ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is, to me, the definitive Spaghetti Western. This movie incorporates all of the best elements of Italo-westerns and has the additional advantages of actual artistic merit and some location filming in the real American West. One of the most distracting elements of many Spaghetti oaters is the fact that the films were mostly shot in Spain’s Jarama Valley, which is great for a Spanish Civil War buff like myself, but that valley doesn’t really resemble the American west that the stories are set in. Sergio Leone got to shoot some scenes in Monument Valley and such authentic scenery definitely helps in a film that exploits visuals to a degree unseen since the age of silent movies. This is undeniably an action film, but Leone and his co-writers on the script ( Bernardo Bertollucci and Dario Argento. I’m serious!) intentionally used the framework of an archetypal western plot about the railroad, land-grabbing and westward expansion, yet made it all seem fresh.
I often jokingly call this movie Evil Is A Man Named Frank, because, in a masterpiece of reverse-casting Leone put Henry Fonda himself in the role of the conscienceless, sadistic and predatory Frank, the lead villain. Watching the black-clad Frank calmly blow away a defenseless child early in the film lets the audience know right away that this is NOT your father’s Henry Fonda movie. Like the heroes and villains of the number one Frontierado movie, Silverado, Frank and the good guys in OUATITW are the type of superhuman, pure fantasy gunslingers who are impossibly accurate and can sense adversaries pulling their guns from far away and with their backs turned. One of Frank’s signature moments of “Jedi-level” gunplay comes when he’s blowing away an inept underling. He draws and with three quick shots punctures the man’s left suspender, right suspender and his belt buckle, killing him while simultaneously following up an insult about the man’s odd fashion sense from a few minutes earlier. (The guy wore suspenders AND a belt)
The good guys include Claudia Cardinale, playing a former Madame named Jill McBain who has come west to live with her new husband’s family only to discover they’ve all been butchered by Frank and his boys. Jill is probably the strongest female character in Spaghetti Western history, which isn’t saying much, I’m afraid, but she comes across as world-wise and fully-realized as the male leads do. As Jill herself points out while slamming down some booze, “I don’t look like a poor, defenseless widow” and it isn’t until she makes that sardonic remark that you realize that her role COULD have been played in that outdated, sheepish and cliched way, but thankfully wasn’t.
Jason Robards plays Cheyenne, an outlaw leader who comes to Jill’s assistance because Frank framed Cheyenne and his gang for the slaughter of the McBain family. Our outlaw chief doesn’t like that and wants the man behind the frame-up. Cheyenne, like Jill and Frank, is a consummate survivor, hardened and, if need be, ruthless, and this essential cynicism to the lead characters is very well-handled. The effect is almost Western Film Noir.
Charles Bronson plays the lead hero, called Harmonica after the instrument he’s always playing a mournful tune on. Harmonica is a mysterious figure from Frank’s past, and has been stalking the cruel, heartless villain for years across the west. In his quest he’s unearthed a great deal about our lead heavy, and peppers enigmatic allusions to the many victims left in Frank’s villainous wake throughout his memorable exchanges with Fonda’s character. He knows all about Frank’s amoral services to the railroad and also knows why the McBain family was massacred. Harmonica teams up with Cheyenne to help Jill, and the audience doesn’t learn why he’s been after Frank all these years until the climactic showdown, in a scene that is savagely beautiful and searingly memorable.
Like Silverado, this is a good guys versus the bad guys actioner, but it’s nowhere near as light-hearted and sentimental as that film. OUATITW is definitely an “adult swim” movie. There are plenty of scenes with adult themes, many depictions of Frank’s sadism and plenty of subtext about the grey area where unscrupulous business practices and outright criminality mingle. That last is handled not only through wry dialogue between Frank and the crippled, terminally ill railroad baron he does the dirty work for, but also through a very uncomfortable sex scene between Fonda and Cardinale where Frank pithily draws parallels between modern business and Cardinale’s oldest form of it.
OUATITW is not an all-out action frenzy like Silverado, either. Some patience is required in those scenes where viewers get to soak in the visuals, like in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. And the music … the music in this film accentuates the story like music from those silent films I’m always droning on and on about, especially in the emotion-charged scene where we learn Harmonica’s secret. If you are someone who refuses to watch Spaghetti Westerns you need to make an exception for this one, which is the one and only film from that genre that will appeal to general film lovers.