Each character is introduced to the accompaniment of his or her own musical theme, memorably composed by Ennio Morricone. The mood of these themes range from playful (for Cheyenne) to bold and abrupt (Frank) to sweetly old-fashioned (Jill) to eerily disturbing (Harmonica). The last theme--an almost off-key four-note piece--is often played by Bronson's character on the harmonica he wears around his neck.
The only subpar performance is from Cardinale, who is also burndened with the least interesting character. Nevertheless, Jill is the strongest female character in any Leone Western and central to the film’s theme. Unlike the male characters, Jill is willing and able to adapt to the “New West.” Frank wants to become a businessman, for example, but he can’t change his violent ways.
Once Upon a Time in the West features one of the best openings of any Western: the aforementioned fourteen-minute sequence in which three gunfighters arrive at a train station to kill Harmonica after he unboards. They walk around the empty town and then wait and wait--and we wait with them as the credits appear slowly across on the screen. After thirteen minutes, the trains finally arrives, but Harmonica is nowhere in sight. As the train pulls out of the station and the gunfighters turn to leave, they hear Harmonica play his eerie tune. They turn around and he becomes visible on the other side of the tracks as the train rolls out of view. That leads to the following exchange:
Harmonica: "Did you bring a horse for me?"
Head Gunfighter (laughing): "Looks like we're shy one horse."
Harmonica (shaking his head): "You brought two too many."
In a flash, guns are blazing and four bodies hit the ground in a matter of seconds. It's a textbook example of how a filmmaker can manipulate his audience's perception of time and space--and it's also an incredible way to start a movie.