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Harmonica: The reward for this man is 5000 dollars, is that right?
Cheyenne: Judas was content for 4970 dollars less.
Harmonica: There were no dollars in them days.
Cheyenne: But sons of bitches? Yeah.
It's remembered for its beautiful cinematography, cracklingly quotable dialogue, and its fascinatingly enigmatic characters. It's also remarkable for its brilliant casting: Charles Bronson as another "man with no name" seeking revenge, Claudia Cardinale as Jill, the young, pretty widow with a past as a prostitute, Jason Robards as the bandit Cheyenne, and Henry Fonda as the villainous Frank, who works for the railroad tycoon Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti).
City Slicker Jill arrives at the town of Flagstone by train just as Bronson's nameless character drifts into town. By chance their paths cross at a roadside establishment. Cheyenne, who has just escaped from his prison escort, dubs Bronson's character "Harmonica." Jill then discovers that her husband and his children have been murdered at their homestead. Frank, the real killer, frames Cheyenne.
Harmonica has a personal vendetta against Frank, so he and Cheyenne fight against Frank and his boss, Mr. Morton. They defend Jill's homestead and discover her late husband's plan to make a fortune.
Ennio Morricone contributed the soundtrack.
- Absolute Cleavage
- Accidental Public Confession: A chilling version occurs at the beginning of the movie. Frank and his men have just finished massacring a family, only to exit the house and find a small boy staring at them.
- Affably Evil: Cheyenne is a bandit, but he's fighting against someone much worse.
- Badass Boast: In Harmonicas establishing scene, when three of Franks men are waiting for him:
Harmonica: "Did you bring a horse for me?"
Frank's Man: "Looks like we are shy one horse."
Harmonica: "You brought two too many."
Cheyenne: That's a crazy story, Harmonica, for two reasons. One, nobody around these parts got the guts to wear those dusters except Cheyenne's men. Two, Cheyenne's men don't get killed.
- Batman Gambit
- Better to Die Than Be Killed: In the flashback, Harmonica is kicked to the ground by his brother, who had Harmonica as a platform as he was being hanged by Frank and his men. Harmonica's brother would rather commit suicide that let his younger brother be responsible for his death. It all goes to show just how horrible Frank is.
- Blue Eyes: Henry Fonda's eyes are given a lot of emphasis. Especially notable as Fonda originally wanted to wear brown contact lenses, as he was playing a villain. Leone told him to take them off.
- But for Me It Was Tuesday: Frank doesn't remember who Harmonica is, although Harmonica isn't keen on reminding him untill the end. On the other hand, when Harmonica starts listing of names, Frank does recognize them as people he previously killed.
- He does recognise Harmonica in the final duel, and Leone has stated that he wished for the final flashback to be a shared experience.
- But Now I Must Go
- Chekhov's Army: The railroad workers.
- City Slicker - Jill at first. She can't even start a fire.
- Be fair, huh? She's alone with the man who she thinks killed her new family. Not at all surprising that her hands are shaking.
- Color Coded for Your Convenience - Frank always wears black. Harmonica always wears white.
- Combat Pragmatist: Harmonica uses concealed weapons to get the drop on others.
- Cuffs Off, Rub Wrists: After Cheyenne cuts him loose aboard Morton's train, Harmonica is seen rubbing his wrists in the background.
- Dead Older Brother
- Deconstruction - This movie definitively deconstructs The Western even more than the Dollars Trilogy did. Sergio Leone filmed much of it in Monument Valley, where the John Ford classics were filmed, and the film bears specific allusions to other films such as Johnny Guitar and Shane. Complete with obvious inclusions of typical western stereotypes being used in a very not-typical manner. It says a lot that Leone intended to use the main cast of his Dollars Trilogy in this movie, just to have them all be killed in the first ten minutes.
- Determined Widow - Jill
- Did Not Get the Girl - Neither hero - Cheyenne nor Harmonica stays with Jill at the end. Cheyenne because he dies and Harmonica because he was never her Love Interest.
- Dragon-in-Chief - Frank
- The Drifter - Harmonica
- Dying Alone - Cheyenne asks Harmonica to look away.
- Fake American - Jill is played by Claudia Cardinale and Morton by Gabriele Ferzetti (both Italian).
- Earn Your Happy Ending - Cheyenne dies, but Frank and his employer are both dead, and Harmonica has avenged his brother. Jill will go on to become a wealthy widow, and a respected and well-loved member of the Sweetwater Railroad town.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Cheyenne draws the line at killing children. He also doesn't kill priests.
- ...Catholic priest, that is.
- False Reassurance:
Morton: Tell me, was it necessary that you kill all of them? I only told you to scare them.
Frank: People scare better when they're dying.
- Flash Back - Used to reveal why Harmonica pursues Frank.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls - Harmonica's brother is hanged from a bell.
- The Gunslinger
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Jill is the most morally sound character in the film.
Cheyenne: You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or for a month - he must have been a happy man.
- Ho Yay: Cheyenne and Harmonica, especially in the tavern during their first meeting.
Cheyenne: You know how to play...but can you shoot? (While idly playing with Harmonica's gun, while gazing at him).
- They even go Riding Into the Sunset together at the end. And then, Cheyenne dies. But Harmonica keeps his body.
- I Have You Now, My Pretty - Subverted, as Jill complies in order to save her life, even pretending to like it. There's also a bizarre scene near the beginning where Harmonica ambushes Jill in a barn, roughs her up a little and rips her dress... Nothing happens, though.
- Harmonica was actually deliberately invoking Male Gaze by tearing her dress and having her hair whipped around a little. There may be assassins just outside, but not even they can avert their eyes from the eyecandy... except for maybe Harmonica. Look at him closely. He's doing this almost surgically and with extreme care.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain - Mr. Morton doesn't do much killing, being a crippled and dying old man. His last dream is to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. He spends his dying moments desperately crawling towards a small, muddy puddle as a substitute for the Pacific.
- Invincible Hero: Averted right from the beginning, as Harmonica, Badass though he unquestionably is, is wounded in the very first fight. From then on it's not inconceivable that he might lose to Frank.
- Kick the Dog - Within the first couple scenes, Frank and his gang kill a family of four including a young child. He gets another one in the "keep your lovin' brother happy" flashback near the end of the film.
- Harmonica pushing Jill around and tearing at her clothes. He doesn't actually hurt her, but still.
- Frank kicking Morton's crutches out from under him.
- Leitmotif: most of the main characters have their own, with Harmonica having the most obvious one.
- Left the Background Music On: Just before Harmonica's entrance, the music changes subtly. Everybody starts looking around, then it is revealed the new tune is being played by a man with a harmonica.
- Loveable Rogue: Cheyenne
- Miss Kitty - Jill
- Murder Is the Best Solution: Morton just wants his opposition bought out or intimidate, but Frank prefers to massacre first and ask questions later.
- Musicalis Interruptus: Cheyenne's theme pauses several times so he can say a line, and starts up again. It even pauses to allow his dead body to drop to the ground.
- No Name Given - The man out for revenge is only ever called Harmonica, as he plays a harmonica everywhere he goes.
- Until the end, that is.
- One-Woman Wail - "Jill's America."
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You - Harmonica
Jill: "You saved his life!"
Harmonica: "I didn't let them kill him, and that's not the same thing."
- Playing Against Type - And how. Henry Fonda plays the villain in this one. Just to clarify: there are villains, villains, and villains. Fonda's character is very much the third one. Fonda had intended to radically change his usual appearance for the film, growing a mustache and beard and wearing brown contact lenses. Leone talked him out of it, as the shock of seeing good old Henry Fonda as a Complete Monster was exactly what he wanted.
- Post Modernism- See Deconstruction or That Other Wiki. French theorist Jean Baudrillard once deemed Once Upon A Time In The West the first postmodern film.
- Pre-Ass-Kicking One-Liner - "When you hear a strange sound, drop to the ground..."
- And referenced in a later shootout:
Jill: "I swear we're gonna hear that strange sound again."
Harmonica: "Right... About... Now."
- Psycho for Hire - Frank
- Quick Draw
- Railroad Baron - Mr. Morton
- The Reveal - Harmonica's motivation.
- When Jill is presented with a ton of lumber and a sign still awaiting a title to be carved into it. She realizes her husband was planning on building an entire town and tells the woodcarver "I said print STATION!"
- Say My Name - "MAUREEN!" It's quite heartbreaking.
- Scenery Porn
- Secret Stab Wound - Gunshot wound, actually.
- Secretly Dying - Due to the above gunshot wound. Throughout the whole of the last scene with Jill, you can tell that there's something wrong with Cheyenne, but he's doing his best to hide it from her. It's only once he leaves that we find out what happened.
- Showdown At High Noon
- Signature Style - This film signals a shift to the second phase of Sergio Leone's style, being slower and more serious than the "Dollars" trilogy.
- Slasher Smile - Frank and some of his men in Harmonica's flashback.
- Son of a Whore - Cheyenne. He still calls her "the finest woman who ever lived".
- Soundtrack Dissonance - Cheyenne's upbeat little motif plays as he dies.
- Spaghetti Western
- Team Dad - Cheyenne to a degree. He goes out of his way to protect Jill and Harmonica. And while he speaks rough of his men, he trusts them.
- Turncoat - Endemic among the bad guys. Frank betrays Morton, and Frank's henchmen betray him.
- Villainy Discretion Shot: Cheyenne killing his prison escort.
- Whammy Bid: The five-thousand-dollar bid.
- What the Hell, Hero? - It seems as though Harmonica is about to rape Jill at one point (pushing her to the ground and ripping her clothes), although he does nothing else to her.
- Later on, Jill seemingly enjoys sleeping with Frank, in spite of her strong contempt for this man who killed her family. However, earlier on, she says to Cheyenne that if he and his men all raped her, she could pick up the pieces and still live, so it's really just a way to stop him from murdering her.
- Would Hurt a Child: One of the earliest evil deeds Frank does is kill a child. He also subjected Harmonica to a horrible torment at a young age, too. Henry Fonda, the actor who played Frank, was initially reluctant to take another a role in a western, having been in so many already and always playing one of the good guys. That is, until director Sergio Leone told him, "Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera pans up to the gunman's face and... it's Henry Fonda." Fonda signed on in a heartbeat.
- If anything, Frank seems to get a special kick out of torturing kids.
- You Killed My Father - Brother, actually.