The gunslinger named “Harmonica” (Bronson) must team up with an infamous gunman (Robards) to protect a beautiful widow (Cardinale) against a deadly assassin (Fonda) working for the railroad company.
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Sergio Leone defined the spaghetti western genre. His vision revolutionized the western genre because he created a world where the characters know the rules and act accordingly, in other words, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) knows Harmonica (Charles Bronson) is a killer and even attempted to rape her in one scene. Yet despite all, she falls in love with him. Why?
Well, she knows he’s a murderer, that’s no different than the next guy, but she’s falls in love with him because there is more to the gunslinger than brooding eyes and a talent for the harmonica. Bronson’s character is not one dimensional; there is depth that Leone gradually explores throughout the film allowing the audience to learn the story behind Harmonica over time, keeping the viewer wondering,” Who is this guy?”
Leone is known for his extreme close-ups and long shots, but he should also be recognized for creating complex characters that are not simply good and evil, but a combination of the two. Henry Fonda usually played the hero in his films, but here he plays against type as the villainous Frank. The opening sequence shows an entire family being slaughtered by Frank’s gang of gunmen with only a little boy remaining.
The myth of the western cowboy is dying in this film, making way for the New West. The construction of the railroads is a clear sign of a new way of life. Frank throughout the picture is trying to turn into a businessman, but this new world has no place for an outlaw turned entrepreneur. By the end of the film, the Old West no longer matters. The New West brings with it business, culture, and people; marking the end of an old era.
The climax and the sequence that follows convey that exact message. Harmonica and Frank face off in a final duel. Every action and decision they made throughout the course of the film led them to that moment, and the buildup leading into that battle makes the outcome even more meaningful and satisfying. Harmonica wants revenge and Frank wants a new life as a business man. Leone is a master at pacing his films, never rushing to get to the action, but rather remaining patience so the characters can tell the story.
Westerns are known for chaotic gun battles, but Once Upon a Time in the West is not riddled with bullets and explosions, but compelling storytelling and poetic dialogue that give life into a dying genre. This is a respectful and realistic homage to the Old West, and one certainly worth watching, specifically for those who admire great films.