One of numerous '60s revisionist Westerns, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) turns a revenge story into a contemplation of the Western past. As in his "Dollars" trilogy, Leone transforms the standard Western plot through the visual impact of widescreen landscapes and the figures who populate them, as Harmonica appears out of nowhere and Frank chillingly commands the center of the frame. The opening credit sequence of three Western toughs (including Woody Strode and Jack Elam) preparing to kill someone at a train station artfully plays off Leone's fixation with faces and locales and the epic effect of his meticulous narrative pace. The sense of suspended time speaks to the concerns with past, future, and history that drive the plot; Jill oversees the literal tracks of "progress," while Frank is undone by the past he shares with memory-driven Harmonica. Among a number of "quotations" from classical Westerns, Henry Fonda's presence as the sadistic Frank and the Monument Valley location evoke the Western movie past of John Ford, as Leone exposes the dark reverse of Fonda's staunch Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946). Ennio Morricone's haunting score emphasizes the elegiac, quasi-mystical atmosphere. After the success of the "Dollars" films starring Clint Eastwood, Paramount gave Leone the money to make his monumental saga as he wished. When the film opened to critical indifference and little business, Paramount chopped 25 minutes out to speed the pace, but to no financial avail. Leone's directorial career never quite recovered. Those 25 minutes, and Once Upon a Time in the West's critical stature, have since been restored; the film is now considered to be Leone's operatic masterpiece.
by Lucia Bozzola review