I'm not a big Western fan, and this is the sole Western movie on my list. Not being a fan, a quick glance at a film synopses would certainly make one ponder why this movie makes my list. I mean, the story here is nothing unique. The reason is direction, and Leone proves that superb direction can take a warmed over story and create meaning through music, camera work, and pacing. The score is consistently perfect, the shots are long and mesmerizing. You can really just forget the story. Well, don't really forget it, but pay specific attention to a director directing like a director should direct. Rarely is a film crafted so well that it makes one feel contempt for other directors, but Leone manages to evoke that response here.
But ok, enough about the direction, what about the rest of the movie? Well, it all comes down to the characters. Harmonica(Charles Bronson) and the bandit are both endlessly likeable good-guys-who-aren't-quite-good-guys, and Henry Fonda's icy heart shows through his icy eyes. It is pretty amazing he can go from playing the quintessential good guy in 12 Angry Men to pulling off such an evil part here. I find that the ability to convincingly play varied roles is the hallmark of a great actor, and Henry Fonda obviously demonstrates this ability.
Ironically, the pity in this story falls upon not the wandering loner, or the damsel in distress, but instead the rich business man. This is a world where civility is on the threshold of taking over, and chaos is attempting its last winning move. Oh yea, and there's the chick too. In fact, she's the center of the story. Silly me, I almost forgot seeing as she matters only as plot and never as a character. Leone would continue his career with another "Once Upon A Time," years later, and it would live up to the high standard Leone set with this film.