Film Studies

Once Upon a Time in the West

with 5 comments

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.

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Written by matthewpickle

February 23, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. I really appreciate the comparisons you did between Searchers and OUTW. I think it was so different because of the different contexts under which the directors were working. One was Italian writing for an Italian and American audience. The other was writing for a changing American society. The suspense in this movie was the only thing that kept me watching I think. I was suspenseful for something to actually happen. So if it questions the ideology, what was the statement it was trying to make? Was there really a bad guy? Or were they even “bad”? I also enjoyed the sounds in this film. Each scene had it’s own unique style and sense of direction when it came to sound. There were many times when I realized that sounds were being overlapped in order to transition to a new scene. The juxtaposition of sound helped segway the story line between characters until they were all brought together. Loved it. Good post.

    giligan420

    February 24, 2011 at 6:09 pm

  2. Matt, this was an excelent post! I was really impressed with the way you incorporated actual film technique and the social aspects of the film together to show how each challenges the traditional view of the western. I also completely agree with you about how there really is no clarity about good and evil in the film, I think this really adds to the film as it detours away from the traditional western ideology. I’m really glad that you touch upon the use of sound in the film, but I disagree that it adds smoothness in the first scene. I think it definatly causes suspense, but the overwhelming sounds as they couple and overlap each other seem to create a sense of unease that isn’t found in other westerns. And I think it is the lack of smoothness in that first seen that really sets the tone of this film away from that of traditional westerns. But that’s just me! I really enjoyed reading your post! Keep up the great work!

    Kristen L.

    February 28, 2011 at 4:21 pm

  3. Matt, I liked how you explored how Leonne turned a critical eye to what the Western should be. I again also noticed the stark contrasts between “The Searchers” and “Once Upon a Time”. I might have to disagree with you a bit on the soundtrack though. In the first scene I agree that the sound was masterfully done, but you state that the mixing of sound across scenes creates smoothness. I feel that it creates a sense of discontinuity, one second you are staring down the barrel of a gun and you hear and see it shoot, but then what’s this, you are now on a train platform about to be hit by a train! Either way good post.

    johknees

    February 28, 2011 at 7:09 pm

  4. I like how you made comparisons between the soundtracks of The Searchers and Once Upon a Time in the West. However, I disagree with you that Once Upon a Time in the West used only eerie music. I would not describe the music used when Jill McBain was on screen as “eerie” as it is very beautiful yet very sad, engendering a sense of loneliness and loss, which I see as being a reflection of her loss and her struggle making her way on her own in the West. I also found it interesting they you used The Searchers as a yardstick when determining the dominant ideology.

    Ross

    February 28, 2011 at 8:04 pm

  5. Hello there! This post couldn’t be written any better!
    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept preaching about this. I’ll send this post to him.
    Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

    AMELIE

    October 4, 2014 at 6:52 pm


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