There are certainly no arguments or doubts about this being a classic Ennio Morricone score. It’s popularity has extended far beyond the actual life of the movie that it was written for and it has become an iconic and key work within Morricone’s career. It also holds the same status within the genre of the spaghetti western film and score.
I remember seeing the movie for the first time when I was in my teens, The picture itself did not make much sense to me at the time – especially as the British distributors had decided to take a pair of scissors to it. I did however notice the excellent score by Maestro Morricone, who I had already come to know via his scores for the ‘Dollar trilogy’, The Big Gundown etc. It was also with this movie and its score that I began to realise just how important music was to the Spaghetti western genre, especially when the music was by Morricone and the man behind the camera was Sergio Leone. I started to appreciate and enjoy the way in which Spaghetti westerns were scored because of this partnership, soon realising that sometimes the music for these sage brush sagas came before any images were filmed. In other words, the director would shoot his footage to the score rather than the other way round, as had been the practise in Hollywood for years.
The soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in the West is basically a collection of themes that accompany the principal characters of the film. The central theme – and foundation of the score – is ‘Jill’s Theme’, which is an emotive, poignant, highly romantic and operatic work. Morricone certainly utilises the incredible vocal talents of Edda Dell Orso to the maximum in order to achieve the utmost impact. Variations of ‘Jill’s Theme’ are used throughout the score, but I am of the opinion that the most powerful instance is the scene at the railway station: Claudia Cardinale arrives in town hoping to meet her new husband and his family, but is left standing at the station. As the camera moves slowly up the outside of the building, Morricone’s beautiful, haunting tone poem builds till the camera reaches the top of the building and reveals the bustling town. As this happens, Edda’s wordless vocal is heard over the soundtrack; surely this is one of -if not the – most effective use of film music.
The other themes include a clip-clopping, somewhat awkward sounding and comical composition entitled ‘Cheyenne’ (or ‘Addio Cheyenne’). This contains banjo and a solo whistle for the Jason Robards character, and is also heard in various guises throughout the score. The harmonica theme – for the somewhat mysterious stranger portrayed by Charles Bronson – features a wailing harmonica, which also haunts other characters throughout the movie. ‘Frank’s theme’ is another powerful composition where Morricone effectively uses a fuzzy electric guitar, and it is the combination of both Frank and Harmonica’s themes that combine to create ‘The Man with the Harmonica’ composition, heard in its full glory during the final showdown between the two characters.
This version of the soundtrack is the definitive edition and contains 27 tracks – 7 more than any other edition of this score. The sound quality is stunning, and the presentation of the compact disc is extremely well done by GDM:a gatefold case with a 12 page booklet that’s crammed with colourful stills from the movie. Overall, this is certainly the best version of a highly recommended score.