Once Upon a Time in the West

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(1968, Sergio Leone)

- Inducted 2019 -

“Once upon a time, in Hollywood, about 10 years ago, I took my daughters, then aged 10 and 8, to see a screening of The Magnificent Seven (1960), and my eldest surprised me on the way out. She was moved by the death of the Charles Bronson character and the response of the two Mexican boys to it, and she said to me, ‘I didn’t know cowboy movies could be so emotional!’ I think of that moment and my daughter’s comment almost every time I see Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which might be one of the most emotional movies of any genre that I’ve ever seen. I encountered it for the first time cropped, panned-and-scanned, and stuffed to the gills with used car lot commercials on Sunday-afternoon TV when I was a kid. But I didn’t see it projected in 35mm until I was in college, and that’s where the love affair truly began. Just about every screening of this movie I’ve been privileged to see since that first one has been accompanied by a vision of its super-charged vistas and operatic visual and aural flourishes warped and blurred by inevitable tears.

“Much has been and will continue to be written about the movie’s two justifiably lauded opening set pieces—the ecstatically extended confrontation at a train station between three hired gunmen (Western icons Jack Elam and Woody Strode, alongside Canadian character actor Al Mulock) and a mysterious loner with a harmonica (Charles Bronson), and the brutal slaughter of a family of immigrants by a group of assassins in long duster coats, led by a man with an ice-cold stare and an even more dispassionate demeanor who turns out to be Henry Fonda, cast about as against type as any actor ever has been, who pulls the trigger on a young boy unfortunate enough to hear one of the killers utter his name.

“But for me the movie really becomes Sergio Leone’s vision of movie-fed memory and desire, greed, manifest destiny and revenge, in the sequence that follows. Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), the woman who belongs to that slaughtered family, an ex-prostitute who has secretly married its now-dead patriarch, arrives at the train station expecting to be greeted by her new son, daughter and husband. She glances disconcertedly at the train station clock, and then her own watch, as the first strains of Ennio Morricone’s incomparably lovely theme begins to waft onto the soundtrack like tiny fragments of shattered glass born on an ominous breeze. She makes her way across the vast, virtually empty station yard and enters the station, while the camera tracks along with her, eventually framing her in a window (one shaped in the same aspect ratio as the expansive Panavision of Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography) as she queries the stationmaster about the missing party whom she expected to greet her.

“The stationmaster points the way toward the main street where she’ll catch a coach to take her to her new home, and as she and the station workers make their way toward the front door, the camera elevates toward the roof, Morricone’s beautiful music swelling in anticipation. That swelling builds to a perfectly choreographed moment, cresting precisely as Delli Colli’s camera lofts over the station roof to a grandiose wide shot of Jill making her way through the bustling main street and into a new world that will entirely justify the vaulting melancholy of Morricone’s theme. I have not been able to watch this passage as an adult without bursting into tears. When I hear cinephiles (especially young cinephiles) proclaim this moment as one of the greatest in all cinema, I quietly roll my eyes—yes, but how much have they really seen? And then I see the sequence and the movie again and think, if they’re not right, then at least they’re damned close. From this point on the waterworks seem to come in different places, at different moments throughout, but always to the same overwhelming end, an involuntary response to the passion Leone has infused into every frame of this masterpiece.

“In the introduction to Christopher Frayling’s gorgeous new book Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece, the Italian novelist and journalist Alberto Moravia is quoted on the subject of Italian westerns (and no, he doesn’t call them ‘spaghetti westerns’):

’The enterprising directors who have acclimatized the Western to Italy have found themselves facing problems of expression which are somewhat different to those of their American colleagues. There is no West in Italy; no cowboys or bandits on the frontier; no frontier; no gold mines; no Native-Americans; no pioneers. The Italian Western was born not from an ancestral memory, but rather from the middle-class Bovaryism of directors who had loved American westerns when they were children. In other words, the Hollywood Western was born of a myth; the Italian one of a myth about a myth… And so often you end up asking yourself, So many stories and then what? Just a fistful of dollars? Or is there more?’

“It seems obvious in the face of Leone’s ultimate Western and its enduring legend (it was not a hit upon its initial release, at least not in the country where its emotions are securely rooted) that there is much more. That Leone and his screenwriters, Sergio Donati, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, in indulging their deepest feelings about a world of the past which had no connection to their own youths beyond its representation as cinema, high and low and all points in-between, should emerge with one of the two or three greatest Westerns ever made as a result certainly speaks to the presence of Moravia’s ‘more.’ That it is a movie which looms so large in the imaginations and regard of so many people 50 years after it was first seen only confirms that Once Upon a Time in the West speaks most eloquently in that shimmering zone where myth and history comingle to carry on a battered storytelling form forward, a zone where it has properly mesmerized several generations of film lovers ever since.” ~ Dennis Cozzalio

Original title: C’era una volta il West
Principal cast: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Frank Wolff, Lionel Stander
Screenplay by Sergio Donati and Sergio Leone
From a story by Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci
Produced by Fulvio Morsella
Executive producer: Bino Cicogna
Director of photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Set decoration by Carlo Simi, Rafael Ferri (uncredited), Carlo Leva (uncredited)
Costume design by Carlo Simi, Antonelli Pompei (uncredited)
Film editing by Nino Baragli
Original music by Ennio Morricone
Makeup by Alberto De Rossi (supervisor), Giannetto De Rossi
Hair stylist: Grazia De Rossi
Sound engineers: Fausto Ancillai, Claudio Maielli, Elio Pacella
Sound effects by Luciano Anzilotti, Roberto Arcangeli, Italo Cameracanna
Special effects by Eros Bacciucchi
Whistling performed by Alessandro Alessandroni (uncredited)
Harmonica performed by Franco De Gemini (uncredited)

Duration: 165 minutes
Languages: Italian, Spanish
Filmed in color (Technicolor)
Sound mix: Mono
Cinematographic process: Techniscope
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Printed film format: 35mm (anamorphic)

Produced by Paramount Pictures, Rafran/San Marco Productions, Euro International Film (uncredited)
Released in USA by Paramount Pictures
Premiered in Rome, Italy on December 20, 1968
USA release date: May 28, 1969

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 2009

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