Out of silence, a lone, distorted electric guitar begins its cry. The air around its wriggling notes swelters. Barroom shutters flutter in the dry wind, a stagecoach zooms out of town so as to escape the imminent confrontation. When the dust clears, two worn men, twenty feet apart, stand frozen. They stare at each other, legs spread, right hands hovering near hips. A harmonica bounces off the guitar, and the tension rises. The street is desolate. First one and then the other reaches for his six-shooter. The guitar screeches. One man falls to the ground, dead.
We've seen this sequence or something like it in hundreds of Westerns ranging from the taut High Noon to Elvis's misbegotten Charro. They all climax with the gunfight that the audience has been screaming for. In the best of them, these blasts release both the actors and the folks in the theater. Starting in the late sixties, Sergio Leone directed a series of smart, barbed Westerns that took on the form's conventions only to tweak them obliquely. Morricone's austere, troubled score is integral to Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone's greatest film; Leone edited and cut the film to this majestic music, rather than the traditional other way around. This theme to the movie doesn't include the electric guitar or the harmonica (you have to go deeper into the film for that), but its orchestra does suggest something majestic and terrifying at the same time.