The squealed harmonica refrain that runs through Sergio Leone's masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, sounds like the unholy death moans of a desert reptile. Its minimal, haunting, even terrifying noise reflects much of the film's style, which is at once epic and stark, melodramatic and painfully, acutely real. The harmonica itself is something of an absurdity, the embodiment of psychological trauma of a bloodthirsty gunslinger out to avenge his family's deaths, yet it, like all the other transparently cinematic, borderline Brechtian elements, fits with odd plausibility.
Lured into making another Western by the Hollywood system despite hoping to retire from the genre, Sergio Leone got a fast one over on them by elevating the Spaghetti Western (which he'd already raised well above its usual level) into the realm of genuine art. Once Upon a Time in the West certainly wasn't the first (nor last) film to document the downfall of the West, but it ranks among the merciless and unsparing. Before this, revisionist Westerns carried some sense of elegy, of the loss of the spirit embodied in the other Westerns. Even The Wild Bunch, released the same year, has its own sense of regret, even if it is in the futility of it all. Leone's film, though not scathing or condemning, is a depiction of an evil system replaced by another evil system, though that might not even be sufficient: this is not a changeover between parties so much as an evolution of the old way.
Consider the way he aligns bandits (importantly led by a Henry Fonda playing WAY against type) with capitalist forces paving their way through the West. Government is the usual culprit in such films, but here the same greed that led so many to abandon everything to settle in the unknown at last matures into true business and commerce, and the old villains fit in surprisingly well with the suit-and-tie railroad owner, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) who employ them to eliminate any resistance to their expansion. When Frank (Fonda) sits at the tycoon's desk, the man asks the bandit how it feels. "Like holding a gun," Frank replies, "only much more powerful."
Working from a story he conceived with Bernando Bertolucci and Dario Argento and refined with Sergio Donati, Leone manages to sublimate the political into the personal in a way he never did with the Dollars films. Once Upon a Time in the West follows two story arcs that quickly converge: Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a woman from New Orleans, arrives to join her new husband's homestead, only to find the whole family murdered for sitting on a patch of water the railroad company needs access to for its steam engines. Meanwhile, a mystery man (Charles Bronson) arrives in the area to confront the killer, Frank, for his own past with the sadist.
"Harmonica" naturally interest in Jill, as well as Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a bandit framed for the McBain slaughter who convinces the widow of his innocence and takes an obvious liking to her. Compared to the violent but moral protagonist of Leone's preceding trilogy, Bronson's Harmonica can scarcely be called even an anti-hero. Scarred by Frank's sadism as a young boy, he speaks rarely and always has a gun ready. Anyone who dies in the pursuit of his revenge is expendable; driven by hatred, he even alerts Frank to a double-crossing member of his gag about to fire on the blue-eyed devil, just to ensure he will have the satisfaction of the kill. "I didn't let them kill him and that's not the same thing," he says with speed and venom when Jill witnesses this act and accuses him of saving Frank. If Cheyenne seems nobler in comparison, it's only because his own crimes are so pedestrian in such a world that the fact he, too, is a murderer hardly rates a second notice.
Yet for a film about the ever-present but shape-shifting violence that poisons America's soul, Once Upon a Time in the West lacks the epic shootouts that made Leone's previous films so wild. Self-consciously high-minded, the film unfolds in static long takes, drawing out the tension to and past the breaking point. The opening sets the scene: a transparently theatrical set (you can almost see the edges), minimal dialogue and the dawning inevitability of something terrible about to happen. As a trio of thugs silently waits for someone to show at a train station, natural sound fills the aural gaps to make for an unbearable experience. A windmill creaks overhead, and a telegraph ticks like a throbbing pulse, the only suggestion of life among the still, tacit men until one gets fed up with it and breaks the machine to shut it up. At last, the train arrives, and the harmonica fills the air as Bronson is revealed, leading to yet more quiet and tension until three bullets fly out of Harmonica's gun so quickly the static frame almost seems to move in shock.
At times, this movie feels like an Antonioni film, albeit one with payoffs. Its plot is so complex—involving revenge, double crosses, expansionist capitalism, romance, mystery and the always exciting topic of land ownership—that a film with only a few scenes of action can stretch to nearly three hours. Harmonica's motives are not revealed until a flashback embedded in the final standoff. Yet it uses that time to deconstruct the Western by way of catastrophe: each shootout only drives the film deeper into despair and revulsion. Argento and Bertolucci were still film critics when they helped Leone come up with the story, and the trio's Western movie binge can be seen on the screen. References to classics such as High Noon and Shane abound, and the diegetic break of the cicadas and wind dying suddenly when Frank arrives off-screen at the McBain farm takes on even more of a reflexive bent when one considers it comes from The Searchers. The film collects tropes, but never to simply parade them. Instead, Leone weighs them against each other, bringing out the rotten core that was always at the center of all these films, even the ones that gloried in the West.
For all his metacinematic flourishes and clear disdain for the genre he'd been coerced into revisiting Leone does nevertheless give these characters time to develop and make a human imprint. Jill is one of the most memorable female characters to inhabit a Western, a whore looking to make a new life, only to find that life snatched away from her. Yet she does not let this defeat her, and while both Harmonica and Cheyenne help her and seek to protect her from Frank, she proves capable and resilient on her own terms. Cheyenne's love for her, though doomed from the start, elicits his own depth, turning him from a marginal gang leader to someone more fleshed out than, say, Eli Wallach's own greasy thug in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Even Morton, whose single-minded dedication to expanding his line and crippled frame make him ripe for parody, has a moment near the end of his life, in which he stares at a painting of the Pacific and comes to grips with the dawning knowledge that he won't live to see it, that makes him more than a propped-up target for political scorn.
Leone, famed for his violence, pulled back and made a film about that violence, and like Peckinpah, he got vilified for it despite not sinking into Sam's pits of off-putting carnage. Every aspect of the film speaks to the director's jaded view of the West, right down to the casting. Bronson, having achieved fame in films like The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen, was still a few years away from the Death Wish films, but the character of Harmonica prefigures and preemptively critiques that image, withholding the motive for revenge until it's too late to emotionally invest in his warpath; we can be happy a monster like Frank dies, but Leone vitally cuts short the time for an audience to root for the bloodbaths.
Fonda's casting, of course, was a masterstroke: Leone turned Fonda's All-American appeal on itself, using one of the few actors to truly embody that vague but quintessentially "American" feel as one of the most despicable, amoral villains in movie history. The tilt that reveals his face, moving up from the torso and gun hand of a child murderer to reveal the beautiful face of Henry Fonda is one of the greatest, most stunning reveals I've ever seen. Fonda serves as the film in microcosm: a Western that uses previous Westerns to splinter and undermine the genre. To introduce Fonda by an act of familicide and continue with rape and killing sprees breaks the audience of a connection to the film's biggest and most beloved star, reflecting the distance the film puts in its visuals.
By the same token, his aesthetic remove and carefully planned construction does not constitute a moral separation à la Kubrick. Once Upon a Time in the West strikes that rare balance between intimate involvement and overarching surveillance. For a film that is so unabashedly sweeping, it doesn't feel like a grand statement but a carefully reasoned argument, one that lays out a bold critique on the West but finds the emotional currents to back up such an attack as well as the intellectual ones. Once Upon a Time in the West is a film of numerous dichotomies, and it somehow finds the middle ground of each one, even if that means the splits collapse on themselves.
When reading reviews of the recently released Blu-Ray to determine whether it was worth an upgrade (very much so, as I've happily seen), I came across a review that called the film the Götterdämmerung of Spaghetti Westerns, a short-form summary so perfect I can't help but envy Lawrence Devoe for coming up with it. The word itself is now synonymous with a collapse, but one can find traces of Wagner's actual opera in Leone's fourth Western: it's as large as its predecessors—larger, even—but the style breaks and folds in on itself, shattering the world as characters, performers (in Wagner's case) and form (in Leone's) fall apart. Once Upon a Time in the West is not the elegy of previous paeans to the dying West, but neither is it the vicious appraisal of films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Dead Man. Somehow, it mixes Italian trash with Italian high art to craft one of the most encompassing visions of America in all its contradictory messiness. The only thing more impressive than that is that he managed to do it again 15 years later.