After he made the dollars trilogy, Sergio Leone could have been satisfied to leave the Western alone, having made arguably one of the greatest trilogies in cinematic history. He returned to the genre, however, just two years later, with an epic to rival The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Once Upon a Time in the West has numerous striking features, but perhaps the most notable is its sublime use of sound. The foley feels meticulously planned in every scene, as large sections of the film take place with little or no dialogue. In these scene it’s left to the sound effects to set the tone, which they do remarkably. This, along with Ennio Morricone’s oddly whimsical banjo-laden score, makes for an extremely atmospheric film.
The Dollars trilogy built in scale and budget as it went through, and Once Upon a Time in the West is yet another step up for Leone. The vast sets teeming with extras on impressive landscapes feel immersive and completely real. It’s a great example of a pre-CGI film creating a world that is more believable than anything created in a computer.
There are countless scenes which show an expert understanding of suspense and timing, and this certainly isn’t a film that’s in a hurry. Its slowness may be troublesome for some, and when noticing the finer details of characters’ behaviour and body language is crucial to understanding the film it can be hard to follow in some of the longer dialogue-free stretches. But it also shows great understanding of timing, and packs so much in to every frame it can certainly be forgiven.
Overall, Once Upon a Time in the West has a feeling of being meticulously made, like every scene, every sound, every set has been planned to the finest detail, and it glistens through the film like a river rich with gold.