Saturday, March 22, 2014

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once Upon A Time In The West is worth the wait.

Director Sergio Leone's western runs nearly three hours. Yes, your finger may be itching to grab your remote at various times during this 1968 feature. But, please be patient. The late Italian director does a fine job of building tension in numerous scenes.

Plus, it's a revelation to see Henry Fonda cast as Frank, a cold-hearted killer who works for hobbled railway baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). Forget all those good guy roles the Nebraska native played during his 46-year career such as Juror #8 in Twelve Angry Men. Here Fonda's Frank is ruthless, even gunning down a young boy as part of his job. Leone gives us several chances to see Fonda's blue eyes up close. His stare is chilling. "People scare better when they're dying," he suggests at one point. Yikes.

Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) travels west to reunite with her new husband, Brett (Frank Wolff), and his three children. She arrives the same day as they've been gunned down by Frank and his gang. The question is, why were they murdered? They lived in the desert, far removed from the town where most folks live.

Jill just wants to get back east. But she sticks around largely due to the arrival of Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Harmonica has an old score he wants to settle with Frank. That reason takes some time to become known. Cheyenne is an outlaw who is framed by Frank for the murder of McBain and his children. But he still demonstrates some kindness towards others - like Jill.

Leone repeatedly ratchets up the tension in this film. There's a long introduction where several members of Frank's gang, including Woody Strode (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and Jack Elam (High Noon), wait at a train station for Harmonica to arrive. The director's use of sound helps build suspense about what will happen at this remote location.

Every decent western needs some well-staged shootouts. Leone delivers the goods with several solid showdowns.

Ennio Morricone's score grates at times, but that's a small quibble for what is a well-cast, suspenseful western.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Frank Wolff appeared in The Wasp Woman and Beast From Haunted Cave in 1959.

That's Lionel Stander as the barman. He was Cornelius Cobb in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town starring Gary Cooper.

Leone directed Once Upon A Time In The West after A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with Clint Eastwood.

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