In it, Sergio Leone is paying tribute to the westerns he loved. The scene--an isolated pioneer family falls under attack--is a direct steal from The Searchers, especially the detail of the desert insects going quiet. So, too, is the cloud of dust that the evil railroad gang emerges from; it's from the visual metaphor tricks of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford--even the Earth is made restless by the deeds going down. But the big event that Leone was counting on, and planned for, was the circling shot around the shoulders of the gang to reveal the face of the leader, Frank, and the star who was playing him.
Leone had always wanted to work with Henry Fonda. He'd wanted him to play Col. Mortimer, the role Lee Van Cleef played in For a Few Dollars More. But with the substantial budget Paramount Pictures gave him for Once Upon a Time in the West, he could now afford big stars in his movie (that certainly applied to Claudia Cardinale in Italy--not so much Charles Bronson and Jason Robards, though they're both excellent in their roles). Fonda was reluctant. "What does an Italian know about the American West?" he recalled wondering on the "Parkinson" interview program on the BBC (the pertinent section of the interview is below). He called up Eli Wallach, who'd just played Tuco in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. "Don't even worry about it," said Wallach. "Go! You'll have the time of your life!"
So, Fonda prepped for the role. He figured that, for the villainous Frank, he should adapt a look more like John Wilkes Booth, and he darkened up his look, including using brown contact lenses to cover up what he called his "baby blues." When Leone saw the make-up, he pitched a fit. "It goes!!" he screamed in Italian. What Fonda didn't realize was that Leone had planned for that elaborate reveal. He wanted the camera to come around, and the audience to recognize him and gasp "My Gawd! That's Henry Fonda!!"
The star and director got on famously, and Fonda clearly relished the chance to play The Heavy in the form of Leone's Ultimate Western Villain. The two men would work again in My Name is Nobody.
Now, there is no way the following series of screen-caps can communicate the power of this scene--it doesn't indicate music or timing, and can only hint at the extremes of Leone's complicated camera moves. With so very little dialogue, the soundtrack and the visuals take on much more potency with Leone's work. Here, those elements are all-important, and a scattering of screen-caps can only suggest the blue-print of a scene, like a storyboard.
But, it will have to do.
The Scene: On the isolated McBain ranch (you can't really call it a farm), the Irish family is scratching out a living, but today they're celebrating. Arriving soon on the train is Ed's new wife from New Orleans, Jill (Claudia Cardinale). Her arrival will set up a series of events that will involve disparate parties and the encroaching metal monster that is the transcontinental railroad. But that's tomorrow. Today, they're hunting pheasant, and setting up a big spread for the happy welcome. But living this close to the land, the least little thing is noticeable.
For some reason, the usual chatter of the cicadas has gone silent.
(The cicadas stop chirping--a sure sign that something's approaching, but a pan around the farm shows the McBains that no one is in sight.)
(A flock of birds flies up from the brush, and Maureen relaxes--they must have stopped the insects, and she approaches the table to watch them--the same table the rifle is leaning against)
(As all eyes are on the birds, a shot rings out, but no birds fall.)
(McBain looks over at Maureen, who is clutching her stomach and falls over, dead. With growing horror, he realizes that his family is under attack)
(McBain runs towards his dead daughter, as well as the rifle, and is taken out in mid-run)
(Son Patrick is cut down from the buck-board)
(McBain makes one last desperate attempt to reach his revolver and is killed)
(Running foot-steps echo on clap-board floors as the camera emerges from the house-interior to the blinding sunlight)
(Young Billy McBain looks over the bodies of his slaughtered family, then his eyes are drawn to some movement in the scrub)
(Five men in long duster-coats emerge from hiding, the four men on either side waiting for the man in the middle, who hands off his rifle as they approach the boy)
(The camera comes around from behind the gang-leader to reveal his face)
Heavy: What're we gonna do with this one, Frank?
Frank: Well, now that you've called me by name....
Once Upon a Time in the West
Words by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Donati, Mickey Knox, and Sergio Leone
Pictures by Tonino Delli Colli and Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in the West is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Video.