I was never a fan of Sergio Leone, but my prejudice is easy to trace. I came to his films during the days of pre-cable television, when his Westerns were shown on TV in edited, pan-and-scan versions interrupted every 15 minutes by commercials. This is not the way to see a Leone movie.
Fortunately, his 1968 epic “Once Upon a Time in the West” is getting a theatrical re-release in a new 35mm Scope print (screen ratio 2:35:1) and in the original uncut version (the first American release was missing 20 minutes). Indeed, this is the only way to appreciate Leone’s style: as he intended it to be seen, on a very big screen.
The film is rich in style, with its intense close-ups, sweeping panoramas of the Old West (Utah and Arizona landscapes mixed with Spanish and Italian scenery – it is hard to tell Old West from Old Europe), the brilliant use of Ennio Morricone’s inventive score (recorded before the film was shot, with Leone pacing his action to the music), and the extraordinary sound editing and engineering. The classic opening title sequence, with the bandits waiting for the late train, is a masterpiece of sound recording – from the squeak of the battered windmill atop the station to the buzz of a pesky fly to the flutter of a ticket blowing across the station, it is an aural work of art.
The film is also rightly celebrated for its daring casting of Henry Fonda as the steely-eyed assassin and Charles Bronson as the mysterious hero. Prior to this film, Fonda was the reigning movie good guy while Bronson was typically typecast as a heavy. This remarkable switch in personas helped to jumpstart Bronson into heroic starring roles while it gave Fonda one of his greatest performances on film. Reliable character actors Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Lionel Stander and Keenan Wynn also turn up for memorable guest appearances.
Alas, the big screen also magnifies the problems with “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Specifically, Leone’s insistence on style trumped the need for substance. The film is basically a B-Western stretched an agonizing 165 minutes, and its tale of a farmer’s widow trying to fight off attempts by a railroad baron to steal her land could’ve easily been told in half that time. The film took advantage of looser studio controls of 1968 to include a couple of barnyard expletives and to identify the farmer’s widow as an ex-w***e from New Orleans (and, yes, they say “w***e”).
Also, the brilliant casting of Fonda and Bronson was diluted by the inadequate performance of Jason Robards as the comic bandito who gets to play good guy against the railroad meanies (he is never truly funny or compelling in this part) and the disastrous miscasting of Claudia Cardinale as the ex-w***e/farmer’s widow/center of attention. With her flowing wig, deep cleavage and false eyelashes, she looks like she belongs in Cinecitta of the 1960s rather than Carson City of the 1860s. And while there is no denying Cardinale was gorgeous, the sad truth is that she was a terrible actress (which may explain why she never rivaled Lollobrigida or Loren as a major Italian export).
Leone’s films have their cult, so there is no sense in trying to dissuade them that this flick is flawed. But for those who never saw the film or only know it from the small screen, it deserves to be seen in a theater and this is a rare chance to take it in correctly.