This movie is notable for several reasons. I suppose the most obvious is its length. It is something of a drawn out experience, which you could argue befits the grandness of the director’s vision. It is the quintessential Western drenched in spaghetti sauce and pumped up on steroids.
Further, any movie that starts with three men (one of whom is played by Woody Strode, for Pete’s sake) waiting to ambush a guy at a deserted train station only to have the tables turned on them by a harmonica-playing gunslinger … well, that’s not quite but almost like having A-list star Janet Leigh knifed to death in the shower less than halfway through a film.
Although director Sergio Leone had initially thought to stop making Westerns (with the intention of producing a film based on The Hoods, which ended up becoming Once Upon a Time in America), he accepted an offer from Paramount to make this film. Unlike Leone’s previous Spaghetti Westerns, Clint Eastwood turned down the protagonist’s role, which instead was played (harmonica in hand) by Charles Bronson.
Which brings me to another unique aspect of this film: not only is Eastwood MIA, but Bronson’s protagonist — known only as “Harmonica” — has an uneasy semi-partnership with outlaw Cheyenne (played with the perfect combination of insouciance and menace by Jason Robards). Not that the pairing of unlikely allies is new in Leone’s world. We’ve seen that before in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But there’s something about the actors’ chemistry — and the harmonica — that makes this relationship feel different. Somehow more exciting and dangerous. It doesn’t hurt any that the actors are top notch.
As for the plot, let’s put it this way. Things kick off when Jill McBain, a retired prostitute with the biggest … heart in the West arrives in town. Just in time to find her husband and his children butchered at their home in the middle of nowhere. Murdered by a thug named Frank, the nastiest part I’ve ever seen Henry Fonda play.
You see, Frank wants to force the Widow McBain to sell the property to him. The dismal outpost, which had made McBain a laughing stock in town, must have some value. It’s up to Mrs. McBain to figure out what’s up. Don’t look for the answer here. It’s much more fun learning as you watch the story unfold.
Oh, and Frank is associated (let us say) with a … disabled? gimpy? … health-compromised railroad tycoon named Morton. And Frank is so nasty by comparison, one almost feels sorry for this particular bad guy.
Is it any surprise that the three main male characters — Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank — eventually end up in a shootout? I won’t spoil the ending, but it is both poignant and deeply satisfying.
The men give such powerhouse performances that it nearly threatens to overshadow Claudia Cardinale as the newlywed Mrs. McBain. I’m lying. Cardinale has a steely resolve and likability that make her a winner no matter what the consequences. She holds her own amid three heavyweight male actors with grit to spare, balanced with a touching vulnerability. But she’s no pushover. Mrs. McBain isn’t going down without a fight.
As always, Leone uses location to maximum advantage. The camera moves through the wide open spaces fluidly and with dynamic grace. Unlike Leone’s previous Spaghetti Westerns, the pacing is slow, with long scenes and shots featuring little dialogue and not much happening. Not much physical action, I should say. But those long, slow scenes are punctuated with intense moments of violence and conflict that may or may not make up for the languid pace between them.
The music is by — who else? — the awesome Ennio Morricone.
For a movie Leone didn’t plan to make, it comes across rather grandly. Almost in the manner of an overwritten love letter to the Western genre.
And yet I love watching it! Slow parts and all.
I would give this FIVE STARS (!!!), but for the length, which I’m sure challenges more than a few modern movie lovers. Ah, well … some of us can appreciate the epics! 🙂
Apropos of nothing, here’s a still from another of my favs!