Once Upon a Time in the West
Once Upon a Time in the West is a film created by Sergio Leone and is considered one of the best films of the western genre. It is a story that begins with a hazy story and never really declares outright whom the villain is and who the hero is until its climatic shootout near the conclusion of the film. Although the film is nearly three hours in length and is known for its slow pace like similar Sergio Leone films, Once Upon a Time in the West is a suspenseful film that incorporates excellent sound and cinematic techniques and differs from other westerns by challenging the dominant ideology.
Because they are both westerns, I thought Once Upon a Time in the West was going to have a similar feel to our previous film lab where we viewed The Searchers. This was clearly not the case because Once Upon a Time in the West has numerous differences to The Searchers. The differences I noticed was the pace of the film. The Searches seemed to move relatively fast (covering 5 years in just under 2 hours), while each scene in Once Upon a Time in the West seems to drag on forever. Another difference I noticed was the music each film used in creating the film. The Searchers used happy, patriotic music when John Wayne and the gang were on screen. Once Upon a Time in the West used only eerie music adding to the suspense of the film. The last major difference I noticed between The Searchers and Once Upon a Time in the West is the use of the established shot and the close-up shot. It seemed The Searches emphasized the western landscape and generally used wide, open shots. Although Once Upon a Time in the West emphasizes the western landscape as well, I noticed more shots focusing on the character’s faces, allowing the viewer to see their emotion clearly.
The differences in Once Upon a Time in the West compared to the ‘normal’ western film is one of the ways this film challenges the dominant ideology. Before watching this film I determined the dominant ideology of western films is a simple story, which generally consists of a good, moral person (usually an American cowboy) fighting against the ‘bad guys’ (usually bandits or Native American tribes). Once Upon a Time in the West challenges this ideology by having a storyline where there is no clear hero and clear villain until the film develops. According to Roger Ebert, “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.” Additionally, the actors are casted into roles they previously never had. Robert Ebert states that Sergio Leone “produces some interesting performances by casting against type. Henry Fonda is the bad guy for once in his career; Charles Bronson is impressively inscrutable as the mysterious good guy; and Jason Robards is a tough guy, believe it or not” By having a complex storyline and different casting roles, Sergio Leone challenges the belief that the west was a simple, good vs. evil fight, but rather a place where there is corruption and mystery.
Once Upon a Time in the West also displays excellent sound and camera techniques. Roger Ebert states Once Upon a Time in the West is similar to other Sergio Leone’s films. He states “there’s the same eerie music; the same sweaty, ugly faces; the same rhythm of waiting and violence.” I noticed the excellent use of sound while watching Once Upon a Time in the West. The opening scene is a perfect example of this, where it seems every little noise is emphasized. No one is talking and all the viewer can hear is water dripping, some sort of squeaking noise, and a fly buzzing. Not only does the focus on sound create suspense for the viewer, it also creates certain smoothness to the story. In a couple scenes, the sound from the end of one scene turns into the sound of the next scene. For example, when Frank’s gun fires when he is about to kill the little boy, the gunshot echo transitions into a train moving. This type of transition emphasizes smoothness in certain scenes.
Once Upon a Time in the West is an extremely suspenseful film. One of the ways Sergio Leone captures this suspense is through the point of view shot. In numerous occasions throughout the film the audience sees an actor look in a direction off screen with a surprise look. This causes suspense because the viewer does not know what the character is looking at. This cinematic technique used with the sound techniques previously mentioned, helps Once Upon a Time in the West become a very suspenseful film that challenges the dominant ideology.