Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Henry Fonda and Jason Robards
With each successive Western I watch, I become more and more certain that it's my favorite genre of film. Somehow, Sergio Leone's critical masterpiece – the superior The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is limited to being his fan favorite, I think – had evaded my viewing until this morning. Within ten minutes of beginning to rectify that wrong, I realized what a heinous oversight it had been on my part not to watch this film sooner. Once Upon a Time in the West is everything that Sergio Leone showed us that he was capable of doing in his Dollars trilogy applied to a much more serious and, yes, more epic end. Long, wide shots and extreme closeups abound, as well as a classic Ennio Morricone score and plenty of western malfeasance. The execution is basically the same as Leone's three most recent films, but the framework it's set against makes those look like he was just warming up, even if the ambition somewhat exceeds the amount of success he finds, ultimately rendering The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the better film.
There's an unbelievable amount to say about this movie's meaning, and most of that comes from Leone's intentions when making it. He wanted to take shots and scenes directly from classic American Westerns, then turn their meanings on their heads with ironic reversals, eventually creating a much darker message than those old Hollywood cowboy movies offered. Leone respected these films, but he never believed he could say what he wanted to say while sticking to their idiom – thus spaghetti Westerns were born, essentially – and Once Upon a Time in the West was to be his crowning achievement in reversing the meanings of those old movies.
Just because I think it's extremely impressive, here's a list of the movies that Wikipedia lists as films with scenes referenced in Once Upon a Time in the West: High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, The Comancheros, Johnny Guitar, The Iron Horse, Shane, The Searchers, Warlock, The Magnificent Seven, Winchester '73, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Last Sunset, Duel in the Sun, Sergeant Rutledge, and My Darling Clementine. In addition to these that are listed, I spied a very obvious reference to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre near the film's climax, so who knows how many more are present. This guy was like Quentin Tarantino on crack. Critics (or idiots) could point to this list and see plagiarism, but the ironic ends to which Leone applies these scenes in showing what he believed to be a truer portrait of the West than Hollywood offered is more than commendable, it's brilliant. It shows an understanding of genre filmmaking that no one before or since has come anywhere near.
All this technical stuff aside, Once Upon a Time in the West is just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Sure, it's not in the league of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in terms of re-watch value or fun, but it takes on the tall task that Leone set out to accomplish and manages to be not only watchable rather than self-indulgent but actually incredibly entertaining. The four solid headlining performances from Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale certainly help, but the script and especially the cinematography really carry the film. Even with the dozens of references to previous Westerns strewn throughout, the movie works cohesively as a well-oiled machine, as flawlessly as the big steam engines that serve as backdrops for some of its most crucial scenes. If you don't like this movie, you probably don't like movies, and that's it.
The Good: If The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the best film that Sergio Leone directed, then Once Upon a Time in the West is the best Sergio Leone film. His mark is all over this thing, and without him, it falls flat on its face.
The Bad: A few scenes might be a little too long. I think Leone saw how much people liked the graveyard shootout scene in his previous picture and decided to test out his boundaries. If that's true, he found them a few times here.
The Skinny: #24 is mighty high for any movie, and it wouldn't quite be that high on my personal list, but I can deal with it. Anything this ambitious that succeeds so frequently deserves special mention.