Cover of Once Upon a Time in the West Once Upon a Time in The West is my all time favorite film as well as my favorite movie score. Bernardo Bertolucci, the co-writer of Once Upon a Time in The West, later directs The Last Emperor, which is my second all time favorite film as well as my second favorite movie score. Beware this is not your usual western. It is epic poetry. It is opera. It is a perfectly crafted art film that expresses Sergio Leone's true love for the great American Westerns. Leone doesn't necessarily romanticize the American West, he romanticizes American Western films. He makes references to High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, The Comancheros, Shane, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine and many other great American Westerns very much the way Quentin Tarrantino has made films that pay homage to the gangster film genre.
Image by howzey via FlickrAlthough most of the film was shot in Spain & Italy like most spaghetti westerns, Leone traveled to John Ford's Monument Valley to capture the authentic Western United States panorama. Like Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, it has a poetic quality that uses strong symbolism; but instead of symbolic words and lyrical phrases in the dialogue, Leone relies on the alliteration of sights and sounds to formulate poetic stanzas out of every scene. The length of the film is a result of Leone's choice to direct in a sometimes painstakingly slow pace that builds up incredible tension before key action scenes. He allows us time to imbibe the majestic landscapes, and appreciate the details of the authentic sets and costume design documenting this pivotal period in American history. Instead of cluttering the beauty of his carefully photographed frames with dialogue, close shots of these actor's iconic faces express all that needs to be said.
Image via WikipediaEnnio Morricone, also my favorite movie composer, scored five distinct musical themes that embody each of the main characters: widowed new bride Jill (Claudia Cardinale), mysterious harmonica-playing gunman (Charles Bronson), bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), hired gun Frank (Henry Fonda) and railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Instead of a musical prelude, the movie opens with a symphony of natural sounds using a screeching windmill, a buzzing fly, dropping water and a ticking telegraph. Meticulous sound editors maintain continuity throughout this mostly visual narrative, composing a perfect harmony between each of the main character's musical motifs along side the multitude of natural sounds mostly inspired by the two major symbols, the railroad and the water. An impressive lengthy tracking shot introduces the "anti-heroine" Jill as well as the beginnings of a bustling railroad town. Don't miss the first few minutes of this movie. Without music nor dialogue, Leone creates one of the most suspenseful thrilling first few minutes of a movie whilst still rolling the opening credits. For all 168 minutes I was captivated by each and every frame! Once Upon a Time in the West is the finest example of Sergio Leone's creativity and perfectionism as a director, but most of all it is his greatest testament of love for the American Western.
Image via WikipediBTW Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds pays tribute to this film with an opening sequence entitled Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.