A Man Walks Into A Bar: Analyzing the Tavern Scene in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

Archives Default

One of the genre’s most iconic scenes gets an intricate breakdown.

If there is one scene from all of Sergio Leone’s famed westerns – including The Man With No Name Trilogy, Duck, You Sucker!, and Once Upon a Time in the West – that best encapsulates and represents the director’s aesthetic, it is the tavern scene from the latter-listed picture, easily Leone’s most epic cinematic accomplishment.

The scene starts simply enough: Jill (Claudia Cardinale) has hired Sam (Paolo Stoppa) to transport her somewhere via his coach. On their way through picturesque Monument Valley, they stop off at a little roadside tavern for a quick drink. From there starts a 13-and-a-half-minute scene that is not only best representative of Leone’s aesthetic, but also of the quick-paced and rapid-fire style Spaghetti Westerns introduced to the larger genre. The average shot length in the scene is a little over five-seconds, which is incredibly fast not just for westerns but for film in general; Spielberg, typically considered to be a quick cutter, averages slower. The result of this is to leave little room to catch one’s breath or to process the scene; Leone instead makes his viewer experience it, same as his characters, which ensures it will make a stronger, more indelible mark on the memory. It is a scene in which everything – actors, camera shots, suspenseful elements, music, dialogue, storytelling – is functioning in sync and the individual elements are building off of one another to forge a truly masterful moment.

In their latest video, the team over at wolfcrow has released the most thorough analysis of Leone’s tavern scene known to man (or this man, at least). In 22 legitimately-fascinating minutes, Sareesh Sudhakaran breaks down just what elements and techniques Leone employs, how he employs them, and their effects both individually and when they work together. Even if you haven’t seen the film you can still watch and learn from this video: copyright prevents showing the entire scene uninterrupted – only clips and excerpts – so there are no spoilers whatsoever.

If you’ve been following One Perfect Shot for any period of time or Film School Rejects for the last month, you know I hold wolfcrow and Sudhakaran in the highest regard, but this latest video bumped them even higher. It is a must-watch for fans of both the genre and filmic storytelling in general. Everything you need to know about Leone and his particular brand of genius is right here. It’s a commitment, this one, but it is very, very worth your time. Tag it onto the beginning or end of Once Upon a Time in the West for a three-hour masterclass in filmmaking.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist