Sergio Leone capped off his run of Westerns with Once Upon a Time in the West, which—as its title suggests—is not so much a traditional Western as it as an exaggerated, fairy-tale variation on one, big bad wolf and all.
The wolf, surprisingly enough, is Henry Fonda. He plays Frank, a merciless killer paid by a railroad baron to terrorize a widower (Claudia Cardinale) off her land. Fonda absolutely oozes with despicable menace; it’s as if every step Frank takes is a stomp on one of the actor’s earlier, nobler roles. Sweaty and dirty, with red veins discoloring the whites of his eyes and encroaching on those iconic baby blues, his face no longer recalls a young Mr. Lincoln, but something more akin to a soiled American flag.
The cast also includes an almost unrecognizable Jason Robards as Cheyenne, equally sweaty but much more charming as a bandit with a heart of gold. Charles Bronson has the Clint Eastwood part from Leone’s earlier films, as a silent stranger who plays a harmonica more than he talks. Bronson’s own brand of confident stillness gives us little reason to feel as if there’s much of a drop-off from Eastwood’s man with no name.
As for Cardinale, she gets top billing, but I don’t know if the movie follows through on that. Her performance—as a recent widow suddenly caught in a power struggle among these men—is fiery and taut. There are a couple of shots of her looking at herself in the mirror, and you can see the calculation—who do I have to be next to survive?—going on behind her eyes. In some ways, Cardinale’s Mrs. McBain is an heir to Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny Guitar—an outmatched woman who sees a business opportunity and dares to pursue it. But Once Upon a Time in the West isn’t on her side the way Crawford’s movie was on hers. Three times Mrs. McBain is threatened with rape, and only one of these scenes plays like something other than a tease. (The most troubling one is played like a love scene.) The movie also ends on a note of triumph that works both ways: it’s an image of Mrs. McBain reclaiming her land, but having to perform for an ogling crowd of men in the process.
It’s probably unwise to come to Leone looking for too much in the way of feminism. Instead, Once Upon a Time in the West offers quintessential examples of the things he was better known for, including another blustery Ennio Morricone score. Visually, he mostly vacillates between extreme close-ups of intense faces and vast widescreen compositions, a technique that is lurching but also luridly beautiful. This dynamic defines the prologue, in which three henchmen take over a train station and then kill time waiting for their quarry to arrive. These opening moments might be as good as anything that follows, even though they’re little more than a series of carefully composed shots of men filling up different spaces (and depths) in the wide frame. Sometimes at the movies, that’s all you need.