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Once Upon a Time in the West (OUTW) is a piquant cocktail of style and substance in equal parts, potent enough to catapult the viewer into a whirlpool of incessant excitement transcending him beyond the usual realms of an adrenaline rush. Vintage Leone, OUTW is inarguably the best Western ever made and undoubtedly features amongst the very best works of cinema, period. Leone incredibly surpasses the brilliance of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (TGTBTU) with OUTW by blending his favorite theme of Greed with that of Revenge. The only thing that TGTBTU lacked was the presence of a strong female character and Leone more than makes up for it in OUTW. Its eccentric yet consummate plot revolves around a female protagonist, thereby revolutionizing the very tenets associated with the genre where machismo and chivalry had solely held sway, hitherto.
OUTW is a juxtaposition of the lives of five individuals, viz. Harmonica - a mysterious stranger, Cheyenne a notorious desperado, Frank a ruthless assassin, Jill a beautiful widow with an obscure past, and Morton a railroad baron, whose motives inevitably make them cross each other's paths albeit through an act of fate.
Henry Fonda is a revelation as the cold-blooded assassin, a portrayal that is remarkably contrasting to his usual 'good guy' on-screen image. He goes about his business with a sublime touch of feral grandeur that makes him equally chilling and fascinating as 'Frank'.
Charles Bronson plays his part with utmost conviction and incredibly manages to conjure up an element of mystery in his portrayal that not only brings 'Harmonica' to life, but also gives it a very distinct identity despite Harmonica's conspicuous similarities with Eastwood's 'Man with no name'.
The role of 'Cheyenne' is played with equal brilliance by Jason Robards. He has taken care of the various subtleties and nuances to such an extent that he perfectly fits into the shoes of notorious, yet likable, 'Cheyenne'.
Claudia Cardinale is ravishing as the beautiful, yet vulnerable, 'Jill McBain'. She has fully justified the trust shown by Leone in casting her and by Bertolucci in penning down a strong feminine part in a Western. She truly entrances the viewers with her mystifying pulchritude and enigmatic charm. She meticulously highlights the flaws in Jill's character while also managing to depict the elements of tenacity and grit which represent the true spirit of femininity.
Gabriele Ferzetti is quite effective in his cameo as the crippled railroad baron, 'Morton'. He suffers from the tuberculosis of bones and each passing day brings him closer to his end, thereby further intensifying his desperate urge to fulfill his far-fetched ambition of taking the railroad to the Atlantic. He truly represents a man worthy of achieving the impossible, unfortunately cut short by his haplessness. Despite the inhuman and unjust means adopted by him to fulfill his naked ambition, one finds it excruciatingly hard to derive pleasure from his perpetual plight and eventual doom.
Contrary to the popular belief, the slow pace of the movie and laconism in dialogue pose no impediment to the viewing and in fact this deliberate pacing enormously adds to the detail and beauty of the movie, and also helps in brewing the desired level of tension before it is finally punctuated suddenly with quick bursts of action.
Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography is vividly descriptive and has elements which have become his and Leone's trademarks like the extreme close-ups, the quick panning of the terrain, the rotating camera shots etc.
The haunting score written yet again by the master composer, Ennio Morricone enhances the grandeur of the movie tenfold. If Leone's direction and Colli's cinematography are the backbone of the movie, then undoubtedly Morricone's plaintive score is its heart and soul. The surreal score has shades of melancholy, intrigue, and romance that become more obvious with each passing moment. The music features leitmotifs (a melodic phrase that accompanies the reappearance of a character) that relate to each of the main characters (each with their own unique theme music). The soundtrack to the opening scene is a creative orchestration of ordinary sounds like that of the dripping water, the clicking of a telegraph, a buzzing fly, and the screech of a windmill after Morricone experienced a musical performance created by the medley of these sounds. This created an exaggerated version of what had come to be known as 'Spaghetti sound'.
OUTW is a magnum opus unparalleled in direction, screenplay, cinematography and music. With its slower pace and relatively somber theme (compared to Leon's previous works), Leone managed to transform his image of a satirical showman into that of an accomplished auteur capable of producing much profound works. OUTW also served as the harbinger for Leone's surrealistic masterpiece, 'Once Upon a Time in America'.
P.S: OUTW is an absorbing masterpiece; an absolute gem of a movie and a must watch for those who understand the true meaning of 'A Timeless Masterpiece', and are willing to indulge themselves completely through the whole length of the movie. 10/10