The weekend before last, I had the rare and welcome opportunity to attend a theatrical screening of Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST at The Hollywood Theatre in Portland. I'd actually been lucky enough to see it in a cinema once before, while on a trip to Munich, Germany, but it was over twenty years ago, and in the intervening two decades it's become one of my favorite films of all time. Having watched it repeatedly in its various home video incarnations, I've become quite familiar with it, and therefore my mind wandered a bit here and there during the screening (the guy sitting behind me who kept tapping his damn foot through the movie didn't help). When it came to the first scene with Italian actor Gabriele Ferzetti, who plays the scheming railroad tycoon Morton, my thoughts drifted to one of his other big English-language films which was released a year later: ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, the sixth James Bond film. Over the course of the evening, it gradually occurred to me that, other than Ferzetti's mere presence, the two films share a few more things in common, and just for the hell of it, I thought I'd jot them down.
(One of the most obvious things they have in common is that both of them have lengthy titles that begin with the letter O, so from here on out, I'll refer to them as OUATITW and OHMSS respectively for the sake of brevity.)
Let's start with Gabriele Ferzetti's characters in the two films. Both are imperfect men who maintain a veneer of respectability while profiting handsomely from illegal activities. In OUATITW, Morton is a wealthy railroad baron who suffers from "tuberculosis of the bones," which renders him unable to walk without assistance. He travels his railroad in a luxurious rail car specially outfitted with overhead bars that he uses to pull himself upright. In his zeal to complete the construction of his westward-reaching rail line, Morton unwisely employs Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless hired gun whose job it is to "remove small obstacles from the tracks." The largest such obstacle is Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), whose property lies along the proposed line. Morton wants the property, and sends Frank to try and scare McBain into selling out, but Frank, psychopath that he is, murders McBain and his children in cold blood instead. ("People scare better when they're dead," Frank sanguinely observes.)
Another similarity between the two films has to do with the casting of two very important roles. The Bond film and Leone's epic each had several predecessors, and each series of films featured an increasingly popular and recognizable actor in a lead role: Sean Connery in the Bond series and Clint Eastwood in Leone's "Dollars" trilogy of westerns. (While OUATITW can't rightfully be considered part of a series, it was still the latest in a string of Italian westerns directed by Leone and therefore bears some relation to the earlier films.) Audiences undoubtedly expected to see each actor back at the forefront of these latest films, but they were nowhere to be found. Leone wanted Eastwood for the role of Harmonica in OUATITW, but Eastwood turned it down, and it ultimately went to Charles Bronson, who turned in one of his finest performances. Connery had already declared that 1967's YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE would be his last outing as James Bond (although he did return to the role twice more in the future), forcing the producers to recast the role, which they did by hiring the then-unknown Lazenby. In both cases, the absence of the previous films' stars undoubtedly hurt their performance at the box office.
Both films also featured highly lauded music scores by veterans of each series. Every prior Leone western had featured a score by the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and nearly every Bond film to date had been scored by Englishman John Barry. Both men returned to score OUATITW and OHMSS respectively, and they ended up turning in soundtracks that are widely considered to be the finest of each series, if not of their entire careers. While Morricone's idiosyncratic music added immeasurable value to Leone's "Dollars" trilogy, the maestro outdid himself with the magnificent, operatic score for OUATITW. Leone had him compose and record the music before filming had started to it could be played on set; in that sense, it's inextricably entwined with the action on screen. Each character has their own unique theme, and the music personifies each of them beautifully. Barry's score for OHMSS is equally brilliant. The film features one of the very few solely instrumental main title themes in the Bond series, and it's a wonderfully dark, propulsive tune with chugging electric bass, contemporary (for the time) synthesizer flourishes and swirling strings. The rest of the score features some great suspense music, as well as some genuinely romantic compositions to accompany Bond and Tracy's courtship, topped off by the gorgeous ballad, "We Have All the Time in the World," warmly sung by Louis Armstrong. Of course, the song's title reflects the cruel irony of the film's final scene.
Speaking of which, one last thing the two films have in common are whirlwind marriages that are shockingly cut short by an assassin's bullet. OUATITW begins with one such tragedy, which reaches its emotional zenith when Jill McBain arrives at her new husband's ranch to find him and his entire family laid out on the very tables that were intended for their wedding party. OHMSS ends with one, as James Bond's new bride is cut down while they're en route to their honeymoon. While the scene in OUATITW is operatic in scale, full of big emotions, the scene in OHMSS is quietly heartbreaking and barely gives you time to register what has happened before the credits roll. It's also a bleakly ironic counterpoint to the opening scene in which Tracy attempts suicide. Having found a reason to live, she's subsequently murdered. Both scenes are devastating.
I'm sure there are other similarities between ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, but I'll leave them to you to discover. Both films are worth seeing over and over again.