DATELINE: NOT Young Abe Lincoln!
When last we watched Sergio Leone’s grand epic, Richard Nixon was president.
It’s time for an updated opinion. Oh, yes, this Western is still longer than the Nixon Administration and more opera bouffe than operatic; however, we now admit this is a masterpiece of filmmaking.
Once Upon a Time in the West was Leone’s attempt to escape the spaghetti and meatballs and go directly to the steak and potatoes of American Westerns. He succeeded with a Dead Man’s Hand of storytelling.
From the magnificent faces of stars like Woody Strode and Jack Elam, to the star power of character actors Keenan Wynn and Lionel Stander, Leone avoided the dubbed spaghetti mess of the ripoff westerns made in Europe in his name.
His film gives stars Henry Fonda (as a sociopathic killer as bad guy) and Charles Bronson (as sociopathic killer as good guy) some startling moments on screen. What a joy to find these actors together in a movie that gives them free reins.
We now forgive Claudia Cardinale as she seems rather good as a New Orleans madam come West for the money. We also liked Jason Robards in the Eli Wallach role.
Leone could have made this with Clint and Lee, as a fourth in his Eastwood series, but the casting here is inspired—matching the staggering scenes of desert, grit, and horse opera. Editing and music mesh perfectly.
Those stunning blue eyes of Henry Fonda become weapons—and his transformation into his younger self in a climax flashback (30 years earlier) is a sight to behold.
Everything is exaggerated and hilarious, but not quite a disrespectful spoofing of his own spaghetti westerns. Homage is a delicate exercise, and master filmmaker Leone succeeds here.