A sweet tale of revenge, Once Upon a Time in the West keeps you on your toes, moving at a steady pace never showing its hand.
Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) is a prostitute from New Orleans who travels to the remote desert town of Sweetwater to join her new husband and family. Upon her arrival she finds her family has been massacred by a sadistic outlaw named Frank (Henry Fonda) and his gang who all work for Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a railroad tycoon who will stop at nothing and no one to build his dream of a railroad that reaches the Pacific Ocean.
Unknowing to Jill, she is now the owner of a cheap yet well situated piece of land, which could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. This makes her a marked woman in the eyes of Frank and Morton. Yet to her surprise she has allies; Cheyene (Jason Robards) a notorious bandit who has been framed for the McBain murder, and a mysterious harmonica playing gunslinger (Charles Bronson) out for revenge against Frank.
After the groundbreaking success of the Dollars Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, director Sergio Leone has created another landmark operatic western. Leone uses many of his signature extreme close-up shots, long periods of silence and short, frank bursts of violence to establish a great sense of mood.
The movie may be low on dialogue but is high on imagery. Leone collaborates once again with The Good, the Bad and The Ugly cinematographer Tonini Delli Colli, taking advantage of the big country locations of Ameria, Andalucia, Spain and Arizona, USA. The impressive set design by Rafael Ferri and colourful costumes by Antonella Pompei and Carlo Simi (love the trench coat wearing gun slingers) successfully bring the wild west to life.
Long time Leone collaborator, the legendary composer Ennio Morricone once again creates another memorable score which (although a bit chirpy in the wrong places) is very effective. The sound effects are way too loud but work in the context of the spaghetti western.
All four leads give good performances. Italian bombshell Claudia Cardinale is simply magnetic on the screen, the voluptuous beauty a welcome distraction to the gritty environment produced on screen. In a surprising casting choice, Henry Fonda is excellent as the cold blooded assassin. It is fun watching an actor who has made a career out of playing wholesome, honourable men playing the bad guy especially one such as this.
Jason Robards gives a wonderfully understated performance as the grizzly bandit Cheyene, and future suburban vigilante Charles Bronson is also very good as the mild tempered angel of death.