Review Summary: A classic soundtrack to a wonderful Leone-Morricone collaboration burdened by a lot of forgettable tracks.
Charles Bronson, sweaty, stone-faced, steps forward and gently places his harmonica into the mouth of the gasping Henry Fonda, who, after a moment’s thought, gives an understanding nod and falls to his death.
Thus ends the climactic duel of “Once Upon a Time in the West”. Sergio Leone shot the scene with typical restraint, patiently building the tension as two men stare eternally into one another’s eyes. What elevates this scene from nine full minutes of pure tedium to the status of ‘classic’ is Ennio Morricone
’s score. Here, “The Man with a Harmonica” is played not once, but twice, with the brief “Death Rattle” soothingly returning the film to silence.
“The Man with a Harmonica” is one of those few pieces of music in existence that automatically sends chills up your spine. Even as very little happens on screen you can feel the intense, fervent desire for vengeance coursing through Bronson’s veins and the chill, withheld, but nonetheless threatened demeanor of Honda’s cold-blooded killer. The harmonica sputters out an unpleasant melody, setting the stage, and soon the harsh opening theme from “As a Judgment” rolls in. The music spirals out of control as strings, horns, and even distant chanting combine in a cathartic release.
The music in this scene is so effective that numerous composers over the decade have tried to copy it. On YouTube one can find a much-watched video setting the scene to Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage”, an idea that works out surprisingly well. Bruce Springsteen even won a Grammy for his guitar-based rendition of the main theme.
Italian director Sergio Leone understood the power of Morricone’s music; without it “Once Upon a Time in the West” would simply be interminable. The final duel is an excellent microcosm of the pair’s success: virtually nothing happens onscreen, but we’re entertained anyway because of the quality of the music. Surprisingly, the actual soundtrack to “Once Upon a Time in the West” (though an extended version is available) is under forty minutes in length, very low for such a long film. The reason that Morricone’s music is so memorable is its prominence. Long passages of simple shots are perfect for showcasing the wonder of the score. “Once Upon a Time in the West” was made just after “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and clearly bore promise of success. Unfortunately, as with “Once Upon a Time in America”, the pair’s last effort, the movie performed well in Europe but was butchered by the studio before it’s release in America, resulting in low US box-office gross and none of the award recognition Leone and Morricone deserved.
The American landscape in “Once Upon a Time in the West” is scathing and hostile. The characters are cold and vicious. The storyline is desperate and bloody. Morricone’s response, oddly, was to write a main theme that directly contradicts these conditions. The title track is lush and warm, and listening to it feels like snuggling against a pillow. The female soprano (credited merely as “Edda”) lifts the music into the air, and a swaying strings part adds an epic feel. “Jill’s America” and “Finale” add very slight variations to the piece. In the latter Edda’s voice rushes off into the distance as the album draws to a close. The same musical tone is used throughout “A Dimly Lit Room”, a long, eloquent, and gentle love song. It’s the most exquisitely beautiful piece on the soundtrack and also very hard to find elsewhere, and I’d recommend purchasing the whole album just to be able to hear it.
The only track on “Once Upon a Time in the West” that bears any resemblance to the chaotic and whimsical melodies that propelled the “Dollars” trilogy to fame is “Farewell to Cheyenne”, which should have been simply titled “Cheyenne’s Melody”. It consists of little more than a playful whistle part with some fun guitar strumming forming the beat. “As A Judgment” is fitting for the other characters, consisting of two movements: one sharp and resentful and the other tragic and mournful.
Unfortunately, the remaining pieces will annoy the hell out of you. As a soundtrack I understand the need to incorporate this kind of music, but these tracks simply do not merit any sort of listening outside of the movie. “The First Tavern” and the “Second Tavern” are little more than silence, screeching, and occasional, brief repeats of “Farewell to Cheyenne”. “Bad Orchestra” is worse than bad. It’s a nightmarish carnival tune, played at full volume and complete with a bland rhythm and punctuated with loud slides. It’s actually the introductory piece to my “Annoying Music” CD.
“The Man” is the second half of “Judgment to Cheyenne” played slowly with some squeaks. It’s ponderous and boring. And “Death Rattle” accomplishes nothing more than recreating the atmosphere of the movie. Listening to it, you can imagine yourself standing in the scalding heat with Charles Bronson and Claudia Cardinale. However, it sounds like nothing more than what it is: a few irritating, distressing harmonica statements. I understand the inclusion of these forgettable tracks, but that doesn’t change the fact that they lessen the quality of the entire soundtrack.
The chief problem with the “Once Upon a Time in the West” soundtrack is simply that there isn’t that much great music. Excluding the filler background-music tracks, I would put the actual amount at just over 25 minutes. Even then, there are some redundancies. Sure, the title track is tremendous, but “Jill’s America” and “Finale” are virtually the same thing. With those removed, “Once Upon a Time in the West” has five great tracks: “Once Upon a Time in the West”, “As a Judgment”, “Farewell to Cheyenne”, “Man With a Harmonica”, and “A Dimly Lit Room”.
The soundtrack, therefore, is a mixed affair, and its problems actually make the overwhelming success of the movie all the more admirable. Sergio Leone made a masterpiece in “Once Upon a Time in the West” by putting Ennio Morricone
’s magnificent music at the forefront. All 18 minutes of it.