Classic Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter O

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Once Upon a Time in the West
Release Date:  December 21, 1968
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: Euro International Film | Paramount Pictures |
Rafran Cinematografica | Finanzia San Marco

Sometime in the 1990s I watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which I liked well enough, but never felt inspired to watch another Sergio Leone film or another “spaghetti western.”  So I went into watching Once Upon a Time in the West with no great expectations and ended up being absolutely surprised by how much I loved it.  It’s a slow-moving Western drama that often has limited dialogue and focuses on gorgeous scenery as much as the drama (much of the film was shot in Europe but there are scenes filmed in Monument Valley a la John Ford’s Stagecoach).  This may sound a little boring, but I found it to be mesmerizing.

According to Wikipedia, “Leone was far more interested in the rituals preceding violence than in the violence itself.”  This makes a whole lot of sense! The first two scenes of the movie are in fact big fakeouts as we spend a lot of time with a group of characters who seem to be the main characters of the movie, only for all of them to be shot and killed.  These two scenes, in fact, introduce the killers who are the film’s real main characters.  One is a mysterious man known only as “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) who is set on the path of vengeance.  The other is a vicious gang leader, Frank (Henry Fonda), who is working for a railroad tycoon, Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) to get control of a plot of land that has a water source for the railroad. I find it absolutely stunning that Fonda plays a character that is so evil and is creepy A.F.!

Newlywed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives to join her new family only to find they’ve all been murdered and she’s inherited the contested land.  With the help of Frank’s rival gang leader, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), she begins to develop the land while Frank and “Harmonica” carry on various machinations around her (this plot is a deliberate pastiche of Johnny Guitar).  The plot is complicated but it also seems secondary to the style for much of the movie where it’s more of a revelation from scene-to-scene.  The film also has a terrific score by the legendary Ennio Morricone.

I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but this film has definitely made my list of favorite Westerns!

Rating: ****1/2