Enjoying the Scenery: Waiting for the Train (Once Upon a Time in the West)
The year is 1967, and three Italian film aficionados, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Sergio Leone, having spent several months watching and discussing Westerns, are collaborating on a story. Argento will one day be famous for his influence on the Italian giallo genre of slasher films, but his directing career has not yet begun. Bertolucci will go on to achieve enormous critical success, sweeping the Oscars with his 1987 film The Last Emperor, but he has yet to make his mark. Leone has recently released The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the third of the Italian-style horse operas in his “Dollars Trilogy,” already widely known to American audiences and critics as “spaghetti Westerns,” and the story the men are working on is for him.
This story, too, will look to the most quintessentially American film genre for inspiration. Pooling their vastly different creative sensibilities, their shared passion for the art of cinema, and their encyclopedic knowledge of classic Western films, the Italians complete a story treatment. And, in due course, this story will become Leone’s masterpiece: C’era una vota il West (1968), or Once Upon a Time in the West, as it is known in America.
In fact, a more slavishly literal translation of the Italian title would be “There Was Once the West.” Of course, that lacks the idiomatic flair of the American title, but it indicates the film’s depiction of a closing frontier, bustling with the activity of new settlement, encroaching civilization, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Very little time remains for the wandering, just-but-lawless mythic hero to roam this land. The film is a fairy-tale clash of primal good and evil archetypes, as “Once Upon a Time” suggests, but it is also about the end of “The West” as the physical location embodying An Idea about American exceptionalism and rugged individualism; An Idea that will be endlessly discussed, depicted, and reinvested with new meanings by artists and historians alike. “There Was Once the West,” but not anymore.
By the end of the first scene, a great deal about the story and the characters remains obscure, but all of this thematic and genre baggage is in play. Although it does eventually introduce the protagonist, this scene is really more of a prologue than a proper beginning to the story. It is a spectacular exercise in sustained tone, quietly and gradually immersing us in the world of the film for ten hypnotic minutes during which three men wait for a train to arrive. Real life is like this, sitting and waiting for something to happen, but those in-between times are easily forgotten or overlooked when we watch movies where every scene begins as something is happening and ends after that something has happened so that we can move on to the next scene and the next event. The idea that normal life stuff is happening whenever the characters are not on the screen is one of the great illusions of the cinema.
The opening shot is of the inside of a ramshackle door in a dusty, rickety train station as it swings ajar, creaking loudly. An elderly station master is updating the train schedule on a blackboard, chalk squeaking painfully across it as he writes, but the sudden movement prompts him to look up. The camera, in close-up, pans slowly up from the dusty boots of a man who has just entered, up the length of the rifle at his side, past the ammunition on his belt, all the way to his hardened expression and black hat.
Three men have stepped silently inside, each through a different opening, and the old man is immediately uneasy. Aside from the obvious menace of their soundless entrance, they are all well-armed, they do not smile or speak, and they move with a deliberate confidence that shows they are ready for anything. The other two have on black hats, as well. The three have no names, but they are credited as Snaky (Jack Elam), Stony (Woody Strode), and Knuckles (Al Mulock). The station’s other occupant, an Indian woman, tries to walk out the door, but is stopped by Stony and stands nervously against the wall.
Over a minute has passed already, and so far no one has said a word as the camera panned slowly across the room. The station master steps forward and breaks the silence, beginning to order the men around to the front window, but thinks better of it beneath Snaky’s disquieting gaze. He retreats behind the desk and tears off 3 train tickets, holding them out to Snaky, who has also stepped forward. Snaky takes them, but instead of paying, he opens his fingers and lets the paper flutter away in the wind. He reaches out his now empty hand and firmly grasps the station master’s neck, finally allowing himself a cruel half-smile of amusement before marching the old man across the interior and shoving him into a dark side-room or closet, lifting one finger with a threatening “shhh.” Knuckles closes and locks the door, bolts slamming like whip cracks as the screen goes black and the credits announce that this is “A SERGIO LEONE FILM.” Another minute and a half has gone by.
The camera cuts back in on a shot of Stony putting his hat back on his head, then jumps behind him and we see that he is watching the Indian woman leave at a dead run, kicking up dust as she flees into the empty country surrounding the station. The three men move outside and spend the next several minutes idly waiting for the train to arrive. Stony takes off his duster and ties it to his saddle horn on the left side of the station, then strides slowly across the platform to take up his position. The camera follows him from several angles, revealing how truly isolated the station is. The train track stretches off into the distance in both directions, and there is nothing but open country as far as the eye can see.
Next to the platform are a water tower and a rusty windmill, which has been squeaking steadily since the opening frame of the film, but has not appeared until now. The exterior is as weathered and rickety as the interior. Everything creaks and groans at the slightest touch, whether of man or wind. The metal surfaces are rusty, and every surface is dusty. The wood that the small corral and the broad station platform are made of is rough and warped and ill-fitting. The windmill, station house, water tower, and aqueduct that runs between them all appear ready to collapse, or topple in the wind.
Knuckles takes a seat next to the water trough on the left end of the platform, and Stony moves underneath the water tower on the right. Snaky relaxes in a rocking chair in front of the station office. What are these men waiting for? The audience waits patiently with them for the answer to appear, and the camera lingers on each one in turn as the time ticks slowly by. The shots are lengthy, continuing for anywhere from several seconds to nearly a minute, and the camera remains stationary. The credits continue to appear throughout this sequence.
Knuckles drags his hands slowly through the water in the trough and absently stares off into the distance, pausing to crack every joint in his gun hand. Stony, who has removed his hat again, is annoyed by a persistent drip from the water tower landing on his head, and puts his hat back on. Snaky tries to nap, but is annoyed by a tenacious fly. He finally draws his gun and traps the insect inside the barrel with his finger, then holds it up to his ear and smiles contentedly as he shakes it periodically to keep the fly buzzing frantically. In bits and pieces, we get a rough portrait of these characters.
Knuckles, with his unkempt hair and beard and eyes open just a bit too wide, seems to walk a fine line between sanity and insanity, chattering at a caged bird in the station and fidgeting constantly even when he is sitting. Stony is the opposite, a cold killer whose expressions of emotion are visible, but tightly controlled. Every movement is measured, no motion is wasted. Snaky takes pleasure in the pain and distress of others (the station master, the fly), and carries himself with the relaxed ease of a man in charge who is used to being instantly obeyed . . . or else.
Throughout these scenes, the soundtrack is dominated by the noise of the nearly deserted station. The windmill creaks with a steady rhythm (which comes and goes with the wind), and is occasionally joined by the staccato clicking of the telegraph (until the annoyed Snaky rips the wires out of it), the dripping of the leaky water tower, Knuckles’ fingers splashing idly in the trough, etc. At long last, above the irritatingly loud buzzing of the trapped fly, comes the one sound they are there to hear: the shrill scream of the train whistle in the distance. No sooner does this noise become audible, then the camera cuts to a position just under the nose of the approaching train and the distance shriek becomes a roar as the locomotive rolls by overhead.
Back at the station, the three waiting men slowly stir and prepare for action. Stony sips water from the brim of his hat, having collected a puddle from the drip overhead, and loads his rifle. Snaky releases the fly and gets slowly to his feet. Knuckles, already nearly in position, turns to watch the approaching train in extreme close-up, his head dominating half of the frame. The camera moves back inside the station and watches Snaky from behind, through the arch, as he holsters his gun and strides forward across the platform and the locomotive glides in from the left.
The three men are spread evenly from end to end of the short train, waiting and watching for any signs of activity as the engine hisses and puffs. Suddenly, a cargo door slides back. Stony’s head whips around and his hand drops to his gun, but it is only a package being tossed off by the conductor. The men relax, exchange glances, and smile. No one has disembarked, and the train is preparing to leave again. Snaky motions the other men to join him, and they gather at the end of the platform as the train begins to pull out, then turn to leave.
Just as they begin to walk away from the tracks, the haunting wail of a harmonica floats onto the soundtrack. The camera cuts to a position just in front of and above the departing men, with the train pulling away behind them, and they stop and turn slowly just as the final car of the train moves out of the way to reveal a man standing on the other side. As he comes into view, the camera drops down and right, placing him in the center of the frame. He is holding a bag in his right hand and playing the harmonica with his left. He sports a white hat, coat, and pants. Snaky smiles and nods to Stony. This is what they were waiting for. Knuckles adopts a wide gun-fighting stance as his duster blows in the wind, but the other two men seem more relaxed.
As the newcomer finishes his tune, the camera moves between an extreme close-up of his face, a perspective shot of the other men from behind his left shoulder, and a close-up of Snaky. Then, he slowly lowers the harmonica and begins to speak. Learning that the man he is expecting hasn’t come with the other three, he asks whether they’ve brought him a horse. This strikes the other three as funny, and they laugh as Snaky laments, “Looks like we’re shy one horse.” They know he won’t be needing one.
At this point, Harmonica should definitely be concerned, but if he is, there is no indication of it on his face. His expression never changes as he slowly shakes his head and replies, “You brought two too many.” The others’ smiles die, and the tension ratchets up several notches on the soundtrack. Knuckles and Stony are already prepared to draw, and Snaky brings his hands around from behind his back. The camera cuts measuredly back to Harmonica (whose gun hand is still encumbered by a carpetbag, an apparently significant disadvantage) and then returns to Snaky for a single second before his hand flies to his gun.
Just as Snaky’s hand reaches the handle, the camera jumps to a close-up of Harmonica’s right hand, from behind his back. Moving almost too fast to see, he lets go of the carpetbag and has his gun (previously not even visible, but in his hand the whole time) out and firing before the bag hits the ground. He shoots three times in less than a second, flicking the hammer with his left hand. As he is firing, the camera has pulled back to encompass all four men in the shot. Harmonica fires from right to left. Knuckles flies wildly backward, arms flailing, and Snaky leaps back as well, falling heavily flat on his back, but Stony doubles over, clutching his gut.
The camera cuts to a medium shot of Stony as he gets off a single rifle shot, then cuts back to Harmonica as the shot spins him completely around, and once again to a full-length shot from behind Stony as Harmonica falls off the back of the platform and Stony slowly topples onto his back like a falling tower. One final cut goes to an extreme close-up of the center of the spinning windmill, and its persistent creak re-enters the soundtrack. The camera zooms slowly out to encompass it and the nearby water tower, sole witnesses to the carnage below, as the wind whistles across the lonely landscape.
The scene is a masterpiece of genre atmosphere. Arriving at the beginning of the film, this is the Old West showdown at its most iconic. There is as yet no plot and no character background. There is only setting: a fateful crossroads in the midst of the lawless frontier where a man in a white hat and three men in black hats meet for a life-and-death contest of wits and reflexes. There is no one to congratulate the victor or bury the defeated. Moreover, as far as the audience can see, no victor has emerged from the exchange, only a small pile of corpses.
Actually, the scene is not truly over. Harmonica soon regains consciousness, patches his wounded arm, and departs on one of the horses (leaving behind the “two too many”). But Leone lets the silent aftermath of the gun battle hang for a full, deliberate 30 seconds as he slowly pulls back from the squeaky windmill, letting it sink in. By this point, the film has run for 12 long minutes, building up to a shootout that lasts about 3 seconds. The characters we have spent time with during this scene are all dead in a hail of gunfire.
In Sergio Leone’s depiction of the American West, the violence of the frontier is made shocking, both by its devastating suddenness and by the contrast between the lightning-fast shootout and the quiet, deliberate way that Leone has built up to it. The impact of the violence is heightened further by developing and then killing off characters who, in most Westerns, would have been walk-on cannon fodder. Leone’s attention to these details establishes the vast dimensions of the canvas on which he will depict life and death, rise and fall, good and evil, revenge and rebirth, past, present, and future. And it begins with three men at a lonely station, waiting for the train.