The killing of a child still seems to be borderline-taboo in cinema, at least of the commercial kind, and when it does occur it’s usually off-screen. This is nothing new either – in 1936, Alfred Hitchcock got widely criticised for a major sequence in Sabotage when a boy unwittingly carries around a bomb for what seems like ages, only for the bomb to eventually go off and kill the boy. He later said he was wrong to have this happen, but I don’t think the rest of the film would have worked as well if it hadn’t, and kudos to him for having the guts to do it. For me a particularly disturbing child kill is this masterful scene from Once Upon A Time In The West, Sergio Leone’s brilliant 1969 film which some rank even higher than his The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in terms of all-time great westerns. Me, I can never decide between the two, and actually I consider A Fistful Of Dynamite to be just as good, but if you’ve never seen a Leone film and want to get an idea of how brilliant he was, this scene below is a perfect example. It’s a stunning piece of cinema all-round: superly shot, superbly scored, and profoundly upsetting, even though you don’t actually see the child’s body fall.
The setting is just outside the McBain house, and the terror begins when the father sees his wife fall down dead in the distance. He runs to her, and is himself shot, though he takes four hits before finally dying. Their young son runs out and sees what has happened. Then Ennio Morricone’s fantastic The Man With The Harmonica theme starts up – you know, the one with the harmonica bits that seem to get sampled all over the place – and the camera zooms out from the boy’s horrified face before adopting his viewpoint. Out of the sagebushes infront of the house come the killers, emerging like ghosts. One of them takes longer than the others, but appears like he could be the leader. The camera is too far away to show their faces. Several cuts back to the boy show him putting his hand on his heart, knowing he’s about to die, in a particularly upsetting touch. The camera follows the leader in his advances towards the boy until slowly swinging round in front of him to show that….yes…it’s HENRY FONDA!
Now this doesn’t seem shocking now, but to audiences in 1969 it certainly would have been. Fonda was always the good guy in films and was the archetypal, all-American hero. Leone was determined to subvert this, so much so that when Fonda arrived on set with contact lenses disguising his familiar, light-blue eyes, Leone told him to take them off. He wanted those friendly eyes. It made the whole thing more shocking. “What are we gonna do with him now Frank”? asks one of the henchmen. “Now that you’ve called me by name….” replies Frank, and it’s a line he doesn’t need to finish. He slowly pulls out his gun, his face showing more boredom than anything else. It’s obvious he’s done this more than once before, but isn’t too keen on doing it because it’s dull, rather than being a truly despicable act. The piece of music scoring the scene has mostly finished but seems to creepily linger, an especially effective touch from Morricone. The boy seems to accept that he’s going to die, the gun is fired at the audience, and we cut to a train arriving at a station in the next scene.
The whole sequence is fantastic cinema, almost a model in how to heighten a sequence for maximum impact, and a reminder of why Leone was such a master.