Charles Bronson did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West.
From that opener alone Bronson proves that he will be as much if not more of the commanding hero than Eastwood. Bronson meets and surpasses the quota in that regard, but that's not all there is to a good man with no name. The man with no name is notable here as he's the only one of the principal characters to interact with the other four those being the newly arrived widow of a murdered family with important land holding Jill (Claudia Cardinale), the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), the black hat killer Frank (Henry Fonda) and the underrated railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). As he stands in the middle, making the most pivotal moves perhaps, Harmonica though does not stand as this stoic uninterested hero and goes further with the role by doing so. The relationship that perhaps gets the most screentime is between Harmonica and Cheyenne the bandit, who actually names Harmonica in their first meeting at a trading post after Cheyenne has just escaped, violently, from his captors. Robards and Bronson together is one of the highlights of the film, which has many of those, as they make such strong use out of every single second they have together.
In that initial meeting scene there is an underlying intensity there due to Cheyenne's situation but Bronson and Robards make it a humorous meeting of two similar spirits who just are not aware of their similarity yet. Robards is great by playing with Cheyenne as calm and collected yet quietly frustrated by Harmonica which Bronson is brilliant at with his perfect smirks as he plays Harmonica slightly trolling the bandit while uncovering a bit information he needs. Their relationships grows so naturally in each successive scene, as the two help each help Jill, and a reason that this is convincing is the chemistry between Bronson and Robards. I love the way the two are when they meet again striking up just this understanding that is given this striking warmth, that is never stated even once, the two exude it in again expressing this mutual spirits. The two from then on, every scene they share, have this sort of rhythm to their performances that is such a delight to watch while establishing such genuine camaraderie between the two. They are fun simply to be around such as in the scene where Harmonica essentially explains the land plot in large bit of exposition which never feels dull through their flawless timing with one another.
My favorite moment in that scene being Bronson's encouraging delivery of Harmonica's addition of "They call them millions" as Cheyenne ponders on the money that could be made from the land deal. I could go on and on with those and two, and you know I will a little more. The two just have such an ease that makes their moments so enjoyable such as the little smile Bronson gives towards Robards when Cheyenne is rescuing Harmonica in a most curious fashion, or one of the best moments in the film when the two save Jill's home from a fixed auction by Harmonica turning in Cheyenne for the reward money. Again the two are just pitch perfect with Bronson offering the right smug satisfaction playing purposefully the jerk as he offers Cheyenne up. I have particular affection for Bronson's sardonic delivery of "They didn't have dollars in dem days" when Cheyenne mentions that Judas betrayed Jesus for a lot less money. Everything with those two is pure gold and those scenes belong to both Bronson and Robards. Neither overshadows the other the two just work in such beautiful harmony with one another as they make Harmonica and Cheyenne such an engaging and endearing pair.
Now having great chemistry with his scene partner was actually found in Eastwood's latter two collaborations with Leone as well, but there is more as the character expands beyond even what we saw from Bill, Manco and Blondie. Although Harmonica is a man with no name he is not a man without a purpose or a past. The purpose is found in helping Jill but also found in thwarting Frank's and technically Morton's plans. The pivotal factor in this is Frank which is very interesting. In much of Harmonica's interactions with these three Bronson brings effectively, very effectively, that badass cool but with a humorous bent as though Harmonica doesn't mind having a bit of fun while also saving the day. Bronson pulls that off with such ease but goes further with actually. In that he has that clever smile so often portraying this way Harmonica seems to get under the skin of his opponent Frank by seeming some how beyond the man in that way he seems to laugh whenever he messes with their plans. That is the front that Bronson often shows Harmonica has, which makes him an incredibly appealing hero, but again Bronson offers even more depth to Harmonica by going even further with the role.
Bronson's performance though is incredibly subtle in this regard yet so remarkable. Watching the film again Bronson proves to be so able in such minimalist circumstances given that Harmonica doesn't say too much. When Harmonica first meets Frank face to face again there is a moment, just a moment, before he attains his usual cool where Harmonica's face express a haunted man, an emotional pain that has laid there for some time. This is an idea that he keeps within his work that grants a greater poignancy to Harmonica's quest, that doesn't even quite seem the simple revenge it could be. That is found in a few later instances where Frank asks Harmonica who he is and Harmonica gives a different name every time, the connection between the names being that they are all men Frank has killed. When he says these names there is certain incisive sadness in Bronson's eyes as though Harmonica starring to Frank soul as he says the name as though his path for vengeance extends far past himself. What I love about what Bronson does with this is that he adds a honest vulnerability even while still being a proper badass.
He alludes to that deeper trauma within his intention for Frank right until the final duel where he reveals it fully though silently. Bronson is brilliant in this scene though in his portrayal of this as just before the duel begins completely he has that smirk again with Harmonica happy in getting Frank just where he wants him, but when it is finally time for the act Bronson reveals a change. The scene depicts the flashback of when Frank killed Harmonica's brother, but Bronson also reflects this memory in his performance. The smile is gone as he looks into the void of the past, and Bronson expresses without a word the hole that loss left in Harmonica. This is a great performance by Charles Bronson because he manages to reveal this more emotional undercurrent throughout his work which never for a moment compromises his character. It only amplifies the hero and makes such a stronger impact through it which amplifies the power of the film. There is such poignancy he finds in smallest glance such as in his final scene with Robards. Harmonica doesn't say much in the scene, he doesn't have to Bronson's eyes as he sees Cheyenne's wound says it all and it is heartbreaking. This is outstanding work from Bronson as he manages to take what Eastwood did in those earlier films, which was impressive in itself, and takes it to even greater heights.