The film revolves mainly around a quartet of conflicted characters. After the newly wed and newly widowed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) gains ownership of her deceased husband’s wealthy land, she is confronted by her husband’s killer, Frank (Henry Fonda), who forces her to sell the land. However, the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and the harmonica-playing gunman dubbed “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) get in the way of Frank’s schemes while also keeping an eye on Jill.
The story points found here are very common within the western genre: a massacred family, a town in need of water, a railroad that will change the frontier forever, etc. This got me thinking of where the line should be drawn between referencing and adapting other works. While Once Upon a Time in the West isn’t based on any one film or story in particular, it certainly contains a wealthy amount of classical western homages. Still, Leone is able to play off of this formulaic outline by placing his own dark, parodic stamp on it.
Working in conjuncture with highly stylized design and explicit amounts of violence and sexuality, the memorable performances by Cardinale, Fonda, Robards, and Bronson are what really make this film stand out. I was particularly absorbed by Robards’ portrayal of Cheyenne, as he is the kind of talkative odd man that doesn’t really mesh with the personalities of the other leads. While most everyone in the film is quiet and mysterious, Cheyenne is a much more energetic character fueled by Robards’ humorous insight and charismatic qualities.
Of course the film cannot be praised without mentioning Morricone’s outstanding musical score. While there is some abrupt audio cuts between a few scenes, the overall soundtrack is an auditory wonder. Together with a lush nature soundscape, the music awakens the melodramatic atmosphere of the American frontier through moody and sometimes anachronistic themes. That right there is the fun thing about Morricone’s western scores: he aims for pleasure as opposed to accuracy.
Because pacing was, for the most part, dependent of Morricone’s themes, you could almost consider the composer as an indirect editor of the film. As far as the shot selection and arrangement goes, editor Nino Baragli certainly mirrors Morricone’s interest in the unexpected by cutting from extreme close-ups to extreme wide shots and vice versa. At the time of the film’s release, this sort of editing was typically considered reckless and off-limits. Thus, film critics initially condemned the unconventional style of the film. But then again, what do film critics know?
Overall, Once Upon a Time in the West is the kind of film that lays out its genre and masterfully toys with the pieces. Although it is almost three hours long, the cryptic ambiance and Wild West exuberance disillusion you of the film’s running time. Even with some cloudy character details, I was not so much confused as I was more intrigued with the filmic subtleties that reveal the internal conflicts. This is where interpretation will surely contrast from one viewer to the next.