#49) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


#49) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

OR “The Finest McBain Movie”

Directed by Sergio Leone

Written by Leone & Sergio Donati. Story by Leone, Dario Argento & Bernardo Bertolucci.

Class of 2009

The Plot: A tale of vengeance in the Old West with the interconnecting stories of a widow (Claudia Cardinale) determined to develop her dead husband’s land, the gunslinger (Henry Fonda) who murdered her husband, a fugitive bandit (Jason Robards) framed for the murder, and a man with a harmonica (Charles Bronson) who has his own agenda.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls this film “among the greatest achievements of the Western movie genre” and salutes the work of Leone and composer Ennio Morricone. An essay by Professor Chelsea Wessels focuses on the film’s use of iconic Western imagery to tell the story.

But Does It Really?: Yes, given that this was your only option. Leone’s earlier (and arguably more famous) westerns were pure Italian productions, and therefore not eligible for NFR inclusion. Since Paramount paid Leone a large sum to shoot one last Western, this film qualifies. Not that I’m knocking the film or its impact, Leone’s contributions to the genre deserve to be preserved by anyone who can stake a legitimate claim. The film can drag a bit (though, as Paramount learned, cutting it does more harm) but “Once Upon a Time in the West” is proof that with the right filmmakers, even the oldest film genres can be reinvigorated. Plus Fonda’s the bad guy! Come on! That’s worth it right there!

Shout Outs: Leone et al worked several American Western homages into the film, including NFR entries “My Darling Clementine”, “High Noon”, “Shane” and “Johnny Guitar”, among others.

Everybody Gets One: For obvious reasons this is Sergio Leone’s only film on the list. Also noteworthy are screenwriter (and future director) Bernardo Bertolucci, actor Lionel “Max” Stander, and pretty much the entire crew.

Wow, That’s Dated: Ah, the completely dubbed soundtrack of 1960s Italian cinema. Also the sexism. Let’s not forget the constant sexism shown towards the one female character in this film. I guess it wasn’t Leone’s idea to have one of the leads be female…and it shows.

Seriously, Oscars?: Due to its flop status upon initial release, “Once Upon a Time in the West” missed out at the 1969 Oscars. But why should this film be any different? None of Sergio Leone’s seven films received any Oscar nominations in any category. They didn’t even give him a lifetime achievement award!

Other notes

  • This film brings up an interesting question; what qualities constitute a film’s nationality? Obviously the creative team was Italian, and the film was shot mainly in Rome, but Paramount was a major financier and three of the film’s four leads were American. I dunno, seems like a stretch by NFR standards. We’ll see this issue come up again for “Lawrence of Arabia” and the works of Stanley Kubrick.
  • Claudia Cardinale really got a raw deal on this film. Everything’s set up at the beginning to make her story the backbone, but then she’s pretty much sidelined for the whole film. She spends a lot of time getting abuse from the other characters and [Spoilers] doesn’t get to exact revenge on Frank herself. If you’re going to get top billing over Henry freakin’ Fonda I expect more from your character.
  • Early on Mr. McBain slaps his son and the sound effect is obviously a punch. Did they really think no one would notice?
  • Nationality debate aside, is this the first American film in which a character says “bullshit”? I’ll go ahead and say that Jason Robards is the first actor to say “turds” in an American film.
  • In perhaps the greatest against-type casting in film history, Henry Fonda is not fucking around as cold-blooded Frank and it is just the greatest.
  • I love that each of the main characters has their own musical theme. This film is a gritty, cinematically violent “Peter and the Wolf”.
  • Speaking of, never has the sound of an off-screen harmonica been so effective. Well done, Morricone (and, to an extent, Pavlov).
  • Best line in the film; “How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can’t even trust his own pants.”
  • Shout-out to cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. The framing of each and every shot? Forget about it, it’s beautiful.
  • When you do as much on-location shooting as this film does, the few uses of rear projection really stick out.
  • For the dirty Wild West, everyone sure has the whitest teeth.
  • That…was a long pre-title sequence.


  • This is the first film in Leone’s unofficial second trilogy; it was followed by the spiritual sequels “Duck, You Sucker” (aka “A Fistful of Dynamite”) and “Once Upon a Time in America”.
  • This is also the reason films started having “Once Upon a Time in…” in their titles.
  • David Letterman has said on numerous occasions that this is one of his favorite films.
  • Can’t you just picture little Quentin Tarantino watching this film frame-by-frame, dreaming of one day making his own Spaghetti Westerns, working/possibly sparring with Ennio Morricone?

Further Viewing: Any and all of Sergio Leone’s other “Spaghetti Westerns”.

3 thoughts on “#49) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)”

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