Italian director Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West, can claim one of the most memorable film openings of all time. As three bandits wait for the train to arrive at Flagstone station, the eerie silence is punctuated by a squeaky wind mill, a buzzing fly, the static of the telegraph line, the breathing of the bandits, culminating in the cantankerous sound of the steam engine’s arrival.
In the crosshairs of the bandits, “the man with no name” (Charles Bronson) performs his eerie, repetitive riff on his harmonica, then, a trace of Ennio Morricone’s famous score, the “judgement” track. The pumping steam engine and its whistle build up a heartbeat tension that prepares us for the first smack of violence. It literally sets the scene for the rest of the film – moments of quiet and stillness, always underwritten by the lingering threat of violence that hovers over the idyll of the West.
After the station episode, we meet the McBains, widower Brett McBain preparing a feast with his family at his Sweetwater property to welcome his new wife Jill, travelling from New Orleans. But again, the peace is punctured by violence, the family unapologetically executed by hired henchman Frank (Henry Fonda) and his bandits. Jill (played by Claudia Cardinale), arrives, carrying with her the hopes of a new life on the frontier after her tawdry existence as a prostitute in New Orleans, to find her new family killed, and her own life is under threat.
It turns out that Frank’s employer, the railroad tycoon Moreton, merely wanted to ruffle the feathers of Brett McBain to coerce him to sell-up, not to have him and his family killed. Moreton orders Frank to back off of Jill, but Frank clearly gets a kick out of killing, and intimidates Moreton so he can call the shots. Fonda is a picture of brooding evil in the film, uncharacteristically – yet perfectly – cast as the villain. Fonda was reluctant to take the role, and once agreeing to take the part, turned up to the set with brown contact lenses and facial hair. Leone didn’t want the cliché though, and saw the potential of Fonda’s famous pale blues to belong to that of a stone faced killer.
Leone plays with our understanding (and expectations) of the Western genre. The lead seems to be Fonda, as the villain, and the “hero” role is split between Harmonica; whose motivation isn’t revealed until the denouement, and Cheyenne (played by Jason Robards), a wanted bandit framed by Frank for the McBain killings. Jill is also not your typical Western damsel in distress, rather, she is initially reluctant for the men to assist her at all, and she uses what facilities she has to survive, bedding Frank at one stage to escape being killed.
While he sought to subvert or twist conventions of the Western, In Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone also created an ode to the genre, the film a tissue of quotations, taking names, scenes, shots and tropes from a litany of canonical Westerns like High Noon, The Searchers, Shane and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to name a few. When the story was in development, Leone and co-creators Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, both of whom were film critics before becoming directors, spent a year watching Westerns, and from this education constructed a story made up almost entirely of references to other films.
Like most of the spaghetti Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West, performed well at the European box-office. However, the whittled down version of the film Paramount Studios released in America was considered a flop at the time. Over the years however, the film has gained a cult following and is now considered alongside John Ford’s The Searchers (also dismissed at the time), as one of the best in the genre.
Here’s a clip of the magnificent opening scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_tt83itYA8