A water-tower-top windmill wheezing metal machine music out across the sagebrush, the felt-dampened thup . . . thup . . . thup as dripping water tortures Woody Strode’s hat, and a fly that dive-bombs Jack Elam’s beard sweat until the putty-faced actor and the droning nuisance come to resemble the face of Méliés’s man in the moon and the rocket ship stuck in his eye: If only the first 10 minutes of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West still existed, this most hyperbolic of oat operas would still be acknowledged as one of the genre’s greatest exhumations. A Monument Valley of the Dolls, Leone’s epic paean to Westward Ho—ism stations Claudia Cardinale (as the ‘ho) between Charles “Harmonica” Bronson and Jason “Cheyenne” Robards, with everyone waiting for their train to come in, even as Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed killer plans to derail them all. Akira Kurosawa once said that Toshiro Mifune could give him in three feet of film the emotion any other actor would take 10 to deliver, but in a single flash of Fonda’s electric turquoise orbs, Leone (Kurosawa’s first and sincerest flatterer-imitator) managed to say as much about John Ford, the devil, and the corruptions of the Way Out Western world as the genre ever would.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 20, 2005