A Ballad of Bullets - TopTenMM Opening Sequences

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

Nominee #19 - Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

Once Upon A Time In The West

A mysterious stranger armed with his harmonica and charisma allies with a scandalous desperado to defend a charming widow from a notorious assassin.

Director: Sergio Leone

Writers: Sergio Donati (screenplay by), Sergio Leone (screenplay by)

Stars: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale

Blu Ray

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Sergio Leone seemed to get better with age and his opening sequence for ‘’Once Upon A Time In The West’’ is proof.

A buzzing fly, dripping water, a creaking windmill, a train running into a remote railway station in dry, dusty desert country. Three killers awaiting their prey - Harmonica (Charles Bronson making his entrance playing a harmonica!), deadpan dialogue, a hail of bullets shattering the silence, and Harmonica left standing. Brilliant camerawork and editing. A masterful buildup of tension. The iconic template for many Westerns that followed!

You hear so much but there’s so little dialogue in the movie.

In that opening scene you feel you hear everything, every little breeze, every brace, every belt, every buckle, every boot, every board as it creaks its way to your attention.

With that widescreen cinematography you feel you see everything too - the floorboards, the telegraph machine, the rail-track, the giant water-tank tower, the dog looking for scraps.

You hear so much but there’s so little dialogue in the movie.

When the train finally thunders in the three men are waiting, guns ready. At first it seems the one they’re waiting for was too chicken to come so they nearly turn around and away. Then the sound of a harmonica holds them. And everything changes.

The camera that had until then been lazily taking its time, taking in entire worlds (a man’s unshaven face, his hat, a fly on his unshaven face, water dripping on the rim of his hat), suddenly and briefly races: First the shot from where three assassins are standing, snorting at the lone train passenger who has just alighted at the other side of the railtrack. Second the close-up of Bronson, the lone-ranger arrogantly finishing his tune before he deigns to the address the gun-hands. Third the long-shot from Bronson’s end as he watches the men wait for the tune’s end. Fourth some light-hearted banter before the final successive shots - they draw all at once (camera at their end) and he draws killing them, in turn (camera at his end).

The camera then goes back to its lazing: a full 20 seconds staring at the creaking windmill, lost in its own thoughts, an eternity before it looks closely at the fallen lone-ranger and realises that he’s got his eyes open, that he’s still alive and will be the last man standing.

You’ve not heard a note of Ennio Morricone’s music yet. But in those opening 12 minutes you see the full power of Leone’s story-telling as he paints as if on a canvas, telling you with each stroke of his cinematic paintbrush only just what he’ll allow - no more, no less.

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