Henry Fonda makes a rare excursion into villainy in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West.
The man who became a Western film icon as Marshal Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s masterpiece My Darling Clementine is cast as a cold-eyed killer called Frank who is targeting Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a widow locked in battle with the railroad over water rights.
Charles Bronson steps into the ‘No Name’ role as the vengeance-seeking Harmonica on a quest to track down the sadist who hanged his brother.
Leone’s follow-up to his Dollars trilogy, co-scripted with Italian greats Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, is built around a complex series of references to classic Westerns –High Noon (1952), Shane (1953) and The Searchers (1956) in the first 15 minutes alone – all of which are couched in Leone’s bravura, operatic style.
Leone calls this collision of Western stereotypes with the onward march of frontier history a “ballet of the dead”.
Once Upon A Time In The West also boasts the longest credits sequence in the history of the Western.
The Monument Valley locations also mark Leone’s departure from the Cinecittà origins of his ‘spaghetti Westerns’. Reportedly, the set of Flagstone cost more than the entire budget of A Fistful Of Dollars (1964).
Originally, Leone wanted to say goodbye to his earlier triumphs by killing off Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef, the stars of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), at the beginning of the picture, but Eastwood wouldn’t play ball.
This is the perfect Western – epic in scale, romantic, dark, elegiac, with some exciting action, and in places very, very funny.
Manuel ‘Cheyenne’ Gutiérrez