I’m not expert enough on the topic of Sergio Leone’s films to weigh in on whether or not Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is his masterpiece, as is often claimed. It certainly has everything—both good and not-so-good—that I associate with Leone. The plot is sufficiently labyrinthian that I’m not surprised to find that Dario Argento had a hand in the story. There’s a good deal of symbolism, a methodical pace, a strong atmosphere and a few surprises. Does it really justify being 165 minutes long? Maybe. Whether it does or not, there’s no doubt that it leaves you feeling you’ve seen something of note. And none of this takes into account the against-type—to the point of being shocking—performance of Henry Fonda.
The intriguing thing is that for all the convoluted plot threads of Once Upon a Time in the West—some of which aren’t tied up till the very last scenes—the individual stories themselves aren’t especially complex. It’s all in the way they’re woven together. Leone is interested in turning these relatively simple stories into one epic tapestry—a compendium of the Western film. What he wants to create is a kind of ultimate Western—one that smashes a lot of the traditional iconography to become iconic in its own right. Had prior commitments not prevented Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef (Leone’s own Western icons) from appearing in the opening sequence, this would have been more obvious.
The opening scene itself is perhaps the most iconic of all Leone. It includes everything we think of as a Leone trademark—and takes it to an extreme. The shots hold longer. The close-ups are just a little bigger. The wide-angle shots a little wider. It truly becomes the ultimate Leone sequence. The question is whether or not the rest of the film lives up to it. I’m in the “yes and no” column on that. There’s no single aspect of the movie that so burns itself into your memory—save perhaps the first shot of Henry Fonda—quite the way the opening does. Yet, the overall film is full of rich images, Leone touches and even a bit of Leone strangeness. In any case, it’s a bold film that you won’t soon forget.