In the 1960s, Sergio Leone fired magic bullets across international cinema with his trilogy of films starring a young Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name. The films were made in Italy, earning the label “Spaghetti Western”, and they would ricochet and echo from Europe to Hollywood as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) made Eastwood a star and Leone an authoritative auteur of western film. Following the release of the monumental TGB&TU, Leone considered himself finished with gunslingers and outlaws. The director was ready to explore another mythic era of American history with a film about gangsters during Prohibition, but an overture from Paramount Pictures and an offer he couldn’t refuse put Leone back in the proverbial saddle.
Henry Fonda was an actor’s actor of stage and celluloid who’d been a lauded babyface in 1930s Hollywood. He served three years in the United States Navy during World War II and returned home a decorated hero. He cut a splendid profile under a Stetson and was Sergio Leone’s favorite actor. Paramount was dangling him as bait– but only if Leone would direct another western.
Once Upon a Time in the West would be a hybrid of the West Coast American cinematic machine and Italian style. Though the Man With No Name trilogy had certainly showcased Leone’s ability toward violence, there was a level of humor exhibited, a wink at the tropes of action movies and an exploration of the anti-hero. This new film was set to also pay homage but with darker designs. Leone and his writers (including a young critic named Dario Argento) holed up with their favorite westerns to analyze, philosophize, and craft a grand tale of revenge.
Charles Bronson stars as the grim but sly Harmonica, a lightning-fast gunslinger who becomes caught up in a semi-convoluted land grab while persuing a mysterious vendetta against an unscrupulous killer named Frank. Harmonica teams up with an outlaw named Cheyenne, played by Jason Robards, and the two become friendly rivals for the protection and affection of Claudia Cardinale’s former prostitute turned widow Jill McBain. American actors Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, and Al Mulock– all familiar western film veterans– co-star alongside their Italian counterparts, but the most inspired bit of casting was indeed the acquisition of Henry Fonda as the villainous Frank.
Initially, despite Paramount’s promise, Fonda wanted no part in the film, but Leone imagined an unorthodox character for his idol. Instead of the white-hatted protagonist that movie-goers would expect, Fonda would be repackaged as a cold-blooded and vicious murderer. Any reservation Fonda had was put aside when his pal Eli Wallach (who played Tuco in TGTB&TU) convinced him to do the project, and it’s considered one of his finest efforts.
Leone utilizes a slower pace with OUATITW, focusing on the weight of his actors and their experiences over dialogue. With that consideration, Charles Bronson made for an excellent choice, seemingly chiseled from desert rock and capable of speaking volumes just in the way he stood. No one appears to have as much fun as Jason Robards who wears a fox’s grin throughout the film while the gorgeous and determined Claudia Cardinale fills the screen with pioneering grace in a career highlight performance. Surrounding it all, composer Ennio Morricone returns to drive the story with a signature sound that’s influenced film and popular music since A Fistful of Dollars first whistled on screen.
Once Upon a Time in the West would not be Leone’s last western (that would be reserved for the over-the-top shenanigans of the wonderful Duck, You Sucker), but it would serve as grand tribute to the genre and a turning point in how such films could be perceived. European audiences flocked to theaters, relishing the sweeping storytelling and sprawling runtime of 165 minutes while American audiences were rather cool towards a modified version. Thankfully, the original cut was reissued in the mid-1980s for home video with subsequent digital releases benefitting from restored color and presentation. It’s a film where every line on every face, every crack from a bullet, blue-eyed gaze, and bead of sweat is essential. This is no bang, bang shoot ’em up oat opera designed to kill time, no… Once Upon a Time in the West is an epic to be savored.