Men born for dying... Charles Bronson (left) and Henry Fonda (right) in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
"The rhythm of the film was intended to create the sensation of the last gasps that
a person takes just before dying. 'Once Upon A Time In The West' was, from start
to finish, a dance of death."
- Sergio Leone.
Once Upon A Time In The West opens on a moment of fleeting serenity, disrupted suddenly by an amplified soundscape of fear. Were it not for the appearance of three men (Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Al Mulock) these deafening sounds would not even be audible. The slow dripping of copper water, beating at the rim of a hat. The incessant buzzing of a hungry fly, attracted to the leader's stubble. The slow cracking of a pair of knuckles, soon to be clenched around the helve and trigger of a gun. It is the impatience and anxiety of these men which draw attention to the most ordinary of sounds, now suspended in the dense atmosphere. Composer Ennio Morricone had originally devised an orchestral score for this sequence, but the irritation of a creaky old mill builds a sense of dread impossible to recreate through music. Rasp. Buzz. Crack. And then, two hours behind schedule, a train rolls into its station, carrying with it a passenger known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson). This branding is typically literal of the Western genre, naming a character after the audience's sole identification with their person. Why, we ask ourselves, does Leone linger upon this ambiguous figure? Harmonica stares intensely, unmoved by the chance of death. "He not only plays", says Cheyenne (Jason Robards), later in the film. "He can shoot too." This much is also proven by the opening, as a simmering blister of animosity erupts into a gust of quick-cut violence, leaving the three assailants stone cold on the station floor (most bodies in the film are observed in aftermath). Woody Strode was once a staple of John Ford's Westerns. It would seem deliberate that Leone kills him in the opening minutes...
This scene also introduces key motifs which Leone will repeat throughout the film - not just the amplification of sound, but also the juxtaposition of extreme close-ups with magnificent landscape shots, such as the crane shot which first establishes the town of Flagstone. The second scene is structurally similar to the first, as Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) awaits the arrival of his new bride Jill (Claudia Cardinale). A great feast has been prepared for this occasion, and the family are united in celebration. Characters once again inhabit a silent landscape, where even the smallest of sounds arouse an audible echo. It soon becomes clear that they are not alone, and after another flurry of violence (the camera sweeps past the action with something approaching carelessness) we are introduced to Frank (Henry Fonda), hired gun of disabled railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), whose very name suggests death. The camera at first focuses on Fonda's intoxicatingly blue eyes, ordinarily associated with kindness and heroism. His duster coat dances in the wind. Brett and Maureen (Simonetta Santaniello) lie bleeding as little Timmy (Enzo Santaniello) stares down the barrel of a revolver. Morricone's score has now kicked in, playing Frank's main theme (a distorted guitar later to be homaged by Hans Zimmer in John Woo's US films). We know what's going to happen, not only because Frank represents an unambiguous evil, but also because this entire scene has continued the established structure of the first. Frank fires a round, and Fonda's screen image was forever changed.
It would be easy for me to essay the rest of the film in this fashion, but I don't wish to delay your viewing any further. It's a truly extraordinary work, impeccably structured and designed, and for my money remains the greatest Western ever made. It approaches the West (not yet defined, for Flagstone is a town under construction) romantically, especially in the way it references classics such as High Noon (Zinnermann, 1952) and Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954), which Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci specifically worked into their treatment. Morricone composed the entire score before filming began so that Leone could play it on location, and choreograph his camera around its rhythms. Consequently the film has an incredible poetry, often operatic in tone, and yet Leone doesn't rush toward the crescendo. He allows his characters to, as hinted by the quote which opens this review, dance their way to the inevitable. Both Harmonica and Frank have the chance to kill each other before their final duel ("I didn't let them kill him, and that's not the same thing"), but they understand that their day will come. These men were born for dying. It's this ritualistic pattern which Leone creates, wherein the fates of his characters are already decided, which lends the film a feeling of mourning. It mourns for the West itself, looking to the unreachable expanses of its landscape, its rocky foundations and frontier towns. And it also looks to the lone rangers, with vengance burning behind their eyes. It looks at their faces. Each one is perfectly composed, boxed into a frame which could resemble a coffin. Peckinpah would bring brutality to the West with The Wild Bunch (1969) the following year, but what he would miss is the pause for feeling; for the moment a man realizes that he's drawing his last breath, and accepts that this fate was likely brought about by his own actions. Violence begets violence. Never was this more true than in Once Upon A Time In The West...
It'll come as no surprise to learn that Leone's masterpiece looks stunning on Blu-Ray. The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is crystal clear, perfectly enhancing the effect of those amplifications; Frank's theme will also thunder around your living room, stirring the darkest regions of your soul. The image has also been digitally remastered, but fans will be pleased to know that despite technical tinkering the film has lost none of its authenticity, and retains that dust-swept earthiness which creates such an unsettled atmosphere.
The extras have been directly ported from the 2003 Special Edition DVD, but they're pretty expansive and I suspect that any additional materials would only have covered old ground. The commentary, which includes filmmakers John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox and Bernardo Bertolucci, star Claudia Cardinale, and film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, is absolutely fascinating. Each has something of interest to say on a specific chapter or scene in the film, and the track perfectly balances information on the production history, theoretical context (pinpointing Leone's references in the Western genre), shot-by-shot analysis, and friendly anecdotes, most of which are fresh (or at least were at the time of recording). It's truly captivating, and undoubtedly one of the finest commentaries I've ever heard.
Elsewhere there are three documentaries, 'An Opera Of Violence', 'The Wages Of Sin' and 'Something To Do With Death', which all cover similar ground to the commentary, but are still highly watchable.
The original theatrical trailer is a given, but the package is rounded off by a production stills gallery (Bronson's steely gaze consumes most frames, as does the beautiful Cardinale), and also a gallery of then-and-now shots from key locations in the film. This is perhaps nothing more than a nostalgic slideshow, but fans will be interested to see how little some of the environments have changed; indeed, the McBain house still stands in almost perfect condition. There's also a short doc on railroads, which details their history and place in the cinema. A fun little feature, and it finishes off an essential package.
Once Upon A Time In The West rides onto Blu-Ray on September 5th.