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Once Upon a Time in the West Movie Review

mcbain leone style town

1969 – Sergio Leone –

The final gunfight in this intricately plotted story concludes with the survivor fitting a harmonica into the mouth of the man he has just shot. The victim's dying breaths are then transformed into eerie music as they wheeze out across the prairie in a dissonant death rattle. This scene, like all of the film, shows director Sergio Leone's emphasis on an ornate, embellished style, something that has won him a number of enthusiasts but probably also cost him the support of mainstream audiences (this film, like his subsequent, final one Once Upon a Time in America, failed at the box-office in versions of various lengths). The style easily lends itself to parody, and television commercials and comedy shows have drawn upon the staples of Leone's approach: a reliance on long, tight closeups of faces with darting eyes in lengthy wordless sequences backed by the haunting music of Ennio Morricone, usually with whistling or a solo soprano accompaniment.

Such a style slows the pace, and Leone's interest in mood and atmosphere also withholds a good bit of plot information until late in the film, a decision that might induce some restlessness among viewers. It isn't until past the half-way point that we begin to see connections among the mysterious arrivals of a number of strangers at a water town on the new railway line. These characters include Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a woman from New Orleans who only months ago married Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), one of the settlers in town; a drifter (Charles Bronson), who arrives in the opening scene and shoots it out with the men waiting for him; and a gunslinger (Henry Fonda), who with his men kills McBain and others and leaves their bodies stretched out on the long picnic tables they had set to welcome the new bride. After Jill takes up residence in town, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), another mysterious gunman, arrives. It develops that McBain had had the foresight to buy up land where the railroad would travel and now the rail baron (Gabriele Ferzetti) wants to move his train through town less expensively—or so it seems until the final showdown, which introduces still more backstory to the complex plot. To Leone's detractors, the stress on style at the expense of pace is fussy and distracting; his defenders recognize a mythic, archetypal element that such a style accentuates. This film and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly represent the director's best work in the genre.

Cast: Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Henry Fonda (Frank), Jason Robards (Cheyenne), Charles Bronson (“Harmonica”), Gabriele Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Woody Strode (Stony), Jack Elam (Knuckles), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Lionel Stander (Barman), Marilu Carteny (Maureen), Claudio Mancini (Harmonica's Brother), Enzo Santaniello (Timmy McBain) Screenwriter: Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Donati, Mickey Knox, Sergio Leone Cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli Composer: Ennio Morricone Producer: Bino Cicogna and Fulvio Morsella for Rafran Productions; released by Paramount MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 165 minutes Format: VHS, LV.

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