When I was fourteen or so I made a case to watch Once Upon a Time in the West every year, and succeeded for a couple of them, then took a long hiatus. Last night I finally saw it again on the glorious re-stored blu ray edition that's been out for a while but that I'd never seen. There were quite a few things I noticed for the first time about it, such as the fact that this is viewed as one of Leone's grand epics, and yet it mostly takes place in a small area of space, has very little action, and a plot that could have been served in about 85 minutes. It's the grand cinematography and the gorgeous Morricone score that makes the movie feel like an epic, though I suppose the fact that Leone's dealing with the railroad and Westward expansion does give the film some historical heft, that it's about something larger than the specific story we're given.
In the past, characters that popped out as most significant were Frank, the villain, perhaps because he gets a lot of screen time and it was just strange to see Henry Fonda playing a total baddie, and Harmonica, the mysterious drifter played by Charles Bronson because he seemed like Eastwood's Man with No Name from The Good the Bad and the Ugly, a crucial part of my cinematic upbringing. But this time around it was Claudia Cardinale's character Jill who was the major standout. A whore from New Orleans who travels West to settle with her new husband and his kids only to find that they've all been murdered, she's probably the film's most developed character, and also the one who we feel the strongest emotional connection to. For some reason I'd never been hit with just how sad this movie is for her character and how perfect Cardinale is at expressing grief and disappointment simply with her face. A stoic and a realist, Jill's mourning over the loss of her new life before she even gets a taste of it is is mostly private, but it's felt deeply nonetheless by her facial expressions and big sad eyes-just understated enough to suggest longing for the life she thought was going to get but also a weary that's the way it goes acceptance-and the way she sifts through her husbands belongings or lies on their bed alone.
Before this though, we get our introduction to Jill when she arrives on the train from New Orleans where her husband is supposed to be waiting to pick her up:
First we see the image of the clock, then we cut to Jill's face on which lies an expression of confusion and concern. Her husband should be here but he's not (the viewer already knows he's been killed). She then checks her own watch to make sure the clock's not off before Leone cuts to a wide shot of Jill-who we gather senses that something terrible has happened- standing alone in a strange new land surrounded only by piles of wood, barrels, and sacks of dirt. During this scene we get our introduction to Jill's Theme, Ennio Morricone's sublime piece that might just be my favorite piece of film music ever written. Has a song ever so perfectly and beautifully encapsulated, simultaneously, a sense of melancholy, disappointment, and hope?
Jill stands alone, turning around indecisively before walking forward, a sense of calm determination in her gait. She goes into the station house, while the camera stays outside, watching her speak with the stationmaster (we don't hear what they're saying), the music continuing to play. If you like to find thematic meaning in your shots, then you might think the camera watching Jill through the window is a way of suggesting her sense of isolation in a foreign land. But no, the camera stays back for a different reason: Jill then exits the door opposite the one she entered, the cue for the camera to then crane upward above the station house, where suddenly we see a town filled with people, buildings, and carriages as the music swells into an exuberant expression of wonder and awe at the sight of the new. Jill doesn't know that her husband is dead, but you get the sense she's prepared for it. Let's not forget, this a famous whore from New Orleans, accustomed to the ways of the world and the savageness of the men who occupy it. The way Leone chooses to introduce her expresses her character through implication via the camera, soundtrack, and the face of his actress. As a filmmaker, he excelled at this type of storytelling: while the dialogue is vital for his films' plots, you could watch his movies simply with the images and the soundtrack and gather what he's trying to say. Here, it's the most vital part of what defines Jill is a human being: because of her weariness when it comes to idealism, she can't help but move forward with a sense of hope. It's her realistic stance on the present, we can conclude, that enables her to succeed in Leone's version of the West where men ultimately fail trying to scheme and murder their way to victory.