FILM / Director's cut: Maggie Greenwald on a moment of tension in Once Upon a Time in the West

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The Independent Culture
IN THE opening sequence of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, three gunmen, played by Jack Elam, Woody Strode and an Italian whose name I don't remember, are waiting in the train station for the mysterious stranger, who will be played by Charles Bronson, to arrive. They're very ominous: we know they're gunfighters, we know trouble's coming, though we don't know what it's going to be. The train arrives, and the mysterious stranger's appearance is heralded with the sound of the famous harmonica.

Then one of my favourite exchanges precedes the gunfight, about there not being enough horses. Charles Bronson says something like 'There are four men and three horses,' and Jack Elam says 'We have just the horses we need.' Charles Bronson says, 'No, you've brought two too many.' And then the gunfight starts.

I like the combination of humour with deadly seriousness. And it's cinematically spectacular - shot in extreme close-ups, with lots of odd angles. I've never seen sets like those. They were really stylised, with a very gritty feeling and an enormous amount of texture. It was shot in Spain, with a dry terrain and a harsh desert light. I love the way Leone would use a single object to say so much, like the windmill, or the Morse telegraph machine.

It also awakened in me an awareness of sound - the creakings, the fly buzzing, the water dripping, the windmill turning. Today we're accustomed to a very exaggerated film sound being used that way, but in the early Seventies it was unique.

And there's the stretching of time: I've always been riveted and fascinated while watching the water dripping on the man's hat, the fly buzzing on Jack Elam's nose. Leone uses very tiny, insignificant things to create a perfect sequence in terms of drama, cinema, sound and story.

Maggie Greenwald directed 'The Kill- Off'. Her western, 'The Ballad of Little Jo', now plays at the Metro. 'Once Upon a Time in the West' plays at the NFT on 1 and 3 Apr. Details: 071-928 3232.