Looking over the list of my top fifty favorite movies today, it seem like a good time to expand a little bit on my writings on Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Some days it’s my second favorite movie of all time, after Leone’s own THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, and most critical writings on the movie call it Leone’s masterpiece. Clint Eastwood played the lead in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, he shared top billing with Lee Van Cleef in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and they made it a trio in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY. With ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, you have four main characters this time around, each time with their own personal musical cues courtesy of Leone’s most important collaborator, Ennio Morricone, and each one of the quartet is among the most eternally memorable incarnations of the archetypes they are meant to represent:
The movie’s lonesome stranger, in a role originally offered to Clint Eastwood, is played by cinema’s other great stoneface, Charles Bronson. His character is known only as Harmonica, and the reason why is a brilliant reveal which I wouldn’t dream of ruining.
The charismatic rogue, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, is called Cheyenne and played by Jason Robards. This is arguably the coolest character of all goddamned time, in my opinion. The tragic romantic figure that the younger Robards was so good at playing is imbued with a terrific (and tremendously quotable) sense of humor in Leone’s hands.
The whore with the heart of gold, Jill, is played by Claudia Cardinale. For my money, Claudia Cardinale in this movie is as beautiful as a human woman can look. She’s great for a lot of other reasons, some of them I listed here when I named her my number one of all time, but you can’t argue with that face.
Frank, the bad man in the black hat, is played by all-American good guy Henry Fonda, and seriously speaking, he is one of the greatest villains ever. I’m sorry to keep using generic platitudes, but that’s the kind of blindly expansive adoration that this movie elicits from me. Frank has a cruelly and coldly sadistic introduction, and he maintains that level of villainy throughout the movie.
As you can tell from the title, Leone thought of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST as “a fairy tale for adults,” and the fact that each one of these classic Western movie archetypes are simultaneously so broad and so memorable is proof that Leone succeeded. This is a definitive Western, and a legitimately perfect movie. It probably helps to go in on it with a working knowledge of Westerns, just so that you can see how Leone so definitively aced it, but I figure it’d be just as good even if you can’t tell a Colt from a Derringer from a Remington.
For plenty more about movies all the time, find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb