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.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is considered Sergio Leone's masterpiece; according to That Other Wiki, it's a prime example of an Epic Western.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.Under Leone's direction, Ennio Morricone composed the soundtrack before the actual filming started.
Once Upon a Time in the West provides examples of the following tropes:
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.
Alas, Poor Villain: Morton had the desperate goal of seeing the blue ocean of the Pacific before he succumbed to his fatal disease, instead dies slowly face down in a mud puddle while he imagines to hear the ocean.
Break the Cutie: Played with. It's straight for four minutes with Jill, in the second last scene, once she realizes that Harmonica will not stay with her, and that she will most likely live as a widow til her death.
. . . then inverted, after Cheyenne gives her some advice that takes a few minutes for her to fully comprehend, and then adhere.
But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Frank doesn't remember who Harmonica is, although Harmonica isn't keen on reminding him until the end. On the other hand, when Frank demands Harmonica's name, Harmonica responds with a list of pseudonyms — which Frank does recognize as the names of other men he's killed. Facial Dialogue shows him finally recognizing Harmonica after the final duel, and Leone has stated that he wished for the final flashback to be a shared experience.
But Now I Must Go: Harmonica and Cheyenne are drifters with no place in a settled town. Cheyenne is also about to bleed to death, unknown to any of the other characters.
City Slicker: Jill at first. She can't even start a fire. Justified Trope since she's alone with the man who she thinks killed her new family — it's not at all surprising that her hands are shaking. She gradually evolves via Character Development.
Combat Pragmatist: Harmonica uses concealed weapons to get the drop on others. Cheyenne and Frank also show few compunctions, striking from hiding, and distracting opponents in order to win out.
Deconstruction: Of the Western in general. A widow gains the support of a gunslinger and a local outlaw with a good heart in order to fend of the corrupt railroad tycoon? Sounds like the plot to half the Westerns of the 1950s. But in this case, the gunslinger doesn't care about the widow and has his own agenda, the widow in question is a former prostitute who isn't above sleeping with the villain to save her own life, and the bandit chief is protecting her largely because she reminds him of his mother. In the end, the gunslinger moves off for his next showdown, there's no romantic conclusion, and the railroad moves on, pushing the West of the film further and further away.
Did Not Get the Girl: No character; Cheyenne, Frank or Harmonica stays with Jill at the end. Cheyenne because he dies, Frank because he dies and there's the little fact that he, ah, killed her family, and Harmonica because he couldn't return her feelings. And since this aspect of the resolution is played largely from Jill's point of view, it's also a case of Did Not Get The Guy.
Dragon-in-Chief: Frank is the focus of the plotline, and has his own agenda, which involves getting Jill to sell the land to him so that he can then sell it to his nominal boss, Mister Morton at a higher price. Toyed with during the later parts of the film, as Morton proves that in his own way, he can be just as dangerous.
Evil Counterpart: While The Man With No Name from the Dollars Trilogy is not present here, Frank is exactly his evil counterpart. The initial idea was to reunite Clint Eastwood and Henry Fonda in a symbolic farewell character's "Man with No Name" that had become world famous for it. Leone saw physical resemblance between the two actors and imagined a parabola facing the villain who represented the father figure, Fonda, with the hero who embodied his son, Eastwood.
Evil Cripple: Mr. Morton, who has tuburculosis of the bones, and has to use crutches to get around.
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.
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.
Ironic Echo: Harmonica places his harmonica between the lips of a moribund Frank, a Call Back to the death of Harmonica's brother, caused by Frank.
Frank, Cheyenne (possibly) and his gang kill a family of four including a young child.
Frank gets another one near the end of the film in the "keep your ever lovin' brother happy" flashback. While Frank does spare the life of young Harmonica, he does it only to experience sadistic glee at seeing the guy witness the murder of his brother..
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, also a Theme Music Power-Up. During the duel between Frank and Harmonica at the end, both their themes overlap.
Leave the Camera Running: Sergio Leone's signature style, the first scene has the characters waiting for a train and runs for almost 15 minutes before the first words are spoken.
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.
Not So Different: Frank and The Man With No Name (from the Dollars Trilogy). Although they play an entirely different role in the story, both are quite similar, both physically and psychologically (even Frank carries a very similar clothing to that of The Man With No Name in the flashback). This has reached the point where some fans have theorized that Frank could be the father of The Man With No Name. Even Sergio Leone imagined a parable in this way (see Evil Counterpart above).
Not-So-Harmless Villain: Mr. Morton, who refuses to be intimidated, convinces Frank's men to betray him, and kills Cheyenne.
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!"
Revenge: Harmonica is driven entirely by his desire for revenge on Frank.
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.
Ship Tease and Ship Sinking: Jill seems to be showing interest in Harmonica and Cheyenne as the film progresses. However, when Jill expresses her interest in Cheyenne he replies that he's not the right man...and neither is Harmonica.
Would Hurt a Child: One of the earliest evil deeds Frank does is kill a child after this sinister except of dialogue —
Goon: (about the boy) What are we gonna do with him, Frank?
Frank: (beat) Well, now that you've called me by name — (shoots the child)
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.