Picture the scene. Mrs Jill McBain (that’s the Claudia Cardinale character to you and me) is very beautiful, has recently married, and has just travelled from New Orleans to the very edge of the Western frontier to live with her new husband and his flame-haired Irish family who could be straight out of a John Hinde postcard. The rail fare must have cost a fortune.
She gets down from the train but there’s nobody at the station to meet her (SPOILER ALERT! The audience have just seen your man and his kids being blown away by big bad Henry Fonda and his gang). She’s a widow and she doesn’t even know it yet.
What can she be thinking? We haven’t heard her say a thing in the film so far – in this sense it’s like a silent film – but as she waits then begins to walk she is clearly undergoing a rapid journey from initial excitement and expectation to disappointment and discombobulation.
She enters the station. The camera peers through a window after her, and the next moment is pure Morricone (Ennio Morricone is one of cinema’s greatest composers) and pure Leone too, as he gets the camera to trace the very movement of the music.
The wistful score starts to swell, the camera begins to soar; we’re rising over the station’s roof with all its jumbled tiles, higher and higher again, until we are above the frontier town of Flagstone, as the wordless soprano and the strings on the soundtrack hit a peak and Mrs McBain becomes a tiny figure, lost in the dust and the bustling crowd.
Cut from the crane shot to street level: more people, carts, horses and dust, and back to Mrs McBain again, as she takes in her strange new surroundings, of a New West taking shape.
As the audience will soon see, this is about the end of the Old West. It’s literally at the end of the line, as capitalism and corruption come to town in the form of the new railroad, and Mrs McB arrives too as the civilising influence in this macho world. In a way it’s also all about the death of the Western (Sergio Leone only made one more after this).
But back to that crane shot, that smooth, moving sequence. It couldn’t be more flagrant in showing off all its artsy trickery. The camera and music are so… what’s the word? So arranged. Yet the sequence still comes across as effortless, still manages to sweep us away in all its magnificent beauty, and I haven’t once mentioned a wailing harmonica (or the fuzz guitar and banjo) (or Quentin Tarantino).
I guess most Sergio Leone fans would rate The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as his greatest film, but to me Once upon a Time in the West is far more ambitious and satisfying. The reason I was thinking of the film this afternoon was after a friend told me that Claudia Cardinale is in town next month for the Dublin International Film Festival.
If like me you’re a big fan of the movie, check out the following gem of a short video about the film’s locations. It includes the station from the fictional town of Flagstone – complete with wind turbines in the distance – and a lot of mostly empty spaces where the film sets used to be.