Spaghetti Western master Sergio Leone, and his maestro, Ennio Morricone, would employ individual, idiosyncratic musical motifs – quirky themes, linked or not to the movie’s main theme, sometimes little more than recurring sound effects, often played on particular or significant instruments – to help announce a character’s entrance, accompany or comment on his activities and adventures, and/or signal his eventual exit or demise. For Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone gave Charles Bronson’s character not just a musical motif, but an actual musical instrument – a harmonica, that traditional echo of cozy campfire camaraderie, now sounding out notes of a different kind.
Leone’s 1968 masterpiece is an essential, elegant epic of life and death, emotions and economics, concerning, in its bigger picture, the birth of a town, with the coming of the railroad, and the subsequent birth of a nation. The Italian director was a great follower and avid student of American Westerns, of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), and many more classics. But the virtuoso, fearlessly provocative Leone colourfully constructs and conducts his version of the story, his version of the legend.
“Harmonica” is a man with no other name, harbouring a secret – an avenging angel motivated not by the sound of a church organ, but a mouth organ. A man of few words, he would never claim to be a master of his given instrument, but, as anyone who has seen Once Upon a Time … will know, you can say so much with a harmonica, just by breathing into it.
Bronson’s mysterious, menacing but captivating Harmonica is a key participant in one of cinema’s greatest opening sequences – the first shoot-out, with its protracted lead-in, punctuated by bizarrely-amplified and strategically-placed sound effects – and in the equally memorable final showdown, deadly adversaries baked in the sun, statuesque in the stark landscape, as time itself seems to stop to take a breath before the world can turn again. That latter sequence recalls earlier, elaborate, extended duels, in other mythic arenas, from other Leone pictures, like For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), bravura confrontations which boldly deliver the culmination of a story which has already contained at least some degree of deception – sometimes to a significant degree, often with one twisty surprise or another.
Once Upon a Time in the West’s climactic, gladiatorial combat, referring to those previous Leone duels and grandiose set-pieces, has its music as a key component. But Harmonica’s final encounter with chief villain Frank (Henry Fonda) seems even more up close and personal, featuring, as it does, even more extreme and personally intense close-ups. And the musical score (surely the finest of Morricone’s very, very fine work for Leone), and that harmonica, play an even more crucial role, as story, character, performance, camera work, editing, soundtrack, concept and Leone’s legacy meld in a magnificently designed moment of truth, a beat of awful clarity, a pure revelation, that is rare, perhaps even unique, in its cinematic power and ongoing significance.
The series of fractured flashbacks is pieced together, the jigsaw complete, the picture on the front of the box graphic in its despair and in its drama, Harmonica’s secret and past trauma spelled out, to the sound of a loser’s brief but far-reaching lament. And then the survivors move on, forward into American history.
You can say so much with a harmonica, just by …