"You know anything about a man goin' around playin' a harmonica?" Jason Robards asks in Once Upon a Time in the West. "He's somebody you'd remember. Instead of talkin', he plays—and when he better play, he talks."
Robards plays Cheyenne, one badass sonofabitch, and he's referring to an unnamed, even badder ass sonofabitch—who, appropriately enough, is played by Charles Bronson. 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West isn't Sergio Leone's most famous film, most likely 'cause it doesn't star Clint Eastwood, but it's a hell of a picture, with all of the tough, melodramatic hallmarks of Leone's great spaghetti westerns, with a style that makes much of his other work look lesser in comparison. But while West also features a great villain (Henry Fonda) and a story by the dream team of Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento, it's being highlighted this week in the Northwest Film Center's Reel Music film festival for an entirely different reason: Ennio Morricone's music.
Also featured is what might be Leone's most famous film, 1966's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which does star Eastwood (along with Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef), and also boasts an amazing score from Morricone.
Which brings us back to that harmonica: In West, Bronson's plaintive harmonica is as much a character as any of the film's flesh-and-blood subjects. Which makes sense, really: It's pretty much impossible to think of a director/composer collaboration more distinctive and natural than that of Leone and Morricone, who made six films together. One can't see Leone's sun-baked images without hearing Morricone's stunning music, and one can't hear Morricone's distinctive scores without thinking of Bronson or Eastwood, squinting their eyes before sending bullets right where they need to go.
Crammed with lost treasure, grim heroes, smokin' hot whores, and the comforting sight of henchmen's bodies tumbling from rooftops, West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly aren't just two of the coolest movies ever made—they're also some of the best examples of exactly how gripping, fun, and impressive film can be when sounds and images perfectly combine.