinema-long live Sergio 5 stars
11/08/03 Bryan Moore This is another delicious treat from Sergio Leone 5 stars
10/28/03 Frank's Ghost The best western ever made. Nothing has surpassed it, nothing ever will. rEDBIRd=imbecile. 5 stars
10/21/03 M. Veeser My favorite western. Best spaghetti western b/c it's tragic and not overly funny. 5 stars
9/04/03 Marshal kame 10 STARS, Fantastic,best and unbleivable emotional movie ever made ,period. 5 stars
9/04/03 ghoodarzi alireza Brings you to real life endings. I always cry when I see Bronson leaves the town and Jason 5 stars
9/02/03 J Porter The best western in Cinema History, Period. 5 stars
8/28/03 Mohsen Hajji So joyable and fantastic and emotional western movie ever made!! 5 stars
7/13/03 number one fan awesome 5 stars
7/11/03 Ron W It's more than just a Western: a great story and panoramic, beautiful scenery. 5 stars
7/06/03 Gilly the gunslinger The greatest film of all time 5 stars
6/29/03 rita stiffler maybe 6 stars, One thing for certain, you gotta see it again and again. Maybe again! 5 stars
6/20/03 Sammy kind of slow but awesome altogether 4 stars
6/19/03 Wayne The best Western ever made 5 stars
6/05/03 Ultron Spectacular. Cardinale's character is one of the all time great heroines. 5 stars
5/23/03 Biff Boffo THIS is a western!! Fonda does a landmark 180 to evil perfection! 5 stars
5/06/03 M.V. Mackey Classic and one-of-a-kind 5 stars
5/04/03 Morten Wartou Pure magic. 5 stars
3/25/03 R Welsh after 40 years of movie watching-still the greatest 5 stars
3/23/03 master.node Fonda bad!! Cardinale in tub good!! Bronson bronson. 4 stars
3/18/03 dan nypaver the best movie ever made 5 stars
3/11/03 Pieter The best movie even seen 5 stars
1/30/03 jim monk must be seen in widescreen or you get shot 5 stars
1/21/03 Andy Bronson The greatist film ever made 5 stars
1/08/03 Seppo The Best western ever made! The Best score ever composed! 5 stars
10/29/02 Charles Tatum Lean and mean 5 stars
9/18/02 chirpy absorbing, fascinating, though sometimes relies too heavily on facial studies 4 stars
8/25/02 R.W. Welch Vaguely surreal and overlong but probably Leone's master opus. 5 stars
7/20/02 terry finnegan opening scene brilliant fonda wicked music great 5 stars
5/19/02 john waite final stand off is the best scene from any western...hypnotic eyes..amazing soundtrack 5 stars
11/23/01 Will Diamond This is just about the only "Western" Classic that measures up to other classic films 5 stars
9/21/01 Morten Wartou One word: Masterpiece 5 stars
9/13/01 C T Allen Just saw a screening of this at a theater. Fucking great flick. One of Leone's best. 5 stars
9/04/01 Gannon Roberts This is about as good as a movie gets. 5 stars
8/28/01 John outstanding classic film - when is the DVD?????? 5 stars
8/12/01 Kevin this movie is fucked up, what the fuck is with u guys, IT SUCKED!! 1 stars
8/05/01 porispecker absolute classic, vintage leone, vintage ennio morricone score, henry fonda rules! 5 stars
3/19/01 J.Arcane One of the best first 20 mins ever 5 stars
1/27/01 Bodhi The best Western ever made -about the West and the genre itself.Incredible.. 5 stars
5/19/00 tank From a story by Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. No wonder it's brilliant. 5 stars
3/29/00 qbdilbert wow: watch fonda as the bad guy! surreal photography & musical score! rent LONG VERSION!! 5 stars
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  28-May-1969 (PG)
  DVD: 18-Nov-2003



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