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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Italian: C'era una volta il West) is a 1968 Italian epic spaghetti western film directed by Sergio Leone for Paramount Pictures. It stars Henry Fonda cast against type as the villain, Charles Bronson as his nemesis, Jason Robards as a bandit, and Claudia Cardinale as a newly widowed homesteader with a past as a prostitute. The screenplay was written by Leone and Sergio Donati, from a story devised by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento. The widescreen cinematography was by Tonino Delli Colli, and Ennio Morricone provided the film score. After directing The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone decided to retire from westerns and desired to produce his film based on The Hoods, which eventually became Once Upon a Time in America. However, Leone accepted an offer from Paramount to use a budget to produce another Western film and access to Fonda. He recruited Bertolucci and Argento to devise the plot of the film in 1966, researching other Western films in the process. After Clint Eastwood turned down an offer to play the villain's nemesis, Bronson was offered the role.
Conceived and roughed together by Italian directors Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Leone, the guts of West are some of the least likely of his films. The story concerns a woman (Claudia Cardinale, who spends the entire movie clenching her teeth) whose husband and family are murdered, leaving her with a valuable plot of land. This land has the eye of one Frank (Henry Fonda in his biggest villain role ever), and he's determined to be rid of the woman in order to get it. A half-Mexican named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) ends up accused of the murders, and a nameless bounty hunter (sound familiar?) who's known due to his harmonica playing by the name Harmonica (Charles Bronson) inserts himself into the mix. The film culminates with Harmonica turning in Cheyenne for the reward money, then using that money to outbid Frank at the public auction of the land... and then of course there's a showdown to be had.
Set aside the idea of Fonda playing a villain and Robards playing a Mexican -- the biggest huh? in the film is that a brutal killer will do anything in his power to get his hands on some real estate. It ain't quite a fistful of dollars that we're dealing with.
Bronson is good but hardly Eastwood-caliber as the quiet man with an agenda all his own (and in fact Eastwood was originally desired for the part), but it's still one of the greatest film roles of his career. Watching Fonda play the bad guy -- and he's more than just the man in black, he's literally covered in what looks like tar for the entire picture -- is a little too weird to work for the nearly three hours of the film. We never quite get into his character, and Robards is written too thinly to ever make much of an impact.
Rather, what really makes West a minor classic next to some of Leone's bigger and better flicks is its masterful use of ultra-widescreen cinematography and the absolutely glorious setups Leone manages to come up with. He cuts from a majestic scene of the desert to a closeup of Bronson to a tensely-paced gun battle to the invariable shot of Cardinale's teeth. When West is jumping, it's impossible to turn away. But when it's trying to coax another hour out of its threadbare and implausible plot, the eyes begin to wander. Or roll.
Aka C'era una volta il West.
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