You know a movie is intensely personal to you when you feel the need to defend it whenever possible. That happens to me a lot with Once Upon a Time in the West, which is often mislabeled as slow, confusing or inferior to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Those descriptions could easily be true to many people, but for me 'OUTW' is a Western opera if there ever was one, a movie that should not exactly be compared with 'GBU' but rather paired with it, as they parallel each other and could be described as pseudo-sequels. When scanning through The DVD Panache Library, my eyes always stop at 'OUTW,' as watching it is such a rewarding experience no matter how many times I've seen it.
After Sergio Leone made the international smash hit 'GBU,' he naturally had to make a follow-up, and this time his ultimate vision of a Western would be put on film. His cast would be comprised of both well-known American actors (Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards) as well as actors from his native Italy (Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti), the drawn out closeups from 'GBU' would in even fuller force this time around and the biggest leap forward from 'GBU': it would be filmed on location in America.
'OUTW,' like 'GBU' and also Once Upon a Time in America, is a tribute to the American West. Even though he was Italian, Leone saw the potential for epic filmmaking by setting stories against the background of events such as the Civil War, the Westward expansion and the early 20th century. Beneath its adventurous story, 'GBU' has a commentary on the paradoxes of war while 'OUTW' looks at how the railroad pushed aside the Old West canons that Leone cherished in his early movies.
The opening of the movie is perhaps its best known scene. It's amazing to think that a nearly silent scene of three bandits waiting for a train could be this entertaining. The creak of a windmill and the rhythm of dripping water create the opening score, while the audience gets extended introductions to the criminals who are living out the last minutes of their lives. What I love about this scene is how ugly the train station looks. There is no freshly-laid timber here like in other Westerns, rather it is old, weather-beaten and seemingly on the verge of collapse.
The story concerns a quiet stranger who comes into town on a train and how he destroys the perfectly laid plans of two dastardly barons. As in 'GBU,' there are no 'good guys' in this movie, rather a couple are a few notches less 'bad' than the others. For every character in the movie, none of their visions of grandeur takes shape, except for Bronson's character who merely wanted one man to feel the pain of all of his victims.
Cardinale's Jill arrives on a train to wed a soon-to-be-rich family man who sees the potential of the approaching railroad. Though his land is in the middle of nowhere, it has the only water source for miles, in the exact spot where the train is coming through. But Jill never sees the McBain family again, because they are brutally killed by Frank (Fonda) and his gang as they are setting up a picnic for her arrival. Frank, together with the railroad baron Morton (Ferzetti) planned to strongarm the family estate away, but they didn't count on Jill having legal ownership of the plot since she and Brett were secretly married in New Orleans before she made the trip out west.
Matters are further complicated when Bronson's mysterious character arrives. Known only as "Harmonica" because of his musical instrument of choice, Harmonica comes to town seeking vengeance on Frank for all of his victims in his earlier years.
The last side in this twisted triangle is Cheyenne (Robards), a bandit who just escaped his captors and is looking to benefit in some way from all the double-crossing that is sure to go on.
It is an intricate and at times confusing plot that is wrapped up in cinematography and a score (believe it) that rival GBU. Yes, I said the score is better than the legendary GBU 'wahh wahh wahh.' While Ennio Morricone's classic riffs for GBU are more widely recognized, I prefer the more diverse themes in OUTW, which are more varied and seem to fit their respective characters perfectly. Leone thought so much of Morricone's score that at times he 'set' the movie to his notes. There is a scene of Cheyenne riding off and his horse's steps are right on cue with his theme's tempo. George Lucas famously used this technique in The Empire Strikes Back when the Milennium Falcon is leaving Cloud City (the laser blasts are set to the score).
The cinematography takes on a life of its own not only because it was filmed in the famous Monument Valley in Utah where John Ford shot many of his films, but also because of the perfect sets. Leone's Wests are rough, decaying visions and OUTW does not disappoint in that department. The roadhouse where Jill meets Cheyenne is no saloon, rather it's closer to a barn than anything. Brett McBain's estate is imposing but certainly no mansion and Frank's gang's hideout is literally a cave.
There isn't too much dialogue in OUTW by design, Leone always wanted his characters' faces to do the talking, and they have a lot to say. This is the reason for the shockingly high amount of closeups, especially of Bronson and Fonda. Many viewers are turned off by this technique, but to me the eyes of these two actors say more than their mouths ever could. Fonda's baby blues were always the picture of wholesome America before Leone got ahold of him and filled them with unrelenting evil. Bronson's steely green eyes show a broken, driven man who will only be satisfied with the death of Frank.
But the most vital character in OUTW doesn't even get a credit: the railroad. In every scene we see Morton's locomotive there is a distinct steam engine sound that sounds like it is breathing. Leone used this to convey the animal nature of the railroad at the time, how it was gobbling up the previously untamed west and moving at a breakneck speed.
It's hard for me to pick a favorite scene in OUTW, but it has to be a small series of scenes beginning immediately after the McBain auction. Frank finally has a chance to sit down with Harmonica and try to figure out just who the hell he is. Instead, Harmonica frustrates him even more by repeating more names of his victims and showing that he will not be bought off. This sets up the blockbuster scene that follows, with Harmonica hanging out in Jill's hotel room (as she sits in a bubble bath), he watches Frank leave the saloon and walk into an ambush by his own men. Rather than watch him die, Harmonica subtlely gives off their hiding places to Frank and actually saves his life. Why? Harmonica didn't travel this far to see someone else knock off Frank.