I did not see Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) when it originally played in theaters, probably because I thought it was just another spaghetti western and I was not a big fan of that genre. I had seen parts of it on television over the years (re-formated for the small screen, chopped up to fit the times available between commercials, etc), but did not take too much notice of it. With that background, I was not particularly excited to watch this movie when it was chosen as an official selection by The Tacoma Film Club. WOW -- what a pleasant surprise!

From the opening scene I was absolutely mesmerized. I commented to my wife while watching it that this movie feels like a grand opera. Later, when I watched some of the commentaries on the DVD I discovered that it was written like an opera. The music was scored first, and then the movie was constructed around the music. A beautiful score by Ennio Morricone with Wagnerian-like lite motifs. The music was played on loudspeakers during filming, allowing the actors to "perform" to the music. The editing of the film enhanced this effect such that every action (including the running motions of the horses in some scenes) is timed to the music. The opening scenes were scored to natural sounds (squeaking windmill, tickertape, etc), which the commentary on the DVD states was inspired by a John Cage assertion that music is defined by where it is performed, not by the instruments used to produce it. All sound effects and dialogue were added later on a sound stage, and the quality of the soundtrack on the DVD I watched was outstanding.
(NOTE -- There is a music CD called Yo-Yo Ma plays music composed by Morricone that includes the major motifs from this movie).


Regarding cinematography, every scene in this movie is exquisite and perfectly framed (what had to be done to this movie to re-format it for TV/Video strikes me now as borderline criminal). The scene in which Claudia Cardinale arrives on the train and walks through the station into the town took my breath away! I don't think there is a single scene in the movie that is not perfectly framed using the full height and width of the screen. Many scenes are framed in full depth, perfectly balancing foreground images a few inches in front of the camera with background images on the distant horizon.

The plot and narrative themes of the movie are highly stylized in the form of an operatic western. Dialogue is minimalist, like an opera in which the main themes are propelled by the music, performances, sets, and costumes; not by the libretto. Also like a grand opera, this film evoked a powerful emotional response from me; a sense of nostalgia and loss for a mythical west that was, or at least should have been, once upon a time.

I gave this movie a rating of 5 stars because it is now on my top ten list of best westerns of all time.
Ron Boothe
psyrgb@emory.edu