Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is a masterful work of storytelling. First and foremost, it runs on patience. The plot does not unfurl with the directness of most films, but through a series of extended scenes which at first seem disconnected. Dark-purposed men waiting for a train. A homestead family murdered in cold blood. Two testy cowboys pushing each others’ buttons in a combination bar and general store. The film takes these sequences as an opportunity for mood-setting and the accumulation of details that give everything a lived-in quality. The set dressing in the bar, for example, is wonderfully ramshackle and cluttered to overflowing; the longer the film lingers there the more it seems like lived-in space rather than a movie set.
The best part about these scenes is the urgency they carry in spite of their languidness. At nearly three hours, the film had plenty of chances to drop its hold on my Twitter-addled attention span. I originally intended to watch it in parts, gradually taking it all in over several viewings. But Once kept making me wonder, “Well, now what is she going to do?” or “How is this going to fit in?” and so on. It patiently lays out a set of narrative stakes that incite these questions. We know Charles Bronson is going to be important, but just why is he hanging out here? What’s up with the criminal Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and why doesn’t he seem all that bad? And what kind of woman is this gorgeous widow (Claudia Cardinale)?
The sharp acting gives the urgency much of its punch. Even the most laconic characters have a sharp intensity imbuing their words and actions with palatable gravitas. The young widow, vulnerable and protected as she is, has clear agency and a kind of fiery self-reliance. The film wisely chooses to keep this under the surface in the early parts of the film rather than knowingly nudging us that she is no pushover right up front.
I am loathe to say too much about the plot, as one great pleasure of the film is how carefully it is told. There is money at stake and there is a rich man looking to protect his interests. Questionably lawful men end up protecting the woman caught in the crosshairs of the decidedly unlawful Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gun looking to swing things in favor of the rich man. I am under-schooled in the Western genre, but as I understand it the “Spaghetti westerns”–made by Italians like Leone and Sergio Corbucci–marked not just a stylistic turn in the genre but also a philosophical one. Instead of America-minded romanticism of the frontier, the Europeans played up the nihilism and violence of a world at the edge of the rule of law. The film is not quite anti-romantic, yet none of its characters are heroes or virtuous exemplars–just hardscrabble people trying to get by on the frontier and do the right thing if they can manage. They’re distinguished from the villains less by their impeccable righteousness than by their lack of cruelty and exploitation, though the story does eventually extend a measure of nobility to each of the principal characters by the last act.
Genre-wise, I also have little to compare the cinematography to. I don’t know how it compares to, say, a John Ford staple–it’s sumptuous nonetheless. The vistas are wide and a vibrant clay red. The staging is clear and concise, action and acting alike never confusing in terms of spatial relations. Plenty of high and wide shots showcase the immense and detailed sets made for the film, most impressive of which is a train track site that is a work-in-progress and milled about by hundreds of extras. There are times I noticed that technically, with current effects, the director could show more and more of these things, but nothing replaces the tactile specificity of the real and Once has it on display everywhere.
I am always surprised when I stumble across an older movie that I love deep in my bones, as many of the ones I saw growing up were perfunctory and boring. That goes doubly so for Westerns. I started watching Once Upon a Time in the West on a whim and was drawn in by it for the next two and three quarter hours. It is epic and gripping yet full of small moments of and subtle performances. If only I could say that about more movies.