Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West

There isn’t much I can say about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West that the mythical, larger than life masterpiece couldn’t say for itself, especially on its magnificent, crystal clear Blu Ray transfer that blows the dust out of the cracks and showcases it’s sunny cinematography in full remixed glory. From the coming of the railroad to a fledgling empire, the corrupt businessmen employing hard bitten thugs to do their nefarious bidding (a prophetic motif if there ever was one), the searing forbidden romance between the archetypal ex-working girl and the silent, lethally dangerous drifter, the dusters adorning gunfighter that sway in a lilting prairie breeze, the trod of hooves, the thunder of impending gunfire preceded by the eerie calm of the showdown before, this is the western to end all westerns, the textbook example, the crown jewel of the genre and the one wheat-stalk saga that I just can’t get enough of. Leone basically patented an entire sub-genre between this and the Man With No Name trilogy, it’s a now timeless flavour that rippled down throughout the generations and changed the face of the western forever. The film itself is perfectly balanced symphonic storytelling, in every aspect of the medium. Charles Bronson’s mysterious loner Harmonica blusters into town, opaque and uttering few words save for the melancholic strains of his instrument brought to wailing life by composer Ennio Morricone. Henry Fonda’s elegant, magnetic and unbelievably evil mercenary Frank hovers over everything like a black cloud of portent. Claudia Cardinele’s drop dead gorgeous Jill violently carves out her own path of survival, lust and grief amidst the unforgiving frontier. Jason Robard’s half injun outlaw Cheyanne tries hard not to wear an obvious heart of gold on his sleeve while seeking retribution for a diabolical frame-job. These mythical, monolithic individuals invite shades of grey into what we’ve become accustomed to in Western archetypes too, which is another hallmark of Leone. Gone are the stalwart sheriffs, stoic heroic leading men and obvious moustache twirling of clearly delineated villains. Bronson is rough, callous and never straight up chivalrous, Fonda is reptilian but oh so charming, the kind blue eyes barely suggesting what evil leers beneath, and Robards for his part turns an outright scoundrel into something of a teddy bear during his arc. It’s in the little, drawn out interactions and moments that we learn what we need to know about these characters, and Leone lets their performances, Morricone’s iconic score and the lingering space between action tell the story, so that by the time the monumental showdown rolls in, we know what we need to know about these wild, complex personalities and can get swept up in the revelatory spectacle of it. One for the ages.

-Nate Hill

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