I always feel sheepish in situations like this. I’ve discovered something cool and new, something I’m excited about—which would be great except that my “discovery” is nothing of the sort. Countless people have already been there and have already offered the same observations and insights. And when my new find is an acclaimed, iconic, hugely influential director like Sergio Leone, the sheepishness is particularly acute. How in the world have I not “discovered” him already?
Even over the phone, I could hear my brother’s amusement as I happily babbled about Once Upon a Time in the West, my first Leone film. Henry Fonda plays the bad guy! Leone’s use of sound to rachet tension is incredible! Composer Ennio Morricone is a brilliant melodist! The big reveal of Harmonica’s shadowy motives actually lives up to the buildup! Director Quentin Tarantino has virtually duplicated some of Leone’s key shots in his own movies! Smoky eye makeup can look really cool! Michael would agree with me and bounce back ideas of his own, but I know him well enough to hear his unspoken thoughts: You really didn’t know the black hat was going to be Henry Fonda?!
For the similarly ignorant, the premise is this: Young newlywed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale, sporting the truly fabulous makeup) arrives in a dusty Western town to join her husband and his three children, only to learn that she has just become a widow under violent circumstances. Unwilling to slink away from what was to be her new home, she becomes embroiled in conflict with Frank (Fonda), the sadistic enforcer for a paralyzed railroad baron, with only the kind bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and enigmatic gunslinger Harmonica (Charles Bronson) to help her.
The railroad intrigues—involving land deals and contracts and fine print—are convoluted and arcane, and Mrs. McBain is too inscrutable, but none of that really matters to me. Most of the drama of West comes not from the laborious plot but from the deliciously tense mood Leone creates. As slowly as West inches along, it never feels slow. It moves like a wildcat stalking its prey, deliberate and controlled, as taut and deadly as piano wire.
Leone exaggerates ambient noise (I believe the sounds are overdubbed) to great effect. Footsteps, creaks of floor boards, dripping water, singing and sudden silences of birds, the mournful keen of a harmonica—all combine to create a crackling, waiting-for-the-ax-to-fall anxiety, and when Leone combines those sounds with close-ups of people’s stoic yet character-etched faces waiting on edge with us, the movie achieves a wonderful agony. It’s terrific fun.
And I think that’s what I love about it most. Despite the dumb name, Once Upon a Time in the West is neither self-important and ponderous nor silly and kitschy. It’s just a damn good genre flick, a movie to be relished, a movie that makes me reconsider my feelings about Westerns (unless Leone’s spaghetti Westerns don’t count? I’m not sure) and add The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to my Netflix queue.
So what if I’m late the party? I always did appreciate NBC’s obvious yet weirdly profound slogan from summer rerun season a few years ago: “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”