Three threatening men enter a small train depot. Two of them are familiar Western movie actors: Woody Strode from John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) and Jack Elam from many sidekick and vicious killer roles.
The third is Al Mulock, a veteran of Italian westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), who, incidentally, killed himself of the set of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
The depot resembles nothing we’re used to in Westerns. Wooden planks seem to occupy an acre of land on both sides of the tracks. Inside the depot are an old ticket taker and an Indian woman.
This opening sequence consciously resembles High Noon (1952): three men waiting for a train, only this time the outlaws want to shoot the man who arrives.
More conspicuously, we hear a cacophony of sounds: a squeaky windmill, a teletype machine, boots on the wooden planks, doors opening and shutting, cracking knuckles. These ordinary sounds, however, are amplified to the point of becoming symphonic.
Commentators have noted that an opening score was written by Ennio Morricone, one of the most prolific film composers, but was dispensed with as not feeling right. Morricone had recently attended a concert that was inspired by the sound experiments of John Cage. Not that Sergio Leone’s films didn’t usually revel in the minutiae of sights and sounds, like the sound of a gun’s chamber being spun, the cocking of a gun, and whistles of a train. Indeed, after this opening scene, separate musical motifs are applied to the four major characters.
Another Leone trademark: the scene progresses slowly. Preludes to violent confrontations in his films far outweigh the resulting combat, which often is over in a few seconds.
The film progresses very slowly. It’s a film about waiting and lingering. Deliberate movements by both the characters and the filmmaker. Its pace and rhythm resemble a film that came out later in 1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey. This film is also about space, the territory in the western United States, tamed and civilized by the railroad, a space where time is running out for older, traditional ways.
The train is late. The man spread out along the station platform. Mulack cracks his knuckles and splashes water on his face at one end of the platform. Strode moves under a water tower, only to have a couple drops of water land on his head. He puts on his hat and the water starts to pool on the brim. Meanwhile, Elam sits in wooden rocker in front of the station and pulls his hat down to catch a little sleep.
A fly lands on Elam’s face on his chin and skims the lower lip. Pfft, Pfft, Pfft. Elam blows on the fly to no effect. The fly's presence emphasizes the stubble on the face. It moves to the side up and down his cheek. Finally, he brushes the fly away with hand.
The fly lands on a side panel of the rocker. Elam looks over and pull his gun. Is he going to shoot it? No, he quickly slams the barrel to the panel and traps the fly.
All along we heard the amplified buzzing the fly, even more so when it is in the barrel of the gun, which Elam holds to his face and smiles. The buzzing is then subsumed by the loud whistle of the train coming in. Elam releases the fly and stands.
Under the water tank, Strode takes off his hat and drinks the water from his brim, offering a similarly slight grin of satisfaction that we had seen from Elam.
The train stops. Now the principal sound is the chugging of the locomotive. A railroad car door slides open. The men go for their guns. But it’s only a bundle being dropped onto the depot.
Then nothing. The train starts to chug forward. The wait has been for nothing. The men turn toward their horses. Then there’s a sound.
A harmonica. The sound is amplified, like all the previous sounds, and nearly seeming unreal. I can't help feeling that I've never heard a harmonica sound like that.
The men turn. As the train pulls away, revealed on the other side of the platform is a man holding a satchel and blowing the harmonica. Charles Bronson. He’s unnamed, known only as Harmonica. He has a come a long way to settle a score with Frank (Henry Fonda), for reasons we learn at the end of the film (two hours film time later).
Then we get a sample of the terse dialogue that fills this film:
Harmonica: And Frank?
Elam: Frank sent us.
Harmonia: Did you bring a horse for me?
Elam: Well. . .looks like we’re [snickers] looks like we’re shy one horse.
Harmonica: You brought two too many.
Even the dialogue is drawn out. With pauses. Smirks from Strode and Elam. Watchfulness for any movement to their guns. Typical of any Leone showdown.
The men draw. Bronson drops his valise and fires simultaneously from a gun we haven’t seen. All four men drop to the ground. He has shot the three killers while taking a bullet in the shoulder. Afterward, when he puts his gun away, we notice that it serves as handle for the bag.
Slowly, Bronson rises and creates a makeshift sling from his jacket. He crosses the tracks and steps over his welcoming committee to get one of the horses.
Once Upon a Time in the West has a twofold pull on its audience. The first is that all of its scenes have the same deliberateness, dry humor, closeups of classic actors' faces, panoramic camera movements, and Morricone’s compelling music. I could watch these scenes over and over. That’s why I have to watch it when I come across it on a movie channel.
The second are its allusions to countless other westerns. Indeed, the story and screenplay were written with the idea to include as many references to western films as possible. I mentioned the opening set up is a variation on High Noon. Elam appeared in that film. And a shot of the train going over the camera alluded to John Ford’s Iron Horse (1924). Subsequent scenes quote Shane (1953) and Johnny Guitar (1953) to very meaningful effect.
I don’t admire Once Upon a Time’s for its realism, that is, for its portrayal of the real west. Even the presence of the railroad in Once Upon a Time feels out of time (despite its importance to the plot), just as the scenes of the Civil War in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly hardly convince me that the film wants to comment on history.
Leone's films are less about the West than they mirror samurai films. A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1962), about a roving samurai fighter. In effect, his films are a commentary on cinematic representation.
Hence, the essence of its attraction for me, is its pure cinematic reality. Cinema, Leone’s cinema, trumps history. Transcends realism.
I could keep writing and writing about Once Upon A Time. Here, I've only described one scene. In many ways this scene stands for the entire film. You may not have all the elements of the plot, but plot seems the last thing on Leone's mind. He wants his vision of cinematic world revealed. All the sights, sounds, profiles, and postures.
Finally, his film stands for itself as reflects its cinematic predecessors. This is why I keep coming back to it. I feel as if I can gain something more from watching it.