Is Once Upon a Time in the West the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

When I was a teenager, my favorite director was Quentin Tarantino. That’s probably a sentence a lot of people could write. If you Google the director now, you get dozens of stories from just the last few days offering to distill his appearance on a popular podcast or explain why one of his popular movies “needs” a prequel. Tarantino is effectively a vessel for film for a lot of people, which his personality definitely supports. He’s probably the first director a lot of people would be able to name.

Tarantino the man is more divisive than Tarantino the director, but he’s overall a little difficult for people because of his entire approach to film. Patton Oswalt once talked about a year where he saw hundreds of movies in the theater and the impact it had on him, but this seems to be Tarantino’s normal life. His films are stuffed with references to the point where no viewer could be expected to get all of them. As a teenager, I didn’t get any of them. I smiled when characters referenced jingles I recognized, and this level of recognition spirals out depending on your level of film literacy. I’m not even sure the point is anything more complicated than Tarantino saying his version of “have you seen this other movie?”

Once Upon a Time in the West is a Western by Sergio Leone, who didn’t want to make any more movies in the genre after his Dollars trilogy. Once you make The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you don’t feel like you need to keep telling stories about gunfighters, but Leone was given a chance to make a movie with Henry Fonda and he wanted to take it. Fonda was Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and this along with dozens of other successes painted him as a classic “good guy.” Leone had other ideas.

Fonda plays Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, a heartless, evil killer. It’s tough to see Fonda in the role, but by the end of the film he fully embodies the character. Fonda supposedly didn’t even want to do it, but Leone sold him by saying that was the whole point. Audiences would be shocked by seeing Fonda as a sociopath, he said, and they were.

The rest of the cast is more traditional. Jason Robards plays Cheyenne, a joking good guy who gets framed for a murder that Frank actually committed. Charles Bronson grimaces as a character just named Harmonica, who plays a few notes every time he’s on screen to fill out the unforgettable soundtrack by way of Ennio Morricone. Claudia Cardinale plays a former prostitute who inherits some land and a dream. Everyone’s either trying to support her or trying to rob her, which provides the standard Western plot.

I mentioned Tarantino because of the structure of Leone’s movie. The director didn’t want to make another Western but he did want to work with Fonda, so he had to come up with a way to make it work. The result is a Western that “borrows” from a dozen classics in the genre. Harmonica is clearly a lift from Johnny Guitar, but there are a lot of less obvious versions of the same thing. The result is a movie that never really feels like itself, but frequently feels like lots of other things you’ve seen.

When the film initially came out, critics panned the film for being long and confusing. This is a completely fair read of the film, especially as you watch Cardinale’s character try to interpret the motives of the three men in her life. It eventually becomes clear what everyone wants, but not necessarily why they want it. Harmonica is the exception here, as his backstory is specifically held back for a reason, but most everyone else is shadowy for no real reason. The performances are incredible, but the characters themselves feel flat. Robards is funny and fun in the role, but we never really grow to understand Cheyenne.

Cardinale is mostly wasted in the central role, which critics also called out. She’s a victim of circumstance and has to make the most of it, which is fair enough, but as the nominal lead of the movie, she mostly glares at men with guns. The plot is so borrowed from Johnny Guitar that it’s distracting, but for a movie that came out 14 years after the influence, the step backwards in agency for the female character isn’t great. Supposedly Leone wanted to film full-frontal nudity for Cardinale’s character and she refused and said that it wouldn’t add anything to the story, which makes you wonder how he felt about getting across who she was supposed to be in the film.

The mish-mash of Western stories here isn’t the same thing as what Tarantino does, but it’s supposed to make you feel the same way. The plot is very Johnny Guitar, but that’s not an accident. By doing it deliberately, Leone confronts a reality of Westerns that people don’t often confront. The genre is inherently samey. The guy in the black hat wants to kill everyone because he wants to kill everyone. The guy with the harmonica is named Harmonica and he’s got a mysterious backstory. The other guys are good because they like the pretty girl. The pretty girl is a pretty girl. Stop asking so many questions.

This is a reductive viewing of a classic, but I also think it’s a fair one. I am not predisposed to love Westerns, so a combination film that’s an homage to a dozen of them was never going to be my favorite movie. I think Once Upon a Time in the West is a successful version of what it’s trying to do and it’s especially notable because Fonda’s performance is unique and remarkable, but critics didn’t like it until they did and now it’s a classic. There are so many versions of this story and mostly you’ll find yourself agreeing with the rethinking. Here, I can’t follow the logic. The criticisms of the original reviews seem very valid to me, especially the read on Cardinale’s character. It’s by no means a bad movie, or even a bad Western, but I don’t think a movie with structural issues should be in the spot this one’s in on the lists it’s on.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. Vivre sa vie is better, as is, I think, Johnny Guitar.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, Persona retains the crown. I was definitely too hard on this one, but it’s a different question of “is it good” and “is it the best?” It’s good and you’ll enjoy it, but Leone made at least three better Westerns. The plot here is the biggest problem, you’ll find yourself frequently asking why characters are doing what they’re doing and what their reasons for supporting someone are. It’s all clear by the end, but it’s not my favorite way to tell a story.

You can watch Once Upon a Time in the West on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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