When it comes to sound there is a single defining movie that cause me to pay attention to what sound editors and foley artists do for a film. I’m going to talk briefly about Once Upon A Time In The West. When we think about sound, we think about the score, dialog and effects working together to evoke a mood, the opening 11 minutes of Once Upon A Time In The West was one of the first films to simply use the ambient sound to evoke a mood.
In the first 11 minutes of Once Upon A Time In The West, there are approximately seven lines of dialog and no score. All the sound is ambient, as three men await a train. This ambient soundscape is multilayered and somehow manages to keeps the viewer engaged, even though they are incredibly mundane – the creak of a weather vane, water dripping on a hat, a man cracking his knuckles. These are the sounds that you very rarely pay attention to as a viewer or are swallowed up in the score. It is a soundtrack of anticipation. By the time the train arrives the audience and the men that have been waiting are on edge. At the 11 minute mark there is a lone harmonica which is simultaneously part of the score and diegetic. Interestingly, there is still not any musical accompaniment to the film until almost 21 minutes in.
Sergio Leone, the director and Ennio Morricone, the composer were long time collaborators and for this film the score was composed before shooting began and according When movies mattered: Reviews from a transformative decade by Dave Kehr Leone would play the music in the background on set. The score of the film is haunting and pays tribute to the Wild West frontier spirit while featuring leitmotifs for all the principal characters. Morricone is probably best known for his theme to another Leone western, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly but the score to this movie may be the more impressive work.
It is easy to use a score to drive a film, but Once Upon A Time In The West lets natural sounds build anticipation and interest. This is also helpful because the film is deliberately paced with fairly long scenes in which it feels like nothing is happening.