The Big Picture
- Charles Bronson delivers a captivating performance as Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, striking the perfect balance between subtlety and machismo.
- Bronson’s stoic and unrelenting portrayal of Harmonica adds to the mysterious allure of his character.
- The final duel between Harmonica and Frank showcases Bronson’s immense talent and reveals the true intentions behind his revenge.
There might be some debate on whether Once Upon a Time in the West is Sergio Leone‘s finest Western, but there is no doubt that it is in this feature that Charles Bronson delivers the performance of a lifetime. Bronson delivers the perfect balance between subtlety and machismo with his role as Harmonica, an enigmatic cowboy out for vengeance. There is an inexplicable nuance to his performance, heightened only by the mastery of Leone’s direction, and the notes so perfectly composed by Ennio Morricone. While the part was originally intended to be portrayed by Clint Eastwood, casting Bronson was the best move Leone could have made, and the gravitas of his enduring portrayal exemplified the filmmaker’s choice.
Once Upon a Time in the West
- Release Date
- July 4, 1969
- Sergio Leone
- 166 minutes
- Sergio Donati , Sergio Leone , Dario Argento
Charles Bronson Brings His Innate Charisma to ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’
From his first moment onscreen in Once Upon a Time in the West, viewers could already sense that there was something different about Charles Bronson and his characterization of the mysterious man from the Old West. Yes, he had the signature virility he always carried, but there was a certain spirit in the way he approached things here. Once Harmonica arrives in the old town of Flagstone, he is greeted by three goons sent by Henry Fonda‘s monstrous Frank. Harmonica asks if they have brought a horse for him, to which they respond that they are shy one horse. He mercilessly responds “You brought two too many,” and in one fell swoop, he beats them to the punch and kills all three men.
In only the opening sequence, Bronson manages to present glimpses of his character’s past by only uttering a few words. The faux innocence in his initial curiosity combined with his menacing stare already informs us that this is a man on a mission. Harmonica probably got wronged by someone in the past, most likely by the one who sent these unfortunate souls. It is the patented Leone movie trademark to deeply focus on his characters’ faces and features. However, Leone’s brush strokes only do half the job. Bronson and his unforgiving glare complete the effect and get everyone glued to their seats. There is no nonsense to this man’s approach, and the lines on his face dictate that this was a long time coming.
Charles Bronson’s Harmonica Is Stoic and Unrelenting
As the narrative of Once Upon a Time in the West progresses and unfolds, the spectator’s initial guesses about Harmonica slowly become based on truth. He starts to become enveloped in Jill McBain’s (Claudia Cardinale) quest to take Sweetwater, the land she inherited from her husband. Frank, who wants to take the land for himself, has Mr. McBain killed while framing gang leader Cheyenne (Jason Robards) in the process. Harmonica and Cheyenne team up to help Jill, and to discover the truth about the murders. Harmonica, while spying on Frank on a train, is eventually captured and questioned. When Frank asks for Harmonica’s name, the mysterious cowboy only blurts out a bunch of names, who we soon find out are those whom Frank has killed over the years.
The mystique that Harmonica carries from the opening parts of the picture is strengthened by the audience’s yearning to know who he truly is. They get some sort of confirmation here, but there is no final answer. He is as unrelenting as he is mysterious, and the unknown depths from which his actions come are still to be explored. Much like the plot, Bronson’s face shows a blankness, stoically traversing the lines between what is true and what is not. For all everyone knows, he’s just a rogue who might even be on Frank’s side when it comes down to it.
The Modern Spaghetti Western That Re-Imagines Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’
The wildly entertaining certified fresh Western never misses the opportunity to be a completely unique and memorable movie.
When Frank lets Harmonica live to tend to more pressing matters, he is rescued by Cheyenne, and the tides change in the fight for Sweetwater. Jill is forced by Frank to auction the land, while his goons use intimidation to dictate the action in his favor. Harmonica suddenly appears, wins the bid, and gets the property. In the name of money, Frank’s associates turn on him and ambush him in the street, but in a surprising twist of events, are aided by Harmonica. The seeds planted by Bronson and his ambiguous portrayal have baited the audience. The questions keep on coming, which will be answered in the coming events, where the full talent of Charles Bronson is unleashed in spectacular fashion.
The Final Duel in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ Shows Off Bronson’s Immense Talent
After a few choice encounters where all of Frank’s men are killed, Cheyenne heads back to Sweetwater to rest and regain his strength. After seeing the aftermath, Frank does the same and finds out that Harmonica is waiting for him. Harmonica didn’t save Frank in their previous encounter; he just wanted him to die by his own hands. The two begin to duel, and perhaps the greatest sequence in Leone’s filmography begins to take shape. As Morricone’s music once again fills the air, we watch the two men who were at separate times at odds and on the same page, and we ache to know who will come out on top.
One particular sequence shows the patented Leone zoom closing in on Harmonica’s eyes, and the audience is treated to a flashback, revealing his true intentions. Frank killed his brother in front of him, and to add salt to the wound, was asked to keep his loving brother happy by sticking the harmonica to his mouth. Harmonica’s eyes, which were previously unmoving and without a shred of fear, now subtly droop. The visual is powerful and transports both us and his character back to his past. For a brief moment, he is his younger self, and he remembers the painful death of his brother. It is nostalgic and painful, which acts as the trigger for him to finally draw his gun quicker than his opponent. With one perfectly placed bullet, Frank is on the ground, dying of agony. As he suffers through his last moments of life, Harmonica reverts to his old, emotionless self and puts the harmonica in Frank’s mouth, finally revealing who he is.
Harmonica’s Subtle Complexities Let Charles Bronson Shine
All the trouble is done, and the gunslinger drifts off into the sunset. Charles Bronson’s performance as Harmonica is simply a masterclass of acting where less is more, and the simplicity of facial expressions trump dozens of lines of dialogue. In five measly minutes of superb drama, the spectators are treated to a story within a story, where the ultimate payoff is granted, all thanks to the unostentatious performance of a once-in-a-lifetime actor. The iconic gunfight has arguably solidified Bronson as a fine actor, and one that shouldn’t ever be considered one-sided.
Yes, he was amazing in The Great Escape and was possibly even more iconic in the Death Wish series. However, in Once Upon a Time in the West, Charles Bronson was simply an artist who managed to paint masterpieces of discussion through his acting. His face was like a canvas, filled with both melancholy and vindication. Sergio Leone made one of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns of all time when he completed this picture, and most of the credit deservedly goes to his magnificent artistry. Nevertheless, he was successful because of the most potent tool at his disposal: the immense talent of Charles Bronson, subtly portraying a character filled with the determination of a man out for vengeance.
Once Upon a Time in the West is available to rent on Prime Video in the U.S.
RENT ON PRIME