Sergio Leone is synonymous with “Spaghetti Westerns”, after all he was the mastermind behind what is widely considered to be one of the very best films ever made: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” which is of course also a western. “Once Upon a Time in the West” was Leone’s next attempt at making big with the theme but it isn’t just his “Dollars Trilogy” with different characters and a different story. Leone creates a movie that feels familiar yet completely different to his previous work and he’s all the better for it. “Once Upon a Time in the West” is only held back slightly from radiating pure brilliance, only slightly.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” is very slow and methodical, most of the time there isn’t any dialogue to speak of (pun intended). Leone is able to convey everything he needs to in a scene just from characters interacting with each other via movements and stares. He’s almost “Pinteresque” in his approach to the traditional spaghetti western. Silence is used to create tension and portray the ruthless hostility between inhabitants of the dusty landscape. Ennio Morricone once again dazzles with his score that perfectly compliments the lack of dialogue and action. Without it “Once Upon a Time in the West” would be a far more monotonous movie than it is, and it’s actually a wonder that even with the soundtrack, it staves away from boredom almost flawlessly, even with a run time of just under 3 hours.
It’s practically impossible to jump into “Once Upon a Time in the West” after having missed a considerable amount, and understand it. The complex plot, that transcends “A Fistful of Dollars” simple yet satisfying revenge story, is a big part of what makes it such a pleasure to watch. It is the characters that each have individual stories of their own, all with varying degrees of mystery and clarity surrounding them that combine together to make an interwoven tale with themes of revenge, wealth and power. There is a certain grandeur to watching people that feel like they have actually lived for their entire lives, circle around each other as if they were in a stage play. The camera always compliments these scenes flawlessly and its sometimes astounding what Leone does with lighting. For example when a lamp is dangling above Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and the rim of his hat causes a shadow to conceal and reveal his eyes, glaring at his enemy.
Speaking of Harmonica, his trademark harmonica highlights one of the problems of “Once Upon a Time in the West”, and that’s the sound effects. The sound effects are cheesy western fare as usual but, for example, when the sound of the harmonica plays it’s hard to discern it from where the sound is heard. He actually covers his harmonica when he plays it so for a while I just thought that he was making odd hand gestures, it never sounded like the sound was coming from him and it does take you out of the moment somewhat. Besides that, the incredibly slow nature of the film can start to wear as it goes on. It’s not particularly exciting and excels with its cinematography, and almost choreographic scenes, far more than its action and visual splendour.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” is brilliant, there is no doubt about it, but this spaghetti Western’s meatballs are to be found elsewhere.
It… It made sense in my head.