Longtime reader and insightful commenter JMF had mentioned a few times that he really liked the Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. I hadn’t thought that much of it, but I’d only seen it once about 20 years ago. So I decided to revisit it. And it was a revelation.
One thing I wouldn’t have noticed 20 years ago is just how beautiful this film is. In fact, I’ve been trying to think of a film that is clearly better and nothing comes to mind. Every shot is beautiful. There is absolutely nothing in the film that does not show great care in terms of art direction, lighting, and camera. Even the rear projection is beautiful.
But the biggest revelation is how political the film is. This shouldn’t be surprising. Leone was generally pretty political, and in ways that I very much agree with. I especially like his comment on power and revolution in Duck You Sucker! (A Fistful of Dynamite). But in Once Upon a Time in the West, he has created an allegory. It tells a story of human initiative and how it is destroyed by the status quo of corporate hegemony. What’s more, we see how these power elites not only use organized crime but are in fact the same thing. There is a great scene where Frank (Henry Fonda) sits behind the desk of Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), the railroad tycoon. Morton asks, “How does it feel sitting behind that desk, Frank?” And Frank responds, “It’s almost like holding a gun, only much more powerful.” Indeed.
There is too much mother/whore nonsense going on in the film about the heroine Jill. But I must admit, Claudia Cardinale is a wonderful actress and one of the prettiest women who ever lived. Her character is very interesting, though. She has done and will do anything she needs to in order to survive. At one point early in the film, she explains herself, “If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself. And even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water, and I’ll be exactly what I was before—with just another filthy memory.” Unlike Frank and Morton, she has a soul; so she cleans up fine.
One thing that I used to dislike in Leone films that I now see as an advantage is his lack of transitions. In Once Upon a Time in the West, important plot points are simply not shown. Normally they are explained later. For instance, Morton and his men are found all shot up. Who did it? We don’t find out until the very end of the film, although it’s pretty clear. Drama requires that the alpha hero kill the alpha villain and the beta hero kill the beta villain. (And the gamma villain is often referred to as the “dog villain” because drama shortcut for such characters is to have them kick a dog.)
I’m going to re-watch a bunch of Leone films and compare them. But I think JMF is right: Once Upon a Time in the West is probably Sergio Leone’s best film.
 For the record, yes, I know: lots of women have died from that.