A Formal Analysis of a Scene From Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

In order to best formally analyze the approximately 2-minute excerpt from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the excerpt must be divided into 3 parts: the opening scene that introduces the viewer to the setting, the woman and the carriage man in the carriage going through the boomtown, and the woman and the carriage man exciting the boom/on the open trail towards Brett McBain’s farm, Sweetwater. These three sequences will be analyzed by focusing on mise-en-scene, camera movement, editing and sound.

     In the first sequence of the scene, there is the presence of peaceful, classical music that creates a semblance of this being a “new land” which is paired with an establishing shot in the form of a pan shot, which directionally moves from left to right which then follows the white horse carriage that creates visual continuity as the next shot is introduced. The composition in the first shot demonstrates through the use of deep space, the location in which the scene occurs. Which, can be deduced that this film is taking place out in the wild west because of the presence of the dust and sandy deserts of the American West. Through mise-en-scene elements such as costumes and props, the viewer can make a distinction between the bustling townsfolk and workers. In the foreground, there’s a townsfolk couple, a man in a brown suit and a lady in a white dress. Their costumes differentiate from that of the workers in the top right corner of the background, who sport more casual costumes and carry shovels. In addition, there is the presence of multiple-passenger horse-drawn carriages with white horses and smaller, simpler carriages with red horses. Afterwards, the white carriage tracked by the camera moves out of the frame, another carriage is brought into the foreground of the scene and runs perpendicular to the previous one, which features the two primary characters of this excerpt. In terms of lighting, this entire sequence has warm, bright lighting that illustrates that the scene takes place during the day.

    In the second sequence, We are introduced to one of the protagonists, a middle-aged woman through close-up shots, as well as two “point-of-view” shots in between the close-up shots. By her costume, it is evident that she is of upper class/wealth and from the city and out of her element in this western boomtown. For her jewels and brighter coloured, immaculate clothing and fine makeup visually make her stand out from the rest of the townsfolk, thus positioning her as an outsider. In addition, Her expressionless face save for eye movements/glances juxtaposed against various shots of the town also demonstrates that this land is unfamiliar to her. It’s as if the viewer is seeing the town through the woman’s eyes. This is also an example of montage & the Kushelov effect, as the shots of her expressionless face and those of the town on their own have different meanings. But together, form a new meaning. The buildings of the boomtown give away that this is an American wild west town, thanks to their rugged, worn wooden look and vintage signage. For, the typographic style of vintage hand-lettered/handpainted signage props dates the town back to the early western colonization period. Moreover, in one of the last shots demonstrating the town in this sequence, there’s also the presence of a 19th century Prairie Schooner (Covered wagon), that was used by pioneers of the American west often around the Oregon Trail. Thus, this piece of the set gives the viewer a clue of the historical context and location this film takes place in. In terms of camera movement, a tilted and shaky point of view shot is used to simulate the rocky movement of the horse and carriage on the rough sands/dirt, by making it appear as if the characters are shaking as the carriage moves on the uneven and bumpy terrain. The sound then transitions from the ending of the musical score to key dialogue, which is exchanged between the two characters in the carriage. This dialogue conveys that the woman is headed to Sweetwater, Brett McBain’s farm. This gives the viewer an indication of where the action is going/the scene will move next. This is an example of continuity editing, which demonstrates the change in speakers, as well as their reactions using a shot-reverse-shot (stitching two related one/single shots together) to form meaning. Back to mise-en-scene, there’s also a visual contrast between the woman and the elderly carriage man. On one hand, the woman is well dressed and clean, while the carriage man is in raggedy clothing, has scruffy facial hair and dirt. One sits up straight with her head held high, the other is partially slouched. One has more of a soft glow and less shadow, while the other has a dark shadow cast across his face. One is younger and wrinkle-free, the other has a creased, wrinkled face that demonstrates the roughness of the American Wild West, his experience and age. This visual contrast further pushes the point that the woman is an outsider and portrays the class and age difference between the two characters. Additionally, the lighting in this sequence foregrounds the primary characters, leaving the background blurry and slightly dark to make a clear distinction between the two. This sequence ends on a crane shot as they ride out of the boomtown in the carriage.

     In the third and final sequence, there’s yet another transition from the close-up shots/shallow space from the previous sequence to deep space in this sequence. This is illustrated by the opening crane shot of the sequence, that compositionally places the two characters in the carriage at the furthest point away from the camera, near the horizon line. In terms of mise-en-scene, there’s an introduction of new lightning with the sun positioned at it’s highest point. This change in lighting conveys a passage in time, as the lighting in the boomtown was darker and there were more cast shadows. In terms of composition, we see the two characters come into focus as the carriage makes its way down the dusty road/trail in the desert. In regards to sound in this sequence, there’s the reintroduction of the music score, however, there’s an absence of dialogue. This sequence also demonstrates the journey they have made from the boomtown towards Sweetwater, as the boomtown is no longer in sight. The closing shots in this sequence is a pan shot that moves directionally from left to right, as the carriage makes it’s way up the road, followed by a cut to a shot of what is presumably Sweetwater/an oil farm.

Works Cited

Leone, Sergio, director. Perf. Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale. Once Upon a Time in the West, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Finanzia San Marco, Rafran Cinematographia, 1968. Online.

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