Once Upon a Time in the West opens with a sequence of about 14 minutes or a touch under, that functions very much like a short film prequel to the movie proper, and it is as such the best film of director Sergio Leone's career. I would very much like to call it the best moment of 1960s Italian cinema, and only the best scenes in 8½ prevent me from making such a claim reflexively. It is, certainly, one of the all-time great openings to a movie, setting the tone for all that follows it, although frankly that's almost incidental to how good it is per se: I have frequently been known to watch just that single bit of the movie and stop, feeling quite well-sated by having done so; on the flipside, whenever I do go ahead and watch the rest of the film (which isn't terribly often: like a lot of Italian genre films, it exists in a confusing array of possible running times, though all of them are pretty damn long*), I invariably feel that the rest of the movie - which is, by itself, one of the greatest Westerns ever filmed and in my private list of the best films in cinema history - is a disappointment for not living up to its opening. That's how good the opening is: it makes a masterpiece look wan in comparison.
Having by now all but announced my intention to marry the opening sequence, I will get around to explaining what it is, for the uninitiated: there is a train station, out in the middle of some godforsaken patch of desert in Arizona. Three men (Woody Strode, Al Mulock, and Western fixture Jack Elam†) arrive, scare the hell out of the hapless station agent manning the ticket booth, and set up to wait. And wait. One of them amuses himself by watching a fly; one stands underneath a steady drip and listens to the sound it makes on his hat. For ten minutes this goes on, and it is one of the most unbearably tense moments in all the annals of cinema. It is the peak of Leone's aesthetic of microscopic close-ups, the men's craggy, sweaty faces that exude all the heat and dust of the Southwest filling the anamorphic Techniscope frame; the washed-out colors of the stock typical of Italian Westerns sucking all the life out of the sky and sand; the pointed editing from one insert shot to another, creating a sense of what exists while slicing physical space into the smallest constituent pieces; and above all the sound, or rather the absence of sound, a suffocating silence that exaggerates the thud of boots on boards, the plonk of water, and the ancient squeak of a windmill outside the station, grinding painfully around. There is an overwhelming emptiness to all of this, all the niceties of moviemaking stripped away and leaving just the bones of a scene, stretched out as far as Leone dares; it is a sequence that states with unmixed clarity that bad things are coming, when that train arrives and after.
Eventually the train pulls in, a shrieking metal violation of the intense quiet of the preceding ten minutes, and it disgorges... nobody, at least nobody the three men were waiting for. They're just about to leave in confusion when the harmonica plays, a short jog of notes that barely deserve the name "tune". It is a motif that we'll hear a hell of a lot over the movie, and it is for Ennio Morricone as the opening sequence is for Sergio Leone: the most brutally spare version of his style that still manages to make sense artistically. It is a hair-raising whine that communicates, unnervingly well for such a slight thing, the sound of dying slowly in the hot sun. It is being played by a man (Charles Bronson) whose granite face makes Eastwood's Man with No Name look like Jim Carrey; he'll at one point pick up the nickname Harmonica, and that's as convenient a handle as any. He quickly disposes of the three men waiting to kill him, and walks on his way.
It's a cinematic sonnet, that's what it is, a precise and perfectly-balanced mixture of sound and color, texture and editing, actor's faces and merciless actions, all going to create a feeling of the most exquisite foreboding. There aren't a dozen moments in all the movies I've ever seen, and none at all of similar duration, that are so flawlessly executed from start to finish in every of the disciplines that collectively go by the name "filmmaking". I have gone so far as to use it as a shibboleth: to love cinema as a craft, as opposed to its merits as a storytelling medium, is necessarily to love the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West. Nowadays I'm not so dogmatic, but I'd still go as far as to say that anybody who doesn't adore the sequence body and soul appreciates cinema in some completely different way than I.
And, through no fault of its own, the movie never lives up to this breathtaking opening. Even the very next scene would be, in any other context, a real corker: a homesteader, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), busily fusses around his ranch in the middle of a godforsaken dust patch, making ready for the impending arrival of his new wife. He is interrupted by the arrival of a gang of bandits who ruthlessly gun him down, along with his three young children, and to punctuate it all, the man who kills the youngest is introduced in a sweeping camera move that closes in on his face and reveals holy shit it's Henry Fonda. Yes indeed, one of Hollywood's all-time great decent fellas, good ol' Hank, here dropped into the single best piece of against-type casting that has ever been perpetrated or likely ever will be, given how calculated image control is these days, and how even the unlikeliest celebrity casting choices have the unpleasant tang of a marketing decision. At any rate, Fonda's turn as the deeply cruel, calculating Frank is among his best performances - I will not go so far as to call it his very best, simply because it is unusual for him, but freed from the manacles of a stand-up model of good citizenship, the actor was able to tap into a reservoir of coldness that is quite surprising and exciting.
From this point on, Once Upon a Time in the West keeps on expanding and expanding, to include McBain's widow Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a tough, beautiful New Orleans whore, and Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an affable bandit who gets framed for the massacre at the McBain ranch, and that most beloved of tropes in Death of the Frontier films, the building of a cross-country railroad, along with all the corruption and murder that entails. It's not terrifically original as a story - it falls into a spate of Westerns in the late '60s and early '70s that dealt with the coming of civilisation to the Old West, most prominently including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch - but the tone with which it tells its story isn't quite like any of the other films on the same subject. The easiest way to describe it, I think, is in the context of the Dollars Trilogy that Leone had so recently completed: those films, particularly The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are often noted for their sweeping, mythic quality. There is a distinct non-reality to the world of TGTBTU, which feels at times more like the landscape of Hell than the American Southwest, and certainly the character Eastwood plays in those movies is a folkloric figure, rather than a traditionally dramatic one.
Once Upon a Time in the West is somewhat like an epilogue to the Dollars Trilogy, in that it combines the legendary quality of those films with a more realistic, "period film" quality - I would describe it as the difference between mythic and epic. Harmonica is very much like Eastwood's character from the earlier films, a figure rather than a character; but he is surrounded by people in a story about events that began before our movie started and end after it concludes. Can you ever imagine the stories of Eastwood's films continuing on in any direction? Whereas the current film takes place in an historic continuum, and it doesn't quite know what to do with Harmonica, who keeps slicing into the story at angles, if you will, interjecting himself into a narrative world where a fable like he is cannot comfortably exist. Frank is the same kind of figure, only he tries to force himself into the world by means of violence and destruction, the tools of the same mythic Westerns that he and Harmonica stepped out of; but he ends up dying for it. Harmonica survives, but only after he is given a backstory at the end of the film and thus reabsorbed, as it were, into the film's more grounded reality, much as Lee Van Cleef's character in For a Few Dollars More, with his own grounded backstory, is the only "real" character in that film.
The film's primary flaw - for it is undoubtedly a flawed movie, moreso than TGTBTU, though I think its heights are higher and on the whole it's a great deal more fascinating - is that Leone, abetted by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, is a little bit too intoxicated with the creation of self-consciously pictorial imagery, and uses them somewhat indiscriminately. The shot of Harmonica, in the foreground, facing off against the three assassins, is reminiscent of the three-way standoff in wide-shots in TGTBTU, and is one of the best shots in the movie; but after God knows how many shots of characters framed by doorways, or of characters in the foreground watching over the action like a god, it's hard to shake the sense that Leone is not so much punctuating his movie as indulging in beauty for its own sake. As sins go, that's an awfully hard one to complain about, for beauty is, after all, beautiful; still, the extreme discipline that went into TGTBTU has been replaced by something a bit more indulgent, which is disappointing if certainly not film-breaking. The same with the script, which Leone co-wrote with Sergio Donati (from a story Leone crafted alongside two future giants of the Italian film industry: Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento): it is remarkably well-paced for the bulk of it, especially in the first hour where every scene seems to go on for ages without ever lagging, but there are scenes scattered in there that don't seem to do much good but extend the running time, though the only one I'd happily see removed is the moment in which Frank and Jill have sex.
That's actually a good segue into the last point I'd like to raise about the film, and what it says about Leone's career, which is: the function of women in it. Cardinale's Jill is the first significant female character in a Leone film since The Colossus of Rhodes, back when he was just a hack; even then, it's worth noting that the female lead there was revealed to be the villain. Here, she is an ex-whore who is the only one of the four leads that the film can't figure out: Harmonica is the taciturn amoral man who gets things done that need doing, Frank is the evil avatar of greed and rapine, Cheyenne is a well-meaning lapsed Romantic. Jill is first seen as the rugged, knows-what-she-wants sort, who turns into a lost and confused victim, before ending as... I don't even know what to make of the last few scenes, and the way they present her character. Domesticity is praised, that much is clear, but the degree to which Jill is expected to be a traditional woman at the end is wildly hard to make out. I get the impression that Leone set out to make her a strong Action Girl type, and lost his nerve, eventually shoving her offstage altogether - despite having top billing, Cardinal gets the least face time of the main actors. And it's worth noting the strong woman from the East, a stock character, has to be made a whore before she can join Leone's boys' club, and that the only moment in the last half of the film where she gets to express any real autonomy is a scene in which she fucks the villain to protect herself - a scene that could easily be cut without damaging the story much at all.
I don't know if there's any lesson that can be drawn from this, other than that Leone was profoundly uncomfortable with female characters, and could only deal with them by framing them as masculine fantasies (the cold-blooded femme fatale in Colossus, a gorgeous tomboy hooker here). Once Upon a Time in the West gets enough so amazingly right in its depiction of the waning days of the frontier that I'm not inclined to make much of it, though it is a considerably sour note in what is otherwise one of the pinnacles of world cinema.