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Sound as Storyteller

In 1966, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the last film of the Dollars Trilogy, directed by Sergio Leone, was released. After this trilogy, Leone finished his time as a director of western movies. He planned to direct a gangster film, named Once Upon a Time in America. However, Paramount asked him to make a last western. Leone agreed on the condition of having carte blanche. The basic idea of Leone, along with his collaborators Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, was to use some of the conventions, settings, and stereotypical characters, of the American Western to honor the own American western and to show the change that American society of that time was living. Thus, Once Upon a Time in the West arose, released in 1968.

The final duel of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is very famous for the music of Ennio Morricone (and the well-known quote of Clint Eastwood). On the other side, we have the initial duel of Once Upon a Time in the West without music. The first is the culmination of a treasure hunt; the second, the presentation of the characters in the film. They are two completely different but equally epic and valid duels. Both duels were directed by the same person over a period of two years.

For the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone had, again, with Ennio Morricone’s music, but this time he chose a different treatment. Without music and scant dialogue, he opted for the sound effects as the means to tell the story. Three men arrive at a station, the wooden floor is pretty run down. The wind blows hard. The footsteps sound with much intensity. The wood creaks and the clothes of the three characters move with the wind. We hear that mill we do not see until the end of the scene, with an eerie and hypnotic rhythm. The station employee, with his voice wavering, tells them where they can buy the tickets. Quickly, he realizes that he shouldn’t be there. The bird sings and the rooster clucks. With a few sound effects, Leone has presented the bad guys.

The start of Once Upon a Time in the West is a great example of using sound as storyteller. All sounds have been artificially created in the Foley stage, interpreted by a Foley artist with a clear intention: to present the bad guys. The drop falling in the hat of the black guy, the one who seems the boss fighting with a fly, or the dumbest guy creaking his knucles… Each sound has a planned intensity, a tone, a timbre and a rhythm, there is nothing by chance. At the end of the scene the good guy arrives with his disturbing harmonica. That’s when we hear music and dialogue. The soundtrack is just sound effects during 10 minutes. It’s a scene without music but musical. The scene is so great thanks to the sound. The foley is who tells the story. The sound elements are linked to the action and incorporated in the story. It’s the sound who says that those three characters have come intimidating, to control a place that it doesn’t belong to them.