After the rousing success of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Leone has assembled himself the confidence that most filmmakers would have gained after at least a decade working within the medium; his next film would not push the boundaries and scale that was displayed in his transition from For a Few Dollars More to The Good , The Bad, and The Ugly, instead he finds himself taking a step back, slipping into the same approach that was executed in For a Few Dollars More, concentrated in the narrative rather than achieve the sensationalism that dripped the frames of his previous epic.
Indeed when compared to For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West achieves far greater due to the spectacular and more confident sense of style that Leone charges within it, with his trademark design and motifs are still heavily present, carrying that uptick of sophistication that was demonstrated in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Leone pairs his wonderful images with the excellent contributions by collaborator Ennio Morricone, providing a musical score that is more internally stimulating than the last; Morricone has always allowed his score to amplify or define the personalities of the film’s characters, now it becomes crucial to the film itself, almost speaking for the characters, as dialogue is now further held back for moments of crucial developments and for ease of audience orientation.
Unfortunately, unlike Leone’s previous film, I found myself unable to sink into the characters by the time it reaches its expected finale; now increasing the number of key figures to four, they begin with four individualised stories that intersect one another and with the plot only becoming purely streamlined until maybe mid-way through. The film’s initial half was wonderful as characters were introduced with a methodical approach and with emotional density, especially when it concerns the film’s only female protagonist, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), due to Leone and his co-writers introducing something fresh into the filmmaker’s Westerns, a spotlight now on a woman who simultaneously acts as both the victim and catalyst for the film’s goal of revenge whilst showcasing her journey of acceptance from her loss.
As it approaches towards its climax, the plot itself becomes more convoluted and the motivations of its characters becomes muddled, unable to orient myself to the their end-goal; possibly Leone had too many characters focused at the same time; a problem with shared screen time is that we are supposed to put much of our attentions equally to the focused characters, and with this split means a lesser emphasis as instead of immersing into these characters, I am instead looking at the larger picture, which for Once Upon a Time in the West offers little as compared to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Thus the film’s intentional dragged pacing is felt and I found myself yawning and in eager anticipation for the film’s resolution, as its narrative and intentions have no longer gripped me.
In comparison to the last three films from Leone, Once Upon a Time in the West comes off more traditional due to the motivations of its characters almost moralistic, providing this woman needed aid as deep sympathy is felt for the tragic loss she has recently suffered and admiration for the hatred she displays towards the murderer of her new family; although to say the film is stripped of Leone’s trademark cynicism would be false as though their sympathy for her is highly palpable, it isn’t simply coincidence that their personal aims are targeted to the same man, and their choice to help does at times utilise her position as a beauty and a woman to push them closer to their goal. It would have greatly benefited the film, however, if these male characters themselves had an infectious personality to carry the film, to allow even its most quiet character moments feel entertaining; unfortunately it was only Claudia Cardinale’s Jill that managed to maintain my attention, through the great provided performance that refuses to let itself be simplified.
Once Upon a Time in the West contains moments of wonderful storytelling and features a style for Leone that is far more easy to appreciate despite its indulgence, but unfortunately from a narrative standpoint, the film easily underwhelms as its plot begins to layer over itself and each of its four characters given an equal set of screen time, with only one of them unfortunately that shines through.