After getting into Charles Bronson films recently with friends who like the actor so much they have a cat named after him, I put Once Upon a Time in the West on my “to watch” list, but didn’t get around to it right away, simply because it is so damned long.
I finally got around to Once Upon a Time in the West today, and, wow, what a strange film. Long ago, I saw Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly so I expected this to fit his trademark style. But this addition to the Leone canon is remarkably experimental for such a high-budgeted movie with so many big-name actors. The story was developed when Leone got together with future directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, who were both getting their start as film critics, and the three watched and dissected the classics High Noon, The Iron Horse, The Comancheros, and The Searchers at Leone’s house. The result something that only a trio of intellectual film buffs could come up with—a story that was made up almost entirely of references to classic Western film.
But Leone continued to experiment during the filming. He was very conscious of the fact that his earlier Clint Eastwood films had had their 3 hour plus running times dramatically cut for US release, and so worked to pare down the script for Once Upon a Time to avoid damaging cuts later. But the then took a step in the opposite direction by slowing down the pace to the lazy pace of an overheated dog. Many of the shots of the weather-beaten face of Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and others are such extremely close-ups, and so languid in movement, the films stops being a narrative film and because abstract art for a while—a pretty gutsy thing for a director to do in a big-budget film.
I’m not sure if I agree with the 2008 Empire magazine poll that named this best Western of all time—that would have to be something staring James Stewart or Gary Cooper—but this is definitely a masterpiece of some kind or another.