I've seen Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West about, oh, a dozen times now, most recently two days before my birthday in the company of nine friends who had never seen it before. Of those nine, five liked it and four were, well, not quite so enamored, likely turned off by its eccentric structure and length.
Anyone who's seen Son of a Seahorse can no doubt attest to that's picture peculiar structure and sense of time, and I'm not being pretentious when I say that our little character comedy was deeply influenced by Leone's film. Indeed, it's one of those films that changed my entire perspective on cinema, changed my conception of what films are and can be. Understand, I'm not saying that it was merely a good or even great film, but that I'm talking about something more galvanic: it fundamentally changed me as a human being, and I can only think of about a dozen or so films that have done that.
And because it's such an important film for me, and because its treatment of time, space, and story structure is something I find consistently astonishing, I sometimes forget that one of the other things that sets it apart from Leone's other westerns is that it is in many ways a feminist film.
This will surprise those who argue that spaghetti westerns are inherently misogynistic: But wait, they say, what about, oh, the aborted half-rape scene with Charles Bronson? What about the skeezy sex scene with Henry Fonda? What about the way she's forced into selling her home, the way in which she's completely dependent on and victimized by these men of violence? Cardinale's character is in many ways a pawn, bandied about and caught in the middle.
The film depicts a world in which women had few options and no power; isn't that, then, the very thing feminism seeks to correct? It registers with great empathy her desperation to stay alive; it shares in her frustrated impotence. The film, through her eyes, shows us what is terrible and frightening about violence. Compare this to Leone's earlier westerns. They might not make the always-named man-with-no-name a hero, but because he is, by dint of his sheer awesome bad-assery, the character to which our sympathies are most aligned, his violence isn't particularly scary.
Compare this with Bronson-- the closest thing to an Eastwood character the film has. The character has two moments of absolute brutality: the aforementioned stripping and almost-rape of Cardinale and the savage torture-- much tsk-tsk'd by Alex Cox in his, er, idiosyncratic spaghetti western book 1,000 Ways To Die-- of the dude in suspenders.
If the Eastwood characters of the Dollars trilogy had committed actions like these, it would have killed our sympathies for the character. He would cease to be a bad-ass and start to be a truly reprehensible monster (a slippery slope that I'm finding to be explored quite interestingly, by-the-by, in the PS3 game God of War III). And that would have killed those films. Not that, to be clear, I need or prefer the lollipop of likability in my protagonists, but because the Dollars films in particular (unlike the more meditative Once Upon a Time) are entertainments, dealing in delightful and exquisite surface pleasures first and substance second.
If Once Upon a Time in the West is more substantial, it's because our sympathies, our point-of-view, are most closely aligned with Cardinale. It's really her film, and we regard the men in it, from Fonda to Bronson, through her eyes; we view their violence through her eyes. Just as the male gaze is often present in films even when there isn't a male present to do the gazing, this female gaze-- terrified, trapped, bristling against her place in life and wanting better-- is present even in scenes, like the family massacre or the torture of the man in suspenders, when Cardinale is nowhere to be seen.
Cardinale's presence in the film is what allows the violence to hit us harder and deeper, and what allows us to experience a kind of emotional journey that Leone's earlier epic cartoons-- no matter how pleasurable and iconic those assured masterpieces are-- just weren't capable of.