Once Upon A Time In The West


Paramount Pictures

Directed by Sergio Leone

Produced by Bino Cicogna

Written by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone and Sergio Donatti

Music by Ennio Morricone

Three men wait a remote train station.  One man (Al Mulock) endlessly cracks his knuckles.  The second man (Woody Strode) stands underneath a leak in the water tower. Eventually the water gathers in the crown of his hat and he drinks it with a really satisfied smile.  The third man (Jack Elam) engages in an existential war with a fly that just won’t leave him alone.   The train arrives and one man (Charles Bronson) disembarks.  The three men have obviously been waiting to kill him.  The lone man plays a sad dirge on an old battered harmonica and he asks the three men if they brought a horse for him.  The third man jokingly says that it looks as if they’re one horse shy.  The harmonica player disagrees:

“You brought two horses too many.”

The harmonica player whips out his gun, kills all three men with incredibly fast and accurate shots and that’s how ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST begins.  A movie that I think is the best western ever made.  You can disagree with me.  I don’t mind.

Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in the boomtown of Flagstone to take up housekeeping with Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) whom she met and married in New Orleans.  Jill is desperately looking to put her former life as a prostitute behind her but that dream is totally shattered as she finds that McBain, along with his three children have all been brutally murdered.

The townspeople are quick to put the blame on Cheyenne (Jason Robards) a local bandit noted for his flamboyance and rough charm.  But Cheyenne is for once the innocent party.  The McBains were actually killed by Frank (Henry Fonda) a merciless killer in the employ of railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) who is dying from tuberculosis of the bones but is determined to stay alive long enough to see his railroad reach The Pacific Ocean.  Frank’s got other plans.  And those plans include the McBain ranch of Sweetwater which Jill has inherited.

The ranch is sitting on a vast underground lake of fresh water.  And Brett McBain’s intention was to build a railroad station right on the spot where the railroad would pass through.  McBain knew that the water was worth millions and whoever controlled the water would control the town that would spring up around the station.  Frank is determined to get that land.  Jill is just as determined that he doesn’t.  Cheyenne genuinely likes Jill and genuinely doesn’t like Frank and wants to help her out.  Nobody knows what the motives and intentions of the mysterious man that they all call Harmonica are.  But he moves among these four and manipulates their actions for his own dark purpose.  A purpose we don’t learn until the end of the movie and one I wouldn’t dare reveal here.

I love all of Sergio Leone’s movies and I’ve thought for years that ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was his highly underrated masterpiece.  Most would say that “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” takes the top honors among Leone’s films but I gotta disagree.  Much as I love “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” I love ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST even more.  Why?  Okay, sit back.  This will take a while.

First of all is the title: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  Leone is letting you know right up front he’s telling you a grown-up fairy tale.  This isn’t going to be a fairy tale that has a happy ending because it takes place in the west.  But it really isn’t The American West we know.  The film critic Danny Peary wrote in his review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST that Sergio Leone’s West was inhabited by a select group men who belonged to an elder race of warriors who possessed near supernatural skills with guns.  And I think that’s valid.  Sergio Leone’s American West is actually as much a fantasy realm as Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Era.  But in Leone’s fantasy world his warriors tote sixguns instead of swords.  In fact, there’s a key scene where Charles Bronson’s Harmonica says to Henry Fonda’s Frank that he belongs to ‘an ancient race’.

Second of all is Claudia Cardinale.  Sergio Leone may have slighted women is his other movies but he made up for it with this one.  He takes every opportunity to film Claudia Cardinale the best way he can.  She’s an astoundingly beautiful woman and Leone takes advantage of that, giving her an amazing amount of close-ups where we can just take delight in how lusciously gorgeous she is.  And she’s not just there as eye candy.  Miss Cardinale’s character is the one that sets everything in the movie into motion.

Third is Henry Fonda.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is legendary as the only movie where he played a bad guy and I guess we’re lucky because if Mr. Fonda had really put his mind to it we’d have gotten some of the scariest bad guys of all time from him.   Henry Fonda  scares the you-know-what outta me everytime he shows up on screen in this movie.  He’s so scary that when this movie was first shown on American television, some of his scenes were actually cut out including Frank’s killing of a little boy.

Fourth is just the way the story is told.  Sergio Leone takes his time in all of his movies and this is no exception.  He’ll tell the story he wants to tell in his own way and in his own time.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is no exception.  There are many scenes which have nothing but characters staring at each other.  And compared to how fast the gunfights happen you might be bewildered at how much time Leone takes setting up the gunfights.  But that’s because Leone is more interested in the rituals leading up to the gunfight.

Fifth is the score by Ennio Morricone which I think is the best he’s ever done.  Do yourself a favor and pick up the two-disc DVD version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in which you’ve got commentary by guys like John Carpenter, John Milius, Claudia Cardinale and numerous others including Morricone who himself says that Leone wanted ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST scored liked an opera.  Every main character has their own theme music and the hauntingly evocative ‘Jill’s Theme’ is used to its greatest effect in the last ten minutes of the movie.  Which is Leone’s commentary in full on the mythic Old West he loved so much.

Should you see ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST?  It’s one of the movies in my Movies You Can’t Call Yourself A Movie Fan If You Haven’t Seen list.  It’s got terrific performances by Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and the exquisite Claudia Cardinale.  It’s not a western you want to see for non-stop action and bloody shootouts.  But the way it’s filmed, its story and the acting it’s captivating.   If you call yourself a fan of movies or a fan of westerns then ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is a movie you need to see.

171 minutes

Rated PG-13

My Name Is Nobody


Paramount Home Entertainment

Produced by Fulvio Morsella

Directed by Tonio Valerii

Screenplay by Ernesto Gastaldi

Based on a story by Fulvio Morsella and Ernesto Gastald

As will usually happen to a writer, people will always ask me what my influences are.  And I name various writers and genres and then I mention spaghetti westerns and a strange thing happens: their eyes light up and they start asking me have I seen this movie or that movie in the genre and people are always surprised that I proudly cite spaghetti westerns as an influence on my writing style.  I don’t see why. Out of the nearly 600 spaghetti westerns made between 1960 and 1975 I would estimate I’ve seen at least 200 of them.  You don’t see that many movies in a genre without it having a profound effect on you.  And I’m not the only one.  If you’re a fan of John Woo, Roberto Rodriguez and Quentin Tarentino then you’ve seen three of the most popular filmmakers of current times who were profoundly influenced by the spaghetti western.  Most people only know the Sergio Leone “The Man With No Name” Trilogy as an example of the genre.  But as far as I’m concerned “Once Upon A Time In The West” is the greatest western ever made with “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” following a damn close second.   But there are many, many, many more spaghetti westerns besides Sergio Leone’s that are well worth seeing.  But we’ll get into those in other reviews, okay?

For many movie fans, myself included, Sergio Leone invented the spaghetti western, as we know it.  Leone created a mythic American West that has more in common with the fantasy fiction of Robert E. Howard than the actual American West.  In Sergio Leone’s American West, warriors carried six-guns instead of swords and instead of sorcerers they fought villains of unimaginable cruelty whose skills rivaled that of the heroes.  And in most of Leone’s movies, the only reason the good guys won out was because they played just as dirty or even dirtier than the bad guys.  Evil was challenged, fought and defeated by a greater evil that somehow was nobler and more pure.

Now if you look at the credits of this movie above you’ll see that Sergio Leone’s name is not mentioned and since he is officially unaccredited I did not do so.  But trust me that MY NAME IS NOBODY is a Sergio Leone picture.  He worked on the screenplay, he choose Henry Fonda for the movie (in fact, he wouldn’t make the movie without him) and he directed key scenes.  And he did so because this movie was his statement about The American Western Vs. The Spaghetti Western.

Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) is an aging gunslinger just looking to retire in peace and quiet.  Unlike most gunslingers his age he knows his time is up and the world has moved on.  He’s booked passage on a ship that will take him to retirement in Europe.  Jack only wants to get on the ship and spend the rest of his days his peace.  It’ll take Jack about two weeks to get to the ship and he plans on doing it nice and easy.

However, Jack runs into a young, handsome gunslinger that apparently has no name.  Whenever he’s asked what his name is he simply replies: “I’m Nobody.”  But this Nobody (Terence Hill) clearly idolizes Jack.  He knows everything about Jack’s life and can recite the names of every man Jack has killed, where he killed them and even how many shots it took for Jack to kill them.  Jack isn’t clear as to what this Nobody wants.  Does he want to face down Jack in a gunfight?  No, actually Nobody wants Jack to take on The Wild Bunch, a gang of 150 purebred sons of bitches and he wants Jack to take them on alone in a battle of Ragnorakian proportions.  Nobody wants Jack to go down in the history books as the greatest gunslinger of them all and for much of the movie, Nobody manipulates Jack until Jack has no choice and he has to face down The Wild Bunch in an epic gunfight.

It’s interesting to see how MY NAME IS NOBODY is filmed because the scenes with Henry Fonda by himself are done as a straight American Western while the scenes with Terence Hill are done as a Spaghetti Western.  What Sergio Leone was doing in this movie is basically acknowledging both genres, using the then current icons of the genres and letting them play off each other and it’s a really good piece of work.  MY NAME IS NOBODY is a very funny movie in its own right as Terence Hill made his rep in western comedies, often pared with Bud Spencer who played his brother in the ‘Trinity” movies and he’s got some great comedic moments here.  I always like how he treats his near supernatural abilities with a gun as if it’s the most boring thing in the world.   He’s got a great scene where he’s holding his saddle on one shoulder and on a dare, draws his gun and replaces in the holster three times with the same hand holding the saddle without letting it drop.

Henry Fonda is really good in this movie.  The whole thing revolves around the relationship between Jack Beauregard and Nobody and Henry Fonda sells it.  He never really knows exactly what Nobody wants or what he’s trying to do but by the end of the movie you truly get the sense that they have become friends.  And you also get the sense that Sergio Leone has made friends between The American Western and The Spaghetti Western.  And I couldn’t write this review without mention of the score by The Master Himself: Ennio Morricone.  He’s got this really hilarious theme for The Wild Bunch whenever they show up in the movie that’s based on Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” that you’ve have to hear for yourself to believe.  Only Morricone could make it sound both threatening and funny at the same time

It’s a remarkable film just in the way it’s filmed, with those vast vistas that Italian directors loved.  There’s a tense scene where Nobody and Jack are talking in a graveyard that is deadly serious and another that mirrors that scene but it’s in a pool hall and played mainly for whimsical laughs.  Henry Fonda is his usual reliable self when it comes to acting.  His Jack Beauregard is a tough old son of a bitch who can still outdraw and outshoot young punks half his age.  He just doesn’t want to anymore.  And Terence Hill is a really goofy, funny actor who I like a lot.  He’s absolutely great in this movie and he works well with Fonda.  They make an intriguing team and MY NAME IS NOBODY is a movie you should put on your Netflix queue to see if you haven’t seen it yet or even if you haven’t seen it for a while.  It’s a worthy western that any fan of the genre should see.

117 minutes

Rated PG