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Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray Review

Once Upon a Time in the West movie poster Once Upon a Time in the West (C'era una volta il West)

Italian Theatrical Release: December 21, 1968 / US Theatrical Release: May 28, 1969 / Running Time: 165 Minutes (Theatrical Version), 166 Minutes (Restored Version) / Rating: PG-13 (Theatrical Version), Unrated (Restored Version)

Director: Sergio Leone / Writers: Sergio Leone (story & screenplay), Sergio Donati (screenplay), Dario Argento (story), Bernardo Bertolucci (story), Mickey Knox (dialogue)

Cast: Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Henry Fonda (Frank), Jason Robards (Cheyenne), Charles Bronson (Harmonica), Gabriele Ferzetti (Mr. Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Woody Strode (Stony), Jack Elam (Snaky), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Lionel Stander (Barman) / Uncredited: Marco Zuanelli (Wobbles), Simonetta Santaniello (Maureen McBain), Enzo Santaniello (Timmy McBain), Al Mulock (Knuckles), Dino Mele (Young Harmonica), Claudio Mancini (Harmonica's Brother)

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After more than a decade of largely uncredited assistant and second unit directing, Sergio Leone received his first regular director's credit at age 32 on the Italian sword and sandal epic The Colossus of Rhodes (1959). Leone had gotten a taste of that genre two years earlier
when he took the reins on The Last Days of Pompeii from an ill Mario Bonnard. Though both movies also counted Leone among their numerous writers, neither is well-known today and when Colossus made its U.S. DVD debut in 2007, it did so with Warner giving it the banner "Cult Camp Classic" on its cover.

Leone's next major project was 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, his first time directing in the Western genre with which he will forever be associated. An unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1961 samurai film Yojimbo, Fistful launched the film career of Clint Eastwood, then known as the second lead on CBS' long-running Western series "Rawhide." Leone and Eastwood would soon reteam on two more Westerns, each more widely and favorably received than the previous, with the final chapter in the narratively unrelated so-called "Man with No Name" trilogy, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, qualifying as a fairly significant hit along with its iconic Billboard-charting Ennio Morricone theme.

Smiling Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) steps off her train, expecting to be taken to her new family in Sweetwater.

A couple of years later, Leone returned to the "Spaghetti Western", as his Italian-produced, bilingually-shot films were called. Like his Eastwood movies, Once Upon a Time in the West would give leading roles to American actors, whose careers either hadn't quite taken off or were on a downturn common to advancing age.

The film centers on Jill McBain (Italian Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale), a young bride from New Orleans. Just moments before her train arrives in the West, the Irish man and three children she is about to call hers are killed in a surprise attack. We see the ruthless episode and know that an evil blue-eyed man named Frank (Henry Fonda, against type) is behind it. Evidence recovered from the scene, however, places responsibility for the massacre on the bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards), whose gang is known for their orange dusters (long coats). Observing from a close distance with an interest in justice being carried out is a quiet, mysterious man (Charles Bronson) who plays a harmonica and withholds his name.

"Harmonica" and Cheyenne look out for the prostitute-turned-widow and discover the motive for Frank and his boss, crippled railroad tycoon Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), to off the McBains in an effort to claim the family's property, secretly and soon to become extremely valuable.

Sitting atop a moving train, wanted bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) pulls the gun out of his boot, having successfully pulled off the old gun-in-boot trick.

In today's films, there is the tendency to keep things moving at a fast rate. Some of the highest-grossing modern adventures operate at breakneck speed, sometimes finding room for over thirty shots a minute.
Sergio Leone's style here is the exact opposite, holding shots as long as he can and often keeping the physical action to a minimum. It'd be logical to assume this renders Once Upon a Time in the West slow and dull, but that couldn't be further from the truth. In his deliberate, methodical ways, Leone heightens every moment in the film. Small gestures and terse dialogue assume monumental importance, revealing so much about the characters behind them and their unique perspective to the plot. The first twenty minutes are spent establishing characters not long for this world and I wouldn't have it any other way.

You cannot watch this film unaware that it is the work of a master at his creative apex. The craft is evident and extraordinary, delivering sky high suspense and some of cinema's all-time richest atmosphere. Leone's brand of filmmaking is strikingly different from his contemporaries. The works of even the most proficient 1960s directors have not aged as gracefully. To a film fan in 2011, it seems obscene that Sergio Leone never won a major award in his career. His last (and, some would fallibly argue, best) film, 1984's epic Once Upon a Time in America, is the only movie that earned him considerable recognition and even that was from foreign journalists.

A film like West appeals to us for some of the same reasons it didn't win over many of its earliest critics. Its morally ambiguous characters and unflinching tone are echoed in the 21st century's most acclaimed films, but in the 1960s they stood in bold defiance to America's long-upheld traditional Western, the kind with clear, laudable heroism, vast canvases, and a noble spirit. Leone provides something more complex and compelling, and it remains as arresting today, over forty years after its release, as ever.

With sharply-written encounters rather than choral exposition, the characters of Once Upon a Time in the West are as indelible as they come. Has anyone on film inspired as much palpable fear as Frank and Cheyenne do in their introductions? Has anyone else been shrouded in such intriguing mystery as Harmonica? Leone frames these men in extreme close-ups, their taut wrinkles and layers of sweat no defense against us staring into their eyes and souls. The counter to these rugged sharpshooters is the young and beautiful Jill, demonstrating that Leone can write a female character and comfortably place her in his gritty and distinctive Old West without making compromises.

Frank (Henry Fonda), the film's ruthless villain, finds himself an unexpected target in the town of Flagstone.

Teamed as always with the incomparable Ennio Morricone, Leone makes West a supremely effective fusion of picture and sound, displaying unwavering belief in every composition, frame, and musical cue (or, as in the fantastic opening, lack thereof). Yet unlike other directors who strive for technical impact, Leone has a story more than sturdy enough to support and complement it. Leone's unlikely company in story credit here are giallo horror legend Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Oscar-winning epic auteur Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris), each soon to find their respective calling.

Once Upon a Time in the West seems to build upon the Man with No Name Trilogy, rivaling the outstanding finale and handily surpassing its predecessors. Leone's Westerns resemble one another, but without direct repetition or recall. That is critical, because West would otherwise be at a loss to satisfy, its own climactic showdown having just two-thirds the participants of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (something it compensates for by cross-cutting with an emotionally potent scene).

West seems to have re-energized the careers of its cast members, priming Bronson for his signature brand of violent revenge thrillers and Robards for the reliable, respectable work which brought him glory right up to his 2000 death. Already in his early sixties, the accomplished Fonda couldn't quite reclaim superstardom but he stuck around for another dozen years until On Golden Pond became his sweet swan song. Cardinale, the one surviving lead, continues to work regularly in Italian film and television, though not in anything showing up on American radars since "Jesus of Nazareth" and Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982).

Though trivialized like Leone's previous films in initial release, Once Upon a Time in the West has come to be regarded as one of the greatest Westerns ever made, a title few films even compete for these days, the Coens' recent True Grit being a rare and noteworthy exception. If perhaps not as beloved as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, West is still popular enough to sustain a Blu-ray release, even as studios have remained selective and conservative in issuing catalog titles on the format. Paramount recently debuted the film in an impressive single-disc BD.

This haunting, mysterious image of an approaching cowboy appears a few times but doesn't assume meaning until it plays out in full during the film's climax. This glare and a couple of additional Jack Elam expressions are the extent of the Restored Version's unearthed footage.

New for this Blu-ray, Once Upon a Time in the West is presented in an extended restored version. West's is far less dramatic than the jarring 2002 reconstruction done on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. A mere 37 seconds separate the unrated new cut from the "theatrical cut" (rated M in 1969 and PG-13 in 2003), the first 15 of which go to a new opening restoration credit. The rest of the difference is made up in Chapter 2, the unforgettable Flagstone train station opening.
Two short shots of Snaky (played by wild-eyed "guest star" Jack Elam) are added (one of him glancing, the other of him tapping at his gun) and a third (of him nodding his partners in his direction) is extended. That accounts for another 15 seconds. The remaining seven seconds are mostly gained in a subtly extended version of wounded Harmonica's rising and departing from the train station, as he fiddles with his coat a touch more and takes a step to end the scene. Finally, a fraction of a second seems to be picked up in an imperceptible extension of a scene featuring McBain and his daughter.

This has to be the most bizarre alternate cut I've ever seen and it's very odd that Paramount would go through the trouble of producing and advertising it. Though it really doesn't matter, the Blu-ray thankfully lets you choose between both cuts.

The reason I put "theatrical cut" in quotes is because multiple sources indicate that Paramount cut the film down to 140-145 minutes for its original U.S. theatrical release, losing four scenes from the longer international release considered the theatrical cut here (which did apparently premiere in New York). The shorter cut has apparently never been issue on home video, not that there appears to be any demand for it.

Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Mono 2.0 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Video Extras Subtitled
Release Date: May 31, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Eco-Friendly Blue Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($9.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as 2-Disc Special Collector's Edition DVD

VIDEO and AUDIO

Once Upon a Time in the West looks terrific on Blu-ray. There is remarkable detail in the 2.35:1 Techniscope visuals, most evident in Leone's extreme close-ups but noticeable throughout. Climactic scenes offer stunning clarity and an immaculately clean element. In other stretches, we encounter some fine grain in the sky parts of outdoor shots. You needn't consider the film's age to appreciate its picture quality here; it is simply strong on its own merits and a 2011 movie would be equally satisfying looking like this.

The default 5.1 DTS-HD English master audio soundtrack is also about as good as one can hope for. Morricone's harmonica-fueled score is the standout feature, but there is also plenty of great atmosphere coming from all directions without being stretched thin. Typical for Old West outlaws, the dialogue isn't always the most clearly articulated, but it's still plenty crisp and understood. When it's not, there are both standard English and English SDH subtitles, along with French, Spanish, and Portuguese for foreign audiences.

As in the No Name Trilogy, not all the cast members here seem fluent in English; certain lines from 8's Cardinale and the Jack Blackish Marco Zuanelli (playing the belted and suspendered Wobbles) clearly don't match their mouth movements. This is a much less frequent concern than on Leone's earlier movies. In fact, that all of the dialogue had to be rerecorded in post-production is impressively unnoticeable. For purists, a Dolby 2.0 Mono track is also provided.

Accomplished Italian writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci, who shares OUATITW story credit with Sergio Leone and Dario Argento, requires no subtitles in his English featurette remarks. Lone surviving lead Claudia Cardinale recalls making the film in three retrospective featurettes.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The Blu-ray holds onto all of the bonus features from the film's 2-disc Special Collector's Edition DVD released in 2003 and recently discontinued. First up is a rotating door audio commentary, hosted by Lancelot Narayan and featuring separate remarks by directors John Carpenter, John Milius, and Alex Cox, film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, writer Bernardo Bertolucci and actress Claudia Cardinale.
The historians dominate the track with a scholarly and analytical approach that points out the countless allusions to Hollywood Westerns. It's a reasonably involving listen.

The bulk of the video supplements (all but the trailer in standard definition) come in three substantial featurettes, which can easily be thought of (but not played) as one 70-minute documentary. Probably legally required to run under 30 minutes, each part gathers remarks from then-new interviews with the commentary participants and two additional Italian speakers: actors Cardinale and Gabriele Ferzetti, writer Bertolucci, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, historian Frayling, and admiring directors Carpenter, Cox, and Milius. Leone (in a nightgown) and Fonda also appear briefly in archival interviews from the 1980s and '70s in the first piece.

"An Opera of Violence" (28:48) supplies historical context for the film, beginning with its makers and then coming to the leading and "guest star" cast members. "The Wages of Sin" (19:36) moves to production with a discussion of research, location, design, and techniques, primarily from the crew members. "Something to Do with Death" (18:16) assesses the film, with Frayling leading an academic reading and everyone recalling their first viewing and attesting to the film's legacy. These add up to a pretty solid retrospective more informative than exciting.

"Railroad: Revolutionising the West" tackles trains and the film, letting you read along with narration. Locations: Then & Now revisits the film sites of "Once Upon a Time in the West" and photographs, along with progress, one tank-topped tourist. Sergio Leone and Jason Robards draw guns on one another in this Production Gallery photo.

"Railroad: Revolutionising the West" (6:20) is an odd short that transcribes its narration in large chunks at the bottom of the screen. It deals with the transcontinental railroad as it pertains to this film's plot and U.S. history. The analytical content is good, but the presentation is weird (as is the title's British spelling).

"Locations: Then & Now" (4:29) is a short presentation comparing frames from the movie to a modern photo of the real place they were shot. They've done an impressive job of lining them up just right, although split screens may have been more meaningful than the dissolves employed. It also would have been nice to have these sites identified (outdoor scenes were shot in Utah and Arizona).

A Production Gallery (5:15) runs classy character-sorted black & white film stills (including seven from a deleted scene) and production photos in screen-filling 16:9 while excerpts of Morricone's score play.

The long title picks up an ellipsis in the theatrical trailer, the one high-def video bonus feature. The Blu-ray menu's bears a strong resemblance to its cover art.

The extras conclude with the film's original theatrical trailer (2:50), an essential inclusion on any older film and all the better in HD.

This may or may not qualify as an Easter egg, but in digging around the disc's files I was able to find a modern preview for the movie (1:12) of unclear origins, which I couldn't find on the menu.

The underwhelming simple, silent, static menu screen gives a yellow-tinted, wider version of the case artwork. Listings expand upward in appropriate wood panels. Encoded with BD-J, the disc doesn't ever resume playback, but it does support bookmarks on the film, working part of the time.

The disc is housed in a standard slim ecologically-cut Blu-ray case, which is topped by a slipcover that repeats the case artwork at a slightly larger scale and places a sticker over Fonda's crotchal region.

Director Sergio Leone, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, and actor Charles Bronson give us one of the closest and most powerful close-ups in film history with this climactic view of Harmonica's pained eyes.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Once Upon a Time in the West is about as good as cinema gets. Leone's penultimate Western ranks right up there with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as a tremendous achievement that excels in story, character, and technical magnificence. If you find that classic Westerns like High Noon and The Searchers don't do it for you or that you don't enjoy the films of the transitional 1960s as much as more modern fare, give this movie a look and see if it doesn't challenge such viewpoints. It's tough to find anything wrong with this highly engrossing and enduring masterpiece that delivers one landmark sequence after another.

Paramount's Blu-ray delivers a top-notch hi-def presentation of the film. Aside from a restored cut barely worth mentioning, the disc doesn't supply anything new, but what is here remains good, even in standard definition. I highly recommend this package, which can currently be bought for just over $10 on Amazon.

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Reviewed June 17, 2011.



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