Sergio Leone, as indicated in such films as Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and A Fistful of Dollars, and as shown in this beautiful video essay by Michael Mirasol, recently posted at Movie Mezzanine, understood a couple of basic things about the human gaze. One was that if you look into another’s face for a long time, really, hold the gaze, really stare deeply, the effect is unsettling. You begin to see things in the face: possibilities, flaws, other faces, perhaps. The gravity of an expression grows, the longer you look at it. A well-placed squint becomes a predictor of future danger. Similarly, a human figure, positioned against a landscape, may in one sense seem dwarfed by it, as the figures in Once Upon a Time in the West seem here, but in another sense become all you notice in the frame. The story you’re watching ultimately comes to hinge on these solitary figures and their relationship to the landscape–which begins to be equated with ther relationship to the universe itself. It’s been said that the grandstanding expressions the American Founding Fathers wear in early portraits come directly from the proud way in which the subjects often carried themselves, which would today seem exaggerated; similarly, the slow strut of a Charles Bronson, a Henry Fonda, a Clint Eastwood, or a Jason Robards in one of Leone’s westerns suggests, when one considers the context Mirasol offers here, a readiness for battle with consuming forces (history, industry, the railroads) which will eventually win out, but which the humans will not give up without a struggle–and in so being, the figures Leone portrays become equivalent with the heroes of Ovid, Homer, and Virgil, timeless icons surrounded by swirling dust.
Watch: A Video Essay on the Truly Iconic Figures in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST