On the anniversary of its initial release in Italy (December 21st 1968), it’s as good a time as any to add a little bit to my writings on Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Some days it’s my second favorite movie of all time, after Leone’s own THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, and many critical writings on the movie have called it Leone’s masterpiece.
Clint Eastwood played the lead in 1964’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, going it alone, but he shared top billing with Lee Van Cleef in 1965’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and then they made it a trio with Eli Wallach in 1966’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY. With ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, you have four main characters this time around, each time with their own individual musical cues, courtesy of Leone’s most important collaborator, Ennio Morricone, and each one of the quartet is among the most eternally memorable incarnations of the archetypes they are meant to represent:
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST’s lonesome stranger, in a role originally offered to Clint Eastwood, is played by cinema’s other great stoneface, Charles Bronson. His character is known only as Harmonica, and the reason why is a brilliantly nasty Leone-esque reveal which I wouldn’t dream of ruining here.
The charismatic rogue, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, is called Cheyenne and played by Jason Robards. This is arguably one of the coolest movie character of all goddamned time, in my humble opinion. The tragic romantic figure that the younger Robards was so good at playing for Eugene O’Neill and other slightly more reputable storytellers is in Leone’s hands imbued with a terrific (and tremendously quotable) sense of humor.
The unconventional “whore with the heart of gold,” in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Jill, is played by Claudia Cardinale. For my money, Claudia Cardinale in this movie is as beautiful as a human person can look. I’ve been saying that for years now, but I try not to write or even talk like that much anymore, since the world is fast changing and you can’t really be a straight guy online objectifying women anymore without taking shit for it (and rightfully so). Even still: Words fail in view of that face. I could also easily argue that her performance is really the centerpiece of the film, steely and charismatic and necessary, but I’d risk lapsing back into rhapsody.
Frank, the bad man in the black hat, is played by all-American good guy Henry Fonda, and seriously speaking, he is one of the greatest villains ever. I’m sorry to keep using generic platitudes, but that’s the kind of blindly expansive adoration that this movie elicits. Frank has a cruelly and coldly sadistic introduction, and he maintains that level of villainy throughout the movie. It’s impossible for today’s audiences to understand what an impact seeing Henry Fonda in this role must have had upon its release in 1968 – particularly because today’s audiences sadly don’t know much about Henry Fonda. But it was absolutely shocking to them to see the ultimate good-guy actor play the ultimate villain, and in many ways it still is. Frank is one of the meanest sons-of-bitches ever to don a black hat.
After he and his men gun down an entire family of kindly redheads, Frank comes upon the little boy who they missed in the initial slaughter. He stares the kid down with clear blue eyes. A henchman asks him, “What are we gonna do with this one, Frank?” Frank calmly replies, “Well now that you called me by name…” Sorry, kid. If he had a chance before, he’s a goner now, and Frank probably doesn’t feel at all bad about it. It’s just business.
If only for that introduction, this character would make any list of meanest-ever bad guys, but he does a whole lot more nasty things in this movie besides child murder. For one thing, it’s worth noting that of the three male leads in this movie, all of whom get their moments, Frank is the only one to get to actively romance the unreal Claudia Cardinale. There are story-based reasons, and probably also it has something to do with star power, but as far as the universality of this movie goes, it’s a truism that’s been proven throughout films as different as GOODFELLAS and KING KONG, but Bill Hicks said it clearest – “Chicks dig jerks.”
As you can tell from the title, Leone thought of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST as “a fairy tale for adults,” and the fact that each one of these classic Western movie archetypes are simultaneously so broad and so memorable is proof that Leone succeeded. This is a definitive Western, and a legitimately perfect movie. As is the case with central texts such as THE WILD BUNCH or THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES or UNFORGIVEN, it probably helps to go in on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST with a working knowledge of Westerns, just so that you can see how Leone so definitively aced it, but I figure it’d be just as good even if you can’t tell a Colt from a Derringer from a Remington.
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Tags: Bernardo Bertolucci, Charles Bronson, Classics, Claudia Cardinale, dario argento, Ennio Morricone, Frank Wolff, Gabriele Ferzetti, Guns, Henry Fonda, Horses, Jack Elam, Jason Robards, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Paolo Stoppa, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Tonino Delli Colli, Westerns, Woody Strode