The Making of the Italian West: Part 22

Written by Phillip López Jiménez

Fistful of Westerns Part 22 The Final Chapter: ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

For this final installment, I thought I’d step back a few years from the previous blog and speak of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. This is perhaps my favorite of Leone’s pictures. It’s a stunning love letter to the American Western pictures he so loved growing up. Some could argue that THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY was his best, it definitely has more action, but without a doubt there was a lot of love poured into the making of this picture, not only is it a treasure trove of film references for cineastes, but it also has quite a bit of historical facts about the transformation of the old west.

Once Upon A Time, There Was An Idea…

After the release of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY American studios were now very interested, not just in continuing to distribute, but in financing Leone’s pictures as well. When Paramount asked what he had in mind for his next picture, he said he thought he’d do a gangster picture based on Harry Grey’s novel THE HOODS, called ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Unfortunately, studio suits just wanted him to churn out what they knew would work…another western. “This one is rather expensive. I’ll tell you what first we’ll do another western and then we’ll talk about AMERICA…” Leone, despite being a bit burned out on the genre, agreed to do another one. However, he felt that this picture had to be bigger and grander than his previous, which in itself was much more epic in scope than the other two pictures FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, so instead of going to his go-to writing guy, Luciano Vincenzoni, he instead turned to a couple of young admirers and cinephiles; Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento.

The first draft was written by Bernardo Bertolucci, later director of LAST TANGO IN PARIS, 1900 and the Oscar-winning THE LAST EMPEROR. Leone then handed script duties to future horror picture maestro Dario Argento.

I was a small voice, but he heard me, and we wrote to each other a few times. – Dario Argento

Dario Argento started out as a film critic, much like French New wave filmmakers like Francois Truffaut, and had been championing the works of Sergio Leone when most critics had been ignoring him. In 1967 Argento had been working for the Italian newspaper Paese Sera when Leone contacted him, after having been in correspondence for a bit, and offered him the job. Argento, having never written a screenplay before immediately jumped on the opportunity.

Leone new he wanted to make a picture that would be an homage to American westerns as well as showing the social changes that were happening in the America of the late 1800s. He also wanted his homage to have references to American films and he would borrow many, many scenes but rework them rather than making a pastiche of film references like many filmmakers today do. He wanted to have a woman be the central force of the picture and he and Dario agreed that Nicholas Ray’s sometimes campy melodrama JOHNNY GUITAR would make a good starting point.

“Sergio could judge a script in two minutes: he would flip through it and if he saw lots of dialogue it was no good; if it had a lot of descriptions then it was interesting. That is something I learned from him.” -Dario Argento

1954’s JOHNNY GUITAR stared Joan Crawford, (MILDRED PIERCE) Sterling Heyden (DR. STRANGELOVE) Mercedes McCambridge (Oscar-winning actress for ALL THE KINGS MEN and voice of the demon Pazuzu in THE EXORCIST)

The story is about a strong woman named Vienna, (Joan Crawford) who runs a saloon just outside of the main town, and hopes to build a town once the train comes through. The locals want to squeeze her out, especially sexually repressed Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) who believes Vienna has the hots for The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) who Emma secretly longs for. Vienna’s old flame Johnny Guitar (Sterling Heyden) comes along to work for Emma and the two re-ignite their love for each other. The picture has some cornball stuff but has some great dialog. It’s an odd bird of a film. Most of the actors were much better in noir films, especially Crawford and Heyden. As much of a tough guy Heyden was, he doesn’t make a great cowboy, he’s more suited as a down on his luck ex-con looking for a good score type and he delivers his dialogue in such a matter. It’s definitely worth a watch and you can see where Leone, Argento, and Bertolucci used this film as a skeleton to hang their picture on.

After Argento’s draft, Leone felt it was too intellectual and had it re-worked by Sergio Donati who had previously worked on a couple of Sergio Solima spaghetti’s THE BIG GUNDOWN and FACE TO FACE among others, he would later write DUCK, YOU SUCKER, ORCA (one of my favorites from the 70s) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s RAW DEAL. I don’t quite know how much Argento and Bertolucci wrote, they were both novices at the time, Sergio Leone states that they wrote treatments.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST a bittersweet poem of the end of an era…The Old West


The film’s plot is simple with a couple of mysteries. The film opens as three gunmen lurk around a train depot looking around and waiting for something. This is similar to the plot of Fred Zinnemann’s classic HIGH NOON, which intercuts from a worried Gary Cooper to a gang waiting for their boss at the train station. Here Leone puts it all in one very long opening sequence having fun with the three gunmen waiting for someone and passing their boredom in humorous ways. There is no great Bondian open with Morricone music like in the dollars trilogy, but instead the credits slide in and out of frame and instead of traditional music, Leone chooses to use a cacophony of sounds at the station; a rusted windmill, a telegraph, a fly buzzing around gunman Jack Elam’s head, water dripping onto the floor then onto the other gunman’s (Woody Strode), hat that he then drinks from. In a big wide shot, we see that the whole depot has railroad ties laid out like a giant deck on the ground. Morricone had written a piece for the open but after seeing an orchestra play in Florence, where at the beginning there was no music just a guy climbing a stepladder and the sounds that came from it, he suggested perhaps they try something like that and it worked out nicely.

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After the final credit the train arrives and once it leaves then the music kicks in, more on that in a bit, there’s a gunfight and all three gunmen are killed by a harmonica-playing stranger played by Charles Bronson who finally agreed to work with Leone after Leone tried unsuccessfully to get him for each of the dollars films. Who this stranger is we don’t find out until the end but we do know that the gunmen were waiting for him and the stranger was expecting someone named Frank.

“ I wanted to do a film that was a dance of death, or ballet of death.” – Sergio Leone

In the next scene, we meet Brett McBain (Frank Wolf) whose out pheasant hunting with his youngest son. They walk back home where his daughter Maureen is setting a table for a luncheon. Again like in the first scene there is no music only the sound of cicadas chirping out in the brush. He tells his other son to get the wagon to pick-up their new mother from the train station. The cicadas suddenly stop alerting McBain, until he sees a pheasant fly away. The cicadas start up again then stop after gunshots ring out and McBain’s daughter drops dead, then McBain and then his son fall to their deaths. His youngest son runs outside as Morricone’s Fuzztone guitar starts up. Several men in dusters walk toward the child. The camera pans around to reveal the leader of the gang. “What are we gonna do with this one Frank?” Frank replies “Now that’cha called me by name…” he pulls out his iron and drops the kid. Frank, if you don’t already know is played by All-American good guy actor Henry Fonda. When Fonda showed up for the scene he wore dark contacts and darkened his hair to the dismay of Sergio Leone, Leone wanted Fonda’s baby blues on screen because he knew audiences would be shocked to see this moment. Imagine Tom Hanks in a role today where he shoots a six-year-old kid in the face and you can get an idea as to how people felt after seeing this scene. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Leone manipulated his audience, they could now no longer trust him or what he might do next.

Next, we meet Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), I’ll discuss more her introduction later, she’s picked up and taken to her new home “Sweetwater” only to have the driver laugh at her, “Sweetwater, there’s nothing but sand out there!” They stop at a livery/saloon so the driver can take a leak. It’s here we meet the final lead Cheyenne, played by Jason Robards who normally played nice guys, he still is in this picture I suppose. He arrives amid a barrage of gunfire that we don’t see just hear when he stumbles in he’s handcuffed. Then a harmonica plays, Cheyanne instantly refers to him as Harmonica and they exchange bravados. This scene goes on for a long time and was a section that was cut-out during the original U. S. theatrical release, but we learn that Frank and his men where wearing dusters so that people would think it was Cheyenne’s gang who killed the McBains and Harmonica wants Frank.

When Jill arrives at her new home she’s greeted by fiends of McBain who have their dead bodies laid out on the table where the food was to be. Jill informs them that she and McBain were secretly married in New Orleans and the festivities was to be an announcement of their nuptials. One of the men finds a torn price of duster and pins the murders on Cheyenne.

Cheyenne makes his peace with Jill and proclaims his innocence, killing children isn’t his style. Harmonica is close by observing and all are wondering why the McBains were murdered since there is no gold or valuables on the property, he just left some model buildings in his room. Harmonica and Cheyenne later find out that Frank is working for a railroad baron named Morton, who has the crippling disease of tuberculosis of the bones making it difficult to walk, and Morton now wants Frank to kill the woman, but why…

Back at the ranch, there’s a huge delivery of wood, enough to build a town. Jill puts it together, the model buildings were designs for a train station and a town. McBain had bought the land knowing a train would go right through that property, Jill just has to finish the town before the train gets there or forfeit the property rights and before Frank can kill her. All this leads to a somber and chilling finally where we learn the truth about The Man With The Harmonica.

The film references are abundant and Leone uses them well, here are just a few; JOHNNY GUITAR, Similar plot, Joan Crawford has a model of her future town, Harmonica is the guitar playing Johnny of the title.
John Ford’s THE IRON HORSE: the train riding over the camera, much like the cowboy shooting at the camera in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBER, the train shot has become synonymous with the western and its used here to great effect.
George Stevens’ SHANE; young McBain boy pretending to shoot the Pheasants with his hand.
The use of Monument Valley, which was utilized in many John Ford pictures.
Rudolph Maté’s THE VIOLENT MEN; Edward G Robinson plays a crippled businessman who wants to control a valley.
The auction of Sweetwater is from John Fords MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.

The score

“Ennio is my best scriptwriter because when I don’t have too much dialogue going on, I throw in a musical theme or two: it fulfills the same basic function since it speaks instead of the characters, and it helps stretch their feelings, their emotions.” -Sergio Leone on working with Ennio Morricone.

Music: Ennio Morricone
Orchestra: Orchestra Unione Muscisti Di Roma
Conductor Ennio Morricone
Featured soloists: Franco De Gemini, harmonica; Alessandro Alessandroni, Whistler, Edda Dell’Orso, Vocal; Chior: I Cantori Moderni di Alessandroni

By this point in the musical career of Ennio Morricone, he had scored 84 pictures, 22 of which were westerns and all in just eight years! Despite his very prolific run, he was still able to bring something new and fresh to the table. Today his film scores total 523, but most people would agree that the score for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is one of his greatest.

Working with Leone before the film was shot Morricone came up with leitmotifs for each character, the lushest being Jill’s America. This track is pure Morricone yet it harkens back to Max Steiner’s End Title Theme from John Fords THE SEARCHERS before The Sons of The Pioneers kick in with their song. Jill’s Theme is both majestic and bittersweet. The music was recorded before production and was played on set, Leone composed the shot of Jill arriving at the station at Flagstone to match the music. Author Joseph Campbell mentioned that the beginning of a hero’s journey always starts in a cottage, where the hero goes into the front door from the normal world and leaves through the back door to a world where anything can happen, in a western it can be a saloon or in this case a train depot. Jill gets off the train looks at the clock then her pocket watch, time is very important in the picture, she walks into the depot where Leone frames her through a window with a widescreen aspect ratio but instead of following her into the depot he goes up and over the depot crescendoing with Morricone’s music and enabling the viewer to experience the awe of the town and the landscape that Jill is experiencing for the first time and from here on out her life will never be the same.

Jill’s America makes a reprieve at the end of the picture in the track called simply Finale and is made more bittersweet with soprano stylings of Edda Dell’Orso. I don’t think there is another track in the history of Westerns as heart-wrenching and as poignant as this track and it’s often used in montages of western films. Edda Dell’Orso sung quite a bit for Morricone, including the track The Ecstasy of Gold from THE GOOD, THE BAD BAD & THE UGLY also the groovy stylings of Morricone’s DANGER! DIABOLIK soundtrack and many others. Her list of pictures she has sung on is a literal who’s who of Italian film composers, Louis Bacalov, Bruno Nicholi, Stelvio Cipriani, Marcello Giombini and many more. She would later join Alessandro Alessandroni’s Modern Singers of Alessandroni I Canto Moderni Choir de Alessandroni, Alessandro Alessandroni, if you recall, was the musician who did the whistling in dollars films.

Finally, the most famous character theme of the picture is The Man With The Harmonica. This tune is a haunting death call, this isn’t some bluesy tune or some cowpoke playin’ She’ll Be Comin’ Around The Mountain. Rather the harmonica playing here is not lyrical but ethereal, it both captures the sound of a halting train, remember the train here represents the end of an era and the final breaths of someone dying. When we first hear it a train is departing to reveal Charles Bronson playing the “harp” like an avenging wraith. Throughout the picture, Harmonica plays his tune much like The Deguello in Rio Bravo, a song of impending doom. The final time we hear it, it’s accompanied by the final duel between Harmonica and Frank. Here we discover the significance of the harmonica and why it’s not a song but rather the sound of someone’s gasping breath being played through a harmonica. It also features a great fuzz tone guitar for the crescendo. The man behind the harmonica for Ennio Morricone was Franco De Gemini who has played harmonica on over a whopping 800 scores including Leonard Bernstein’s WEST SIDE STORY, but the 60s spaghetti westerns were very good for him whenever Morricone needed a harmonica player De Gemini was his go-to guy. In able to get the right sound that Leone called for, De Gemini took apart his favorite harp a Hohner-Chromatic and rebuilt it himself. He was also on set to tutor Bronson on the harmonica. Franco De Gemini is regarded as one of the finest harmonica players in cinema, he would go on to start Beat Records and a publishing company, he even wrote a memoir about his film career entitled Beat To Beat. Franco De Gemini passed away July 20th, 2013.

“When Once Upon a Time in the West came out in Italy, it was the same as Fistful of Dollars; it meant nothing to the critics. I found that unbelievable. But the public loved it, they went crazy for it. Sergio had achieved greatness. This film was impossible to better: after this, the western was finished. It’s such a nostalgic film, a very sad film.”

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST opened in Italy on December 21st, 1968 and didn’t fare as well as Leone’s Dollars films, though the French were very keen on the picture, one theater even played it for two years straight! In the U. S. It opened July 4th, 1969, critics weren’t too kind to the picture; Roger Ebert, an early champion of Sergio Leone, gave it a lukewarm review saying;

“The movie stretches on for nearly three hours, with intermission, and provides two false alarms before it finally ends. In between, we’re given a plot complex enough for Antonioni, involving killers, land rights, railroads, long-delayed revenge, mistaken identity, love triangles, double-crosses and shoot-outs. We’re well into the second hour of the movie before the plot becomes quite clear.”

Paramount Pictures didn’t help matters much by cutting twenty minutes out of the film hoping to breathe life into it. Over the years the film grew a following and has now been restored and it’s now rightfully considered one of the best films ever made.

“I love how slow it is. How enormous. It will be here forever.” -Dario Argento

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