“Once Upon a Time in the West” Movie Review

It’s February, the beginning of a new year. I want to get reviews of older movies. Return of the Jedi will get it’s time soon enough, as will The Terminator, I SWEAR my life on it. But ever since the Red Dead Redemption 2 reveal, I’ve been in a western mood. Let’s start with a true classic. This epic spaghetti western was released on December 21st, 1968 when it barely broke even with its $5 million budget. Though not as popular as his acclaimed Dollars Trilogy in the U.S., acclaimed director-writer Sergio Leone gives us another memorable epic in the mythical period of the Old West, sans Clint Eastwood. After a recent wedding to a kind landowner, former prostitute Jill McBain, played by Claudia Cardinale, returns to her new homestead to find that her husband and 3 step-children have all been murdered. Seeking vengeance against the railroad tycoon that orchestrated it all, she hires the bandit Cheyenne, the prime suspect who was framed for the massacre, and a mysterious harmonica-playing gunman played by Charles Bronson to track down his whereabouts. All the while, they are hounded by a violent mercenary named Frank, whose bloody reputation proceeds him. For the past couple of decades, there has been an ongoing battle between lovers of cinema. Which is the best Western of all time? Once Upon a Time in the West or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly? As proven with my post on Marvel vs. DC, I tend to stay out of those types of arguments. But I do have an opinion on the matter, which I will mention at a later review for another time. For now, let’s divulge everything that’s great about this film. For the most part, the whole cast gives a round of great performances. Jason Robards is great as Cheyenne. As one of the finer character actors of the last century, he appears to be enjoying himself in the role of a scoundrel with a heart of gold. By his side, before he was slaughtering suburban goons in the Death Wish franchise, Bronson is excellent as a mysterious gunslinger, a trait common in Leone’s films. He is out to kill Frank, whom he feels robbed him of all he held dear before he was even an adult. Even though little is known of him, his devilish charm makes him a likable guy to root for in the ambiguous American West. And while Claudia Cardinale is great in her role as the reluctant protagonist, it wasn’t so memorable like the rest of her co-stars. However, Henry Fonda steals the show as the villain Frank, in a role that cast him against type. Up until this point, Fonda had been primarily known for portraying everyman heroes, like the one man in 12 Angry Men that fought for a convicted man’s innocence. Or when he captivated millions with his role as Tom Joad in the acclaimed 1940 adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. But now in this movie, he is a violent and selfish mercenary who will kill anyone involved with the job at hand. Let’s move over to the technical scale of everything; it’s breathtaking. Although it was primarily shot and produced in Italy, the beautiful mountain landscapes look like perfect renditions of the canyons from states like Utah or Arizona. Many static, anamorphic long shots from a distance are nicely contrasted by a number of close-ups. This is especially present during confrontations between the characters in the final act. And yes, like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly before it, Once Upon a Time in the West features a climactic Mexican standoff that’s presented as a duel. Though not as tense as that movie, the one here still keeps viewers on the edge of their seats thanks to nothing but the amazing score by Ennio Morricone. The beautiful theme song, mixing harmonica, electric guitar, and violins, is extremely memorable. Any time I start to feel confrontational with someone else, this will be the song playing in my head when it all goes down. Hell, I might even drop a hand to my hip in an attempt to draw my 6-shooter out to trade some fire. In an age where characters have to constantly do some worldbuilding via clunky expositional dialogue, Sergio Leone bucks this trend. There are long periods of verbal silence throughout the movie, without a single word spoken aloud. This, rather ironically, speaks more volumes to its sophistication and requires the viewer to remain fully engaged. Unlike the Dollars Trilogy, this is not a sardonic look at the Old West with in-jokes to sprinkled everywhere. Rather, it’s a more serious but still fun Western that acknowledges some of the darker aspects of that mythical time period. And, like the Dollars Trilogy, that means sitting through its entire runtime, which clocks in at about 2 hours and 55 minutes long. I have no problem with a movie being long as long as, in the end, I can walk out of it feeling that it was completely warranted and justified by the story. While I have this feeling overall, I feel like some parts of it could have been trimmed down just a bit. Despite that, Once Upon a Time in the West is an effortlessly sprawling Western epic that stands up even today. Beautiful, tense, and intriguing, this has to be one of the best of the genre that comes highly recommended from damn near any critic you’d find on the internet.

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