Judging by the reaction in the theatre, a lot of people were seeing this for the first time. Big clue right up front: when the story credit citing Dario Argenti, Bernardo Bertolucci and Leone comes up, and suddenly there’s a shocked whisper of “Bertolucci? Bertolucci was involved in this . . . this . . . western?” (I wanted to say, "Yeah and two minutes of Woody Strode can kick all of The Conformist's ass, okay?") There were also a lot of gasps of shock, like the Fonda reveal at the beginning; and a lot of laughter. You forget how funny the movie is until you see it in a theatre.
One of the things I noticed this time around is Leone's use of what I think of as camera frame POV. A character can be standing two feet away from someone on-screen, but until he enters the frame, he doesn’t exist and isn’t recognized. The classic Leone use of this is in The Good The Bad and The Ugly where Blondie and Tuco are captured by Union soldiers, and walk around a bush to see the gigantic siege hillside which they were right next to fifteen seconds ago, but never saw because the camera didn’t reveal it. The same thing happens here: almost every time Harmonica is discovered by the camera, he's entering frame from one side to the other in a giant Charles Bronson profile; the moment when Frank’s gun flips into frame and cocks in Harmonica’s face (big gasp from audience); the scene where Jill is looking for the Station model and it suddenly appears entering the audience right frame, and Jill looks up to see Frank holding it.
"Just a man." "An ancient race."
There are a lot of films that can be described as epic, but there are damn few that can be called monumental and live up to the billing. This is one of them. It's a revenge saga, it's an end-of-the-frontier story, it's a three-hour tour of the landscape of four faces, and for all its stately pace and Biblical echoes, there's not a moment wasted. To me there are few moments more monumentally thrilling in cinema than the one where Claudia Cardinale's cute little carriage lopes down a hill and right into John Fucking Ford's Monument Valley. But then to me there are few better movies, period.