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Once Upon a Time in the West
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by John Rice

"An all time classic of theme and style."
5 stars

Ask any movie enthusiast who is their all time favorite director and you will generally hear names like Kurosawa, Kubrick. Hitchcock, Lean and other similar choices. Over the last several years, I have realized my answer was becoming the Italian director and father of the "Spaghetti Western," Sergio Leone. The list of my Top 20 favorite movies of all time, constantly changing as it tends to be, has only 2 directors with more than one movie. Ingmar Bergman with Persona & Wild Strawberries, and Sergio Leone with the first and last installment in his final trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America.

Like most of Leone's later films, Once Upon a Time in the West is something of an understated epic. Logging in at 165 minutes, it is the shortest of his three greatest films, which also include Once Upon a Time in America and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What is possibly most notable though, is that during that 165 minutes, there is only roughly 25 minutes of dialog. The remainder of the film is spent on less obvious aspects of plot and theme development, as scenes linger across the faces of characters, jumping from wide angle to close-up, from action to reaction.

The story in Once Upon a Time in the West is quite simple in one aspect, and more complex in another. Several characters are introduced in succession. Initially, their lives are mostly unrelated, but as the film progresses, they are slowly drawn together by circumstance and fate.

The first character introduced is the Leone trademark, "Man with No Name" (Charles Bronson) who becomes known as "Harmonica" due to the harmonica he always carries with him, constantly playing the same, eerie tune. "Harmonica's" appearance comes at the end of a long, nearly dialog free opening scene, with three duster clad gunmen waiting in a train station. For those unfamiliar with Leone's talent for ever so slowly building tension, this scene may seem almost absurdly long as the three men wait in silence for the train to arrive, a scene which climaxes in a sudden and brief burst of action.

The second main character is Jill (Claudia Cardinale) who has arrived in order to get married to Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and live with him on his ranch. Jill's background is revealed slowly as the story progresses. During her trip to the McBain ranch, Jill crosses paths with Cheyenne (Jason Robards) the leader of a local gang of outlaws who will be framed for a series of murders.

Rounding out the ensemble are Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) the railroad baron traveling in his private train as the track is completed to the Pacific Ocean, and Frank (Henry Fonda) the man hired to "remove small obstacles" during the journey. Fonda's character is notable as the only villain he ever played during his long career, which only increases the impact he has on the role.

I suppose there is a certain irony in the fact it took an Italian to make the definitive American Western. All the classic elements are here. The battle of good and evil. Characters with mysterious pasts which seem somehow connected. A woman who is the object of desire by all the men, good and bad alike. Horses, guns, shootouts, railroads and, of course, the final showdown. What makes Leone's version unique is how he handles these elements. His unusual twist on the classic themes is how he creates a film which is not so much about cowboys and the American West, but the industrial revolution, mass transportation and the effect they would have on the individual.

Leone takes many of the conventional Western themes and turns them around to be seen in a way no other director had or has since. The ultimate survivor is certainly not one found in other westerns. The occasional shootouts are separated by long periods of quiet exposition, as the viewer gradually learns more about each character. Still, there is never a dull moment. Leone had a remarkable knack to have so little happen in his movies and still make it surprisingly interesting and meaningful.

When the final showdown does happen, in a scene which stretches for over 15 minutes, it is not in the center of town, with everyone watching, but in an isolated spot while the other characters actually make a conscious effort to be somewhere else. Leone handles this scene in the same way as the rest of the movie. It is slow developing as he allows the viewer to soak in every nuance, gradually building the tension until the crack of guns rings out and the camera cuts to a close shot of the loser spinning around and trying to place his gun back in the holster. A wonderful touch is to have the loser fall to his knees and try to look back at the victor, except he turns the wrong direction, which causes him to fall to the ground.

In 2003 Paramount finally released a remarkably well restored, full length version of Once Upon a Time in the West in a 2 disc Special Edition. I had seen this film several times, but never dreamed it would look so good. Watching it was like seeing it for the first time. To make matters even better, it carries a very low price, normally retailing for $10 or less. Absolutely any movie fan should include it in their collection.

This review originally appeared on Slacker-Reviews.com.

Once Upon a Time in the West is definitely one of the best films ever made and as good a choice as any for my favorite of all time. It manages to walk the fine line between art film and mainstream attraction, simultaneously succeeding at both. Set aside 3 hours, turn down the lights and soak it in.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=2362&reviewer=373
originally posted: 08/05/04 02:44:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/17/20 Ed Riddick A masterpiece! 5 stars
12/17/15 Gannon Roberts Should have received some academy awards. Brilliant flick. 5 stars
4/21/15 stanley welles irresistible and stylish 5 stars
2/15/15 john idiot movie 1 stars
1/06/15 steffany one word: overrated 1 stars
8/03/14 Garka Pretty good and complex western... The "Godfather Pt.II" of westerns... 4 stars
12/31/12 Butt Lives up to its reputation. 5 stars
11/18/11 Golden J. Williams Jr. One of the best Westerns done. Fonda as the villan-GOOD MOVE! 5 stars
1/26/11 brett AWESOME!! rain/snow day gem. delightfully soaks in 5 stars
8/10/10 Chad Dillon Cooper great western co-written by Dario Argento 5 stars
10/30/09 Omar Must-see! 5 stars
8/24/09 Duke of Omnium Cinematically thrilling; no character development. The apotheosis of the Western movie. 4 stars
7/14/09 Linda This is a Classic, The scene where the entire family is killed is heartbreaking! 5 stars
11/20/07 G. Webster A+ from start to finish,one of the ten best ever 5 stars
9/03/07 Double M Slow? yes. boring? no. only 2nd to GBU. Leone's TM's: cool characters, ELECTRIFYING climax. 5 stars
7/31/07 mr.mike classic leone but snail's pace may put some folks off 4 stars
5/17/07 Kelley Elder a textbook for non-verbal acting. mesmerizing to watch 5 stars
2/02/07 action movie fan outstanding production values but so dull,no story! production A+ story D- 2 stars
12/30/06 Adam Maybe it's b/c I never got the fuss over the Eastwood trilogy, but this movie floored me. 5 stars
12/12/06 Branislav Pure art! 5 stars
11/12/06 TennTexan Definitely the best Western ever made that didn't star John Wayne 5 stars
11/01/06 William Goss Despite a slow start (post-credits), a movie of many magnificent moments. 5 stars
10/26/06 Bob Miller I know of no other film which has delivered so many spell-binding scenes.....and the music! 5 stars
9/15/06 rwelsh They will never make another work of art again but Mike Bay lives, how sad 5 stars
5/21/06 jpp something to do with death... and genius 5 stars
5/06/06 dionwr A classic, and a master's class in how to use film 5 stars
5/04/06 Uri Lessing My favorite film. 5 stars
5/02/06 PaulBryant "People scare better when they're dyin'" - Fonda's superb. 5 stars
5/02/06 Ryan_A Fantastic film. 5 stars
5/01/06 EricDSnider ... 3 stars
5/01/06 David Cornelius Leone's masterpiece 5 stars
5/01/06 William Goss Still haven't seen it. 4 stars
5/01/06 HBS-SH Sparrow Goes to Space 5 stars
4/29/06 Joshua Sergio Leone is a genius. 5 stars
3/17/06 MP Bartley Yes, it's slow...but it's also masterful, superbly acted and deeply heartfelt 5 stars
1/09/06 T.N. Pool My all-time favorite Western. Superb cast, music, atmosphere. Unforgetable. 5 stars
1/01/06 John Cogar One of the very greatest. Right up there with Sgane. 5 stars
12/01/05 dreamed_realization Probably the best Western of all time. 5 stars
11/17/05 John Dog Sergio Leone is the man! 5 stars
11/07/05 Bojan Stojkovic Scenes full of energy, great acting and camera, simply the best movie! 5 stars
8/31/05 Eden Great music, buts very slow and uneventful. GB&U is better in every way 4 stars
7/12/05 JFK great movie. 5 stars
4/24/05 Erik North Sergio Leone's greatest achievement, a perfect mythical look at the taming of the Old West. 5 stars
4/09/05 K. Sear Defines the phrase "slow moving". 3 stars
3/20/05 john wayne uverrated tedious nonsense 1 stars
3/06/05 Daveman I was drunk when I wrote the last message, this film is only good for its music. 3 stars
12/13/04 Wilbert A. Elliott First saw this movie when I was twelve...next day bought a harmonica. 5 stars
10/15/04 Jim A tad long and boring 3 stars
10/13/04 Kevin I saw this film first-run in 1969. It is the greatest western ever made. 5 stars
9/14/04 ChickyBaby AWESOME BABY!!! 5 stars
8/16/04 Herolder Great 5 stars
8/11/04 David blah 1 stars
7/28/04 Daveman A fabulous classic Western but it's not the greatest ever made, Leone is no John Ford. 5 stars
7/27/04 Linda Pierce Absolutely unforgettable 5 stars
7/14/04 "not a 'movie' fan....but can't see it enough....continually evokes emotion from a non emotional guy 5 stars
6/24/04 Ray Awesome 5 stars
6/24/04 yvonne Wonderful film. Used Jill's theme as my wedding march. Hauntingly beautiful. 5 stars
6/20/04 milehigh Forget Western, it's one fo the greatest films ever made. 5 stars
6/15/04 Henry Miller A film in the same class as Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence 5 stars
6/13/04 Reinaldo Alonso Rodríguez Is simple the best western ever made 5 stars
6/03/04 anthony sharp gr8 5 stars
5/30/04 Troy Kuprash Not A Big Fan Of Westerns, But An Excellent Movie 4 stars
5/30/04 June Breathtaking 5 stars
5/02/04 Greg Henry Fonda is fantastic in this movie. 5 stars
4/28/04 Douglas Brilliant, best western ever made 5 stars
3/31/04 sansho Magnificent, operatic Western; brilliant use of widescreen and accumulated tension. 5 stars
2/28/04 Brian Cohen western at its best 5 stars
2/12/04 Chima Luke Okafor A cinematic masterpiece rich in acting, music and fluid camera movements 5 stars
1/30/04 Ultron One of the pinnacles of cinema. 5 stars
1/24/04 Monster W. Kung MUCH better than Once Upon a Time in America. 5 stars
12/28/03 Now that I have it on DVD it is my favorite movie followed by TGBATU Now that I have it on DVD it is my favorite movie followed by TGTBATU 5 stars
12/25/03 Sugarfoot Tied with Teh Good The Bad And The Ugly as the best western ever! 5 stars
12/22/03 the Grinch Great western, but Leone's done better. Script (Argento cowrote, why no credit?) meanders. 4 stars
12/03/03 Agent Sands (previously Mr. Hat) Brilliant villain, great directing, and awesome score. 5 stars
11/27/03 John a cinematic opera a visual ballet- sensational! - Leone will live for ever with this film 5 stars
11/18/03 TWO TOO MANY Pure cinema-long live Sergio 5 stars
11/07/03 Bryan Moore This is another delicious treat from Sergio Leone 5 stars
10/27/03 Frank's Ghost The best western ever made. Nothing has surpassed it, nothing ever will. rEDBIRd=imbecile. 5 stars
10/21/03 M. Veeser My favorite western. Best spaghetti western b/c it's tragic and not overly funny. 5 stars
9/04/03 Marshal kame 10 STARS, Fantastic,best and unbleivable emotional movie ever made ,period. 5 stars
9/03/03 ghoodarzi alireza Brings you to real life endings. I always cry when I see Bronson leaves the town and Jason 5 stars
9/01/03 J Porter The best western in Cinema History, Period. 5 stars
8/27/03 Mohsen Hajji So joyable and fantastic and emotional western movie ever made!! 5 stars
7/12/03 number one fan awesome 5 stars
7/11/03 Ron W It's more than just a Western: a great story and panoramic, beautiful scenery. 5 stars
7/05/03 Gilly the gunslinger The greatest film of all time 5 stars
6/29/03 rita stiffler maybe 6 stars, One thing for certain, you gotta see it again and again. Maybe again! 5 stars
6/19/03 Sammy kind of slow but awesome altogether 4 stars
6/18/03 Wayne The best Western ever made 5 stars
6/04/03 Ultron Spectacular. Cardinale's character is one of the all time great heroines. 5 stars
5/22/03 Biff Boffo THIS is a western!! Fonda does a landmark 180 to evil perfection! 5 stars
5/05/03 M.V. Mackey Classic and one-of-a-kind 5 stars
5/03/03 Morten Wartou Pure magic. 5 stars
3/25/03 R Welsh after 40 years of movie watching-still the greatest 5 stars
3/23/03 master.node Fonda bad!! Cardinale in tub good!! Bronson bronson. 4 stars
3/17/03 dan nypaver the best movie ever made 5 stars
3/10/03 Pieter The best movie even seen 5 stars
1/29/03 jim monk must be seen in widescreen or you get shot 5 stars
1/20/03 Andy Bronson The greatist film ever made 5 stars
1/08/03 Seppo The Best western ever made! The Best score ever composed! 5 stars
10/28/02 Charles Tatum Lean and mean 5 stars
9/17/02 chirpy absorbing, fascinating, though sometimes relies too heavily on facial studies 4 stars
8/25/02 R.W. Welch Vaguely surreal and overlong but probably Leone's master opus. 5 stars
7/19/02 terry finnegan opening scene brilliant fonda wicked music great 5 stars
5/18/02 john waite final stand off is the best scene from any western...hypnotic eyes..amazing soundtrack 5 stars
11/22/01 Will Diamond This is just about the only "Western" Classic that measures up to other classic films 5 stars
9/20/01 Morten Wartou One word: Masterpiece 5 stars
9/13/01 C T Allen Just saw a screening of this at a theater. Fucking great flick. One of Leone's best. 5 stars
9/03/01 Gannon Roberts This is about as good as a movie gets. 5 stars
8/28/01 John outstanding classic film - when is the DVD?????? 5 stars
8/11/01 Kevin this movie is fucked up, what the fuck is with u guys, IT SUCKED!! 1 stars
8/04/01 porispecker absolute classic, vintage leone, vintage ennio morricone score, henry fonda rules! 5 stars
3/18/01 J.Arcane One of the best first 20 mins ever 5 stars
1/26/01 Bodhi The best Western ever made -about the West and the genre itself.Incredible.. 5 stars
5/19/00 tank From a story by Leone, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. No wonder it's brilliant. 5 stars
3/28/00 qbdilbert wow: watch fonda as the bad guy! surreal photography & musical score! rent LONG VERSION!! 5 stars
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  28-May-1969 (PG)
  DVD: 18-Nov-2003



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