Once Upon A Time in the West
Sergio Leone revived the western and put the opera back into ‘horse opera.’ The unique opening ten-minute sequence in which three men wait for a train has sparse dialogue and little action but is sheer poetry to watch, praised by novelist Graham Greene for its “almost balletic quality.” Then the following two scenes are devastating. Howard Hawks’s definition of a good film was “3 good scenes and no bad ones. That’s it”.
These are the best opening 3 scenes you’ll ever see. Followed by discussion, poems, and clips from all the classic westerns it pays homage. At the end of this presentation, one of my students was openly weeping for the western at the BFI last week. But what better eulogy for the western could one imagine? Leone may have indulged the odd cliche – the spooked crickets foreshadowing danger, the creaking weather vane – but few can rival his mastery of the interplay of sound and silence, of inertia and crescendos of action, of humour and dread, of sweeping vistas and claustrophobic close-ups, all present in the astonishing opening scene alone. He also brings out some career-best performances from his all-star cast, especially from Henry Fonda, who despite having been one of Hollywood’s bankable heroes, is transformed so convincingly into one of cinema’s most truly malevolent figures. Elsewhere, Ennio Morricone’s haunting harmonica and guitar led score is a piece of art of its own accord. One of my Top Ten films.