I want Sergio Leone to direct my life. I want Ennio Morricone to write the score. Wouldn’t we all be better off with those two behind us? You’d be waiting for the bus and Leone would have your face dominating half the screen… the bus moving toward you like a symbol for an era… on the soundtrack: strings, a mezzo-soprano, euphoric heartbreak, a great virile swell of sound…. And you. Or rather: me. Hmmm. Maybe Once Upon a Time in the West is more Leone. If the Wild West hadn’t existed, he’d have made it up. No director ever suited big spaces and six guns more than Sergio. And no movie ever breathed the West like his.
There’s a story, but it doesn’t matter much. A robber-baron wants to build a rail-road. He hires some black hat to kill the poor bastards living on “his” land. An outlaw is framed for the killings… blah blah blah. Every Western is a variant on that story. But nothing is quite like Once Upon a Time in the West. Partly, that’s because of casting. With Henry Fonda as the black hat, you get one of the great villains of all time. With Jason Robards as the outlaw, you get the unexpected. Then there’s Charles Bronson as a man out for revenge against Fonda. And then, of course, there’s Claudia Cardinale.
If there was an Oscar for Best Widow, Cardinale would own it in perpetuity. She enters the movie just right: arriving at a railway station out West, alone, come to meet her new husband. We know her husband has just been shot by Henry Fonda. In a weird way, Claudia knows her husband is dead too. She can hear it in the score: music that’s so blissfully sad it’s like listening to autumn. Claudia is, of course, beautiful, but that isn’t why she’s a cert for Best Widow. There have always been pretty widows in Hollywood. What makes Claudia special is that, like everyone in Once Upon a Time…, she’s at ease with death. I love that she doesn’t cry when she sees her husband’s body. That she sort of knew. She a pin-up Antigone, long used to the short-comings of men.
Henry Fonda takes a lot of pride in killing Claudia’s husband. He needs to be a monumental son of a bitch. With a woman that beautiful, it’s only the devil who could torment her. And Fonda gets an even better introduction than Cardinale when he massacres her step-family. The look – or rather, the absence of a look – he gives her step-son (before he shoots him) is chillingly resigned. Fonda acts like a man who can’t be good. As if white clothes wouldn’t fit him. As if his eyes were sea-blue because the sea’s where people drown. It’s telling that he’s still looking at us even when he’s dead.
There isn’t a scene in Once Upon a Time in the West that isn’t epic. Sergio Leone makes waiting for a train into an opera. Claudia Cardinale rummages through some boxes and it’s like a funeral mass. When it’s finally revealed why Charles Bronson wants to kill Henry Fonda, there’s no real reason why Bronson’s father was hung in such vast surroundings… except that his death would be epic, the way Fonda dies in epic fashion, the way no-one does anything that isn’t epic in this film. Even a puddle of water grows in stature when Leone shoots it, so when a paraplegic robber-baron dies sipping from it, you know it MEANS SOMETHING.
Your life (as directed by Sergio Leone) would be magnificent. You wouldn’t say much. You’d emote even less. In your eyes would be the end of a way of life, or the beginning of a new one. If you’re a woman, you’d probably be subject to rampant chauvinism. But you’d be stronger than all the bastards who tried to get you down. If you’re a man, you’d be a chauvinist. But if you were good, you’d at least have courage to die quietly, letting the woman (whom you’d harassed) take final centre stage. Once Upon a Time in the West… If life were directed like this, we’d all be cowboys.