Behind the Scenes: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969)

“Tedium in tumbleweed,” was the verdict of Time’s magazine’s critic. That was hardly the intention of Sergio Leone, Dario Argento (then just a critic) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution, 1964) after they met just before Xmas 1966 in a projection booth for a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and decided to try and write the quintessential western. This was a strange notion given that a) Leone had already revolutionized the western and b) on the completion of the last of the “Dollars” trilogy, had avowed to give up westerns and in consequence turned down Hang ‘Em High (1968).

When their six-month collaboration only produced 80 pages of script, Leone turned to Sergio Donati who finished it off in 25 days, adding such essential elements as the fly tormenting Jack Elam at the railway station, turning Morton into a cripple and giving him the motif of the ocean, and many others. Donati claimed, “The best thing I did was give a meaning to the story…This railroad which unites one ocean to the other is the end of the frontier, the end of adventure.” The completed screenplay drew on such influences as Johnny Guitar (1954), John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), George Stevens’ Shane (1953) and a dozen pictures besides.

With a budget of $5 million, equally shared between Euro-International – flush from being the Italian distributor of German sex education film and box office smash Helga (1967) –  and Paramount at the height of its European investment cycle, it would be the most expensive movie made in Italy since Dino de Laurentiis greenlit The Bible (1966). Twelve times as expensive as Leone’s debut western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) – the set of Flagstone alone cost more than that film’s entire budget –  it would be shot at Cinecitta in Rome as well as on location in Almeria, Spain, and the iconic Monument Valley.

“Creative geography” had been utilized to find a connection between the famed Western landmark and the new town of Sweetwater. Prior to filming, Leone had undertaken a guided tour of Monument Valley and returned able to pinpoint exactly where Ford had made use of the location in the ten westerns he had shot there. Leone was the highest-remunerated, picking up $750,000 and 10 per cent of the profits with Claudia Cardinale on $500,000, but the others nowhere near such salaries.

It was Bertolucci who had persuaded the director to give Jill (Claudia Cardinale) the pivotal role. In Leone’s previous films, women were side-lined. But now Jill would run the gamut of all the roles typically allocated to different women in westerns from the reformed whore, submissive woman, object of lust and chattel to the spitfire and woman who took charge. More, she represented, “the promise of the West.” She was central to the plot and sole survivor at the end after Harmonica (Charles Bronson) departed with Frank (Henry Fonda), Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) all dead.

When Leone wooed her for the role, he acted out the entire film in her presence, using the music to give her an insight into her character. “While I listened,” she recalled, “I understood every moment of the film shot by shot.” During filming of her scenes, Leone replayed her theme music. “This helped me concentrate, remove myself from the world.”

Although Leone and Clint Eastwood had fallen out during the shooting of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the actor agreed to meet to discuss the role of Harmonica, but in the end Eastwood rejected the part, perhaps because the monosyllabic character was too close to The Man With No Name. Other names in the frame were James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven), Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963), Rock Hudson and Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966). The last actor Paramount was interested in was Charles Bronson who was regarded as nothing more than a steady supporting actor. Leone’s insistence was because the actor had a “face made of marble.” He would not be required to act much, just represent an immoveable object, capable of expressing the sadder side of his character through his harmonica.  

Henry Fonda was Leone’s first choice for the “ignoble assassin” but the actor prove hard to recruit, the director thwarted first of all by the star’s agent, then put off by the original script and only persuaded by old friend Eli Wallach that this might represent opportunity. However, when the actor came prepared he came prepared for the wrong picture, sporting the moustache traditionally worn by the villain, and, worse, concealing the baby blue eyes which the director coveted with dark lenses.

Although accepting the exceptional stage talents of Jason Robards whose only foray into the genre at that point had been box office flop A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Donati believed he had the kind of presence that did not “translate to the big screen,” especially lacking the kind of eyes the director required for close-up. Leone disagreed, believing he was tailor-made for the role of Cheyenne. The first interview was not a success, the alcoholic actor arriving drunk. Only warnings of financial consequence ensured the star remained sober during filming.

Shooting was scheduled for April-June 1968. The first scene on the agenda was the love scene between Cardinale and Robards, which accounted for two days shooting. Paramount’s eager marketing team promoted these as the first sex scenes the director had filmed, ignoring the fact that sequences showing Eastwood in bed with a woman had been shot for For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, although they had not made it into the final cut. It took four days to film the shoot-out at Cattle Corner, three hours alone devoted to capturing the drip of water onto Woody Strode’s head and hat. Composer Ennio Morricone had already written a theme to cover the period of the gunmen waiting, but instead opted for the exaggerated sounds such as chalk scraping on a blackboard and the insistent fly. A jar of flies were kept for this purpose but in the end only one sufficed.

Although length became an issue outside of Italy and Parisian fist-run cinemas, Paramount was already planning for a 150-minute picture. In the end the 168-minute Italian cut was shaved by 24 minutes for the U.S. release, outside of a roadshow the longest western sent into general release, and therefore a risky prospect. The idea that Paramount got cold feet over the American release does not stand up. It was part of a major promotion on a huge sign above Times Square that promoted four of the studio’s upcoming offerings – the others being Goodbye, Columbus, True Grit and Those Dangerous Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies.  It was launched in New York on Memorial Day (not as big a box office day then as now but still a major U.S. holiday) in first run cinemas two weeks ahead of the rest of the country.  

In fact, its first week’s box office there ranked it the western of the year so far, beating The Stalking Moon, 100 Rifles and Support Your Local Sheriff. The New York figures were actually the best results for a western for the entire year with the exception Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and True Grit, outgrossing the likes of the more critically-successful The Wild Bunch and more marketing-friendly Mackenna’s Gold. However, its initial New York audience appreciation was rarely not matched elsewhere, Boston being one exception.  Some cinemas found it difficult to market, the Berlin Drive-In in Hartford, for example, tying-in with country-and-western music on a local radio station. While some smaller cinemas called for another 30 minutes in cuts, others proclaimed “this is what the public wants.” Once upon a Time in the West  finished tenth for the year among westerns and a disappointing 47th overall in Variety’s annual rentals chart.

While it also flopped in Britain and, given the budget, proved a disappointment in Italy, not on a par with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it posted 14.8 million admissions in France, making it the seventh-best performing picture of all time. By 1984 it ranked eleventh on the all-time German rental champs list, above Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. In Switzerland in 1987 it came eighth on the all-time chart, easily the oldest title on the list. It was a video “blockbuster” in German homevideo setting a new sales record in 1984.

However, for such a commercial and critical failure, reassessment in the U.S. was not long in coming. In 1973, the Beverly Canon in Los Angeles launched its new “Classics At Midnight” programme with Once Upon a Time in the West, Harold and Maude and Repulsion. The prospect of the first showing in the U.S. of the full-length version captured all the headlines at the 1980 New York Film Festival. There were occasional revivals: in Toronto at Easter 1973 and Washington and New York among others in 1984, and Washington in 1985.  

It was named the best western ever made by British newspaper The Guardian newspaper and film magazine Empire. In the Sight and Sound once-in-a-decade Critics Poll in 2012 it placed third in the western category behind The Searchers and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959). With the results of a new poll out this year I wonder if it will ascend to the top spot.

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Gunslingers of ’69: Western Movies’ Greatest Year (McFarland, 2019); Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (Faber and Faber, 2000); Christopher Frayling: Once Upon a Time in Italy (Thames & Hudson, 2005); Christopher Frayling, Once upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece (Reel Art Press, 2019); “Huge Sign on Times Square Plugs Paramount Product,” Box Office, May 5, 1969, pA2; “West Tie Up With WEXT,” Box Office, June 16, 1969, pNE2;  “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, July 14, 1969, pA4; “The Big Rental Films of 1969,” Variety, January 7, 1970, p15; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, July 6, 1970, pA3; “Beverly Canon To Offer Midnight Classics,” Box Office, April 13, 1973, pW1; “Scorsese Speaks on Saving Prints,” Variety, October 8, 1980, p6;  “CIC Video Preps Low-Ticket Bow for Raiders,” Variety, March 21, 1984, p47; “All-Time German Rental Champs,” Variety, March 7, 1984, p336; “With Plenty of Film Buffs, NYC Is Reissue Heaven,” Variety, December 12, 1984, p74; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, October 1, 1985, p43-44; “All-Time Swiss Top Ten,” Variety, October 21, 1987, p498.

Ennio (2021) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

I became an instant fan of Ennio Morricone after watching dance troupe Pan’s People performing on BBC TV’s weekly Top of the Pops to Hugo Montenegro’s version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when it topped the singles charts in Britain in 1968. Sure, there had been successful theme songs in the charts before like Shirley Bassey’s rendering of Goldfinger, but never a pure instrumental and not a wailing guitar. This is quite simply an extraordinary documentary, and although it comes with an indulgence of anecdotes, what is considerably more compelling is the concentration, in accessible fashion, on the artist’s compositional skills. I could have watched four hours of this, never mind that clocking in at 156 minutes it’s already on the lengthy side for a documentary.

Morricone should never have been a film composer or a composer of any kind. He was too poor. His father was a trumpet-player and Morricone only took up music, designated instrument the trumpet, because his father believed a good trumpet player would always make a living and provide for his family. He was not a good trumpet player. At least, not at the start. Given that once orchestras and dance bands went out of favor, trumpet playing would have been a precarious existence, it was lucky his father’s insisted he also study harmony and composition. He won a place at a conservatoire, where the pupils, all except him, were the sons and daughters of the wealthy elite. And a conservatoire in those days was academically inclined, intending to produce classical composers and players, not people who would work as arrangers and composers of pop songs or commit the unpardonable sin of writing for the movies.

Morricone, always prolific, started working as an arranger of pop tunes for the RCA label in Italy and then for RAI, the Italian state television. But he was also an innovator and many of his songs began with a distinctive sound rather than the music being merely a backdrop to the song. He founded an experimental music group, making music out of anything but a musical instrument. You can see the benefits of that inquiring mind from the first 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), for me his compositional masterpiece and my favorite western.

When he started working for Sergio Leone, he realized they had once been classmates. Leone came to him because Morricone had already written music for Italian westerns. Of course, the collaboration became legendary. As you will be aware, Leone liked the music recorded before filming began and played it during filming. While an interesting approach, I always thought it odd, until I witnessed, here, Robert De Niro making an entrance in one scene of Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

While his themes were often complex, he had a genius for catching the ear of the listener. Many scenes showed Morricone with voice and fingers tapping out a theme you will instantly recognize because all his best work was instantly recognizable. Although an extremely shy person, he was not above walking out – or threatening to do so – if a film was not going according to plan, if a director insisted on making a change or incorporating other material. Nor, for such a genius, was he full of self-confidence. Eventually, he relied on his wife as a listening board to decide if his work was any good. For what he called the “triumphant” scene from The Untouchables (1987), where cops brandishing shotguns prompted by Sean Connery burst in on bootleggers, he supplied nine ideas for director Brian De Palma, who proceeded to use the one Morricone considered the weakest. Other times, he was the one suddenly requiring an extra piece of work, calling upon Joan Baez to supply lyrics at the last minute to his theme for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) that became the memorable “Here’s To You.”

One of the most enjoyable elements of the movie is seeing concert renditions of his themes, “Here’s To You” with a massive choral ensemble making the hairs on the back of your head stand on end. You could probably make a case for Morricone reinventing the chorus, paving the way for such practitioners as Hans Zimmer. Until then, there was many a heavenly chorus, but Morricone found better use for a chorus. And you could also argue that he influenced the likes of Ridley Scott (Gladiator, 1999) in using female opera singers to introduce a completely new sound to movies. 

One of Morricone’s stated aims was to use music to bring something else out of a scene, not to merely provide a relevant sound. So for the death of Sean Connery in The Untouchables or the baby carriage scene his music goes completely against what you are watching but nonetheless adds a deeper understanding. We also see how he folds different themes into the one piece of music.

There are a number of very moving sequences, when Morricone, for example recalls his father – he would not use a trumpet in his compositions until his father died – or when he explains his hurt at being made to feel an outcast by his classical peers, and there is one extraordinary moment when one of those who has disdained him writes a letter asking forgiveness for having so under-rated his work. And certainly there is clear petulance at being passed over for the Oscar for The Mission (1986), a piece of work that director Roland Joffe said made the movie a completely different experience. Morricone complained that half the music that won Herbie Hancock the Oscar for Round Midnight (1986) was actually old, rather than new, music.

My favorite anecdote is how Gillo Pontecorvo, hearing heard a piece of music Morricone had composed for The Year of the Cannibals (1970) promptly stole it for his own Queimade/Burn (1969) before settling, after an argumemt, for a similar piece. Actors, composers and directors in the anecdote queue include Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, 2015) , Clint Eastwood, Terence Malick (Days of Heaven, 1978), Dario Argento (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971), John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Oliver Stone (U Turn, 1997) Marco Bellochio (Fists in the Pocket, 1965) and Bernardo Bertolucci (1900, 1976).

Morricone’s film music changed over the decades. Following the westerns were giallos, marked by dissonance rather than melody, then Hollywood came calling. I hadn’t quite realized what an audience Morricone commanded – over 70 million albums sold. He had hit singles In Italy –  A Fistful of Dollars ranked fourth in the charts, For a Few Dollars one place below, “Here’s To You” also fourth. In Britain, “Chi Mai” reached the second spot; in France “Man with Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West went to number one, as did “Chi Mai” while “Here’s To You” was at number two. And, of course, his music has been adopted by a host of rock bands, most notably Bruce Springsteen and Metallica.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore, who has a special place in the Morricone catalog thanks to Cinema Paradiso (1988), has produced a magnificent tribute to the genius. In my half century of regular cinema going, there are four composers I rank above all the rest, John Barry, John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone, but of them all, the latter is the number one for not just his enormous output – 500 scores including 29 in one year – and his wide range of melodies, but because they are so many memorable pieces. Once Upon a Time in the West is never off my CD player and especially gets worn out in the car. For sheer enjoyment this is an undeniable five-star treat. 

I am sure this will end being streamed somewhere but I urge you to try and catch it at the cinema, the effect will be lost on the small screen of the massed choruses or Morricone conducting in vast amphitheaters.

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