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31st October 2018

First Watch: Once Upon a Time in the West

The return of Once Upon a Time in the West is for the betterment of cinema, writes Harry Peate
First Watch: Once Upon a Time in the West
Photo: Sergio Leone @Wikimedia Commons

Sergio Leone’s magnum opus Once Upon a Time in the West captivates the senses in every minute of its run time with deep characters, a perfect score, and some of the coolest dialogue in the business.

The film has returned to the big screen for the Design Manchester Festival’s sixth year, and is prefaced with a unique introduction by festival co-founder Malcolm Garrett.

This 1968 movie is epic in proportion but, broadly speaking, centres on the joining of forces of a mysterious harmonica player (Charles Bronson) and a notorious desperado (Jason Robards), in order to protect the most beautiful of widows (Claudia Cardinale) from the most fiendish of foes (Henry Fonda).

The acting provided by this all-star cast is effective in providing the nuanced characters necessary to maintain an audience’s attention for the nearly three hour run time.

Indeed, each ‘book’ displays more by the end of the narrative than their ‘cover’ — even the clichéd appearances of the beautiful widow or grizzled gunslinger give way to more tenderness or fighting respectively, than Leone originally had you believe.

Fonda does however prevail in his promise of a cold and calculating killer that carves up Leone’s hot and hostile setting, leaving misery and the seeds of revenge in his wake. Claudia Cardinale perhaps shines brighter still by providing a figure who, while is walked over by the opposite sex, still manages to be a dominatrix of dialogue with a barbed tongue in defiance before any grizzled gunslinger, which helps her to win the viewers heart.

Despite all this, however, Once Upon a Time in the West would hardly stand out from the crowd of 60s spaghetti westerns without the union of Leone’s purposeful cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s perfect score.

These pillars of the experience work together in a symbiosis seldom seen on the silver screen. Leone champions the power of the gaze to direct the flow of action on screen while Morricone’s tones control the tension and atmosphere surrounding every situation.

Long drawn-out stare downs are slow and deliberate, with simple close-ups leaving plenty of room for mournful harmonics and high-pitched strings. This use of music begins as almost a way of portraying the calculating thoughts in each character’s head, then as the pace quickens it builds suspense for the inevitable and regrettable actions.

The score is seldom interrupted by anything other than the hard-hitting gunshots that perforate the film, turning Morricone’s masterful sounds into the living embodiment of the characters’ feelings and sensations before all is cut short with a trigger.

Overall, Once Upon a Time in the West is a well-deserved staple of the western canon that belongs nowhere but the big screen where the captivating characters and score can truly shine.

Rating: 4.5/5

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