If (and when) aliens come to earth and want to know what cinema is, don’t think twice. Show them Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and if they’re still unclear, tell them to go back to Pandora and think about it.
Every year, Congress selects 25 films on the basis of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance, and inducts them into the U.S. Film Registry where they can be preserved, protected, and defended from the elements. This year, I’m happy to report that, along with several other notable pictures (including The Muppet Movie), Once Upon a Time in the West has been inducted into the U.S. Film Registry for safekeeping.
The decision is hardly a controversial one. As far as I know, humans and aliens alike all seem to agree that Leone’s film remains the definitive spaghetti western, and on that basis alone, induction could be considered mandatory. But years later, Once Upon a Time in the West is more than just the best of its kind. It may be the best of any kind.
Everything that a person can do in cinema, Leone does in Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s a veritable dictionary of film technique. Not sure what a good crane shot looks like? Check out Claudia Cardinale’s entrance into town (and while you’re at it, spend a few bars with Ennio Morricone). Not sure how to contrast close-up and wide-shots? Look at the first scene of the film (above); you’ll get a real sense of characters and their landscape, of intimacy and scope. Not sure how to create tension? Consider one of the film’s many shoot-outs, and observe how Leone makes you wait without wasting your time.
Truly, Once Upon a Time in the West is a film that should come with an index. If that’s not the definition of a classic, what is?