'Once Upon a Time in the West' is a beautifully-constructed and majestic opera of violence. Of course, those words are nothing new when describing Sergio Leone's cinematic masterpiece of Old West mythology brought to an end by capitalist greed. But few words can clearly express the film's magnificence and grandeur, capturing its folkloric scope and ambition, than that very description. I'm sure to meet some disagreements on this, but Leone's previous films, with their plenteous style, gritty realism, and thematic import, were all in anticipation for this lavish epic saga of the rugged, self-enterprising individual versus the wealthy, corporate tycoon. After revolutionizing the genre with his revisionist view of the west, Leone created what is possibly the greatest western ever made.
From a technical and academic standpoint, this elegant tale about the end of the wild west and the death of the legendary figure of the fearless gunslinger is quite simply perfect. From a script by Sergio Donati, which was based on an idea by Leone and soon-to-be celebrated filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, there's not a minute in the entire film that feels wasted or superfluous. Every scene and conversation has its purpose and delivers a great deal of weight to the storyline, which sees a small group of strangers brought together by the brutal murder of the McBain family. The straight forward plot is an ingenious allegory on the railroad as harbinger of modernization and civilization, indicating the closing stages of the mythic frontier as a land of depravity and lawlessness.
Claudia Cardinale is McBain's new bride, Jill, who arrives from New Orleans to discover she's been made a widow and inheritor of her husband's land, a dry arid region with nothing around for miles. She represents the common person trying their luck at staking a claim in the vast, unchartered west. On her first day in Sweetwater, she meets the two men who will significantly affect her life — the leader of an outlaw gang calling himself Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and a nameless stranger known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson). Both Robards and Bronson embody the morally ambiguous, romanticized desperado made popular by Clint Eastwood who discovers a hidden goodness and righteousness when confronted by something undeniably wrong. Here, it's a helpless woman forced to give up her land by a wealthy and powerful industrialist.
The man responsible for the death of Jill's family is a coldblooded killer named Frank (Henry Fonda). He also typifies that aspect of the old west with a six-shooter at his side and incredibly fast at the draw, much like his eventual adversaries, Cheyenne and Harmonica. But the difference is he's aware that the age of the gunslinging outlaw is slowly coming to a close, so he tries his hand at the future of criminal endeavors: a businessman. His would-be mentor is the railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) whose name interestingly has a similar ring to J.P. Morgan. Although Morton continues to be a visionary and idealist — his ultimate aim is to one day reach the Pacific Ocean — the man is so deeply corrupted by his insatiable greed that it's physically deformed him. He introduces the idea of an unchecked capitalist enterprise.
Aided by the gorgeous photography of Tonino Delli Colli, Leone infuses the operatic narrative with a deliberate, dawdling pace which actually examines the mechanics of violence. The film's now famous opening demonstrates this best as three men wait for the arrival of a train transporting a man they were sent to kill. The scene works as a suspenseful buildup, but moreover, the sudden, abrupt outburst of gunfire is a sharp contrast to the west's calm and serene tranquility which preceded it. The nearly fifteen-minute sequence is also homage to another iconic great in the genre, 'High Noon.' In fact, Sergio Leone informs much of 'Once Upon a Time in the West' with many references to other much-loved western classics. In this way, the influential director explores the end of the old west while also celebrating the films which immortalized and mythologized it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount Home Entertainment brings Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc. It's housed in an eco-case with a well-designed slipcover. It also contains both the theatrical and restored versions of the film via seamless branching, which is exclusive to the Blu-ray format, and the difference between the two is less than a minute. At start-up, the disc goes straight to the main menu with a still photograph and music playing in the background.
After last summer's disappointing release of 'The Man with No Name Trilogy,' it's reasonable not to expect much from this Blu-ray edition of 'Once Upon a Time in the West.' Thankfully, Sergio Leone's masterpiece was not touched by the same people who worked on the director's earlier western epic. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) seems likely struck from the most recent restoration effort performed by Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation in 2007. But this is all speculative based on the press release from Paramount, and it will remain as such until confirmation from the studio is received.
Like its predecessor, Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli shot 'Once Upon a Time' on the inexpensive, 2-perf Techniscope, which photographs natively at 2.33:1 but greatly exposes film grain when blown up to a regular 35mm Cinemascope release print. According to information from the foundation, the original camera elements were used for creating new internegatives and interpositives with a finer grain structure. The results are a wonderful and often superb high-def transfer, bringing the genre classic as close as possible back to its original glory.
Most apparent, because of the director's numerous signature close-ups, is the facial complexions of actors. Weathered and sun-burnt, skin tones appear natural and appropriate to the hot climate, revealing excellent, life-like textures, wrinkles and every little bead of sweat traveling down the faces of gunslingers. Definition and resolution are outstanding for a film now reaching half a century old, though there are several scenes with a bit of softness and showing their age. From the beautiful desert landscapes of Monument Valley to the ornate furnishings of Morton's railcar, the video is beautifully detailed with strong delineation.
Contrast can seem a tad too hot in certain spots, even exposing a bit of posterization in a couple sequences, but it remains stable and comfortably bright for the most part, providing a great deal of visibility in the distance. Nicely-saturated primaries and marvelously-vivid earth tones add to the transfer's overall value, hypnotizing viewers with the majestic grandeur of Colli's cinematography. Healthy, accurate black levels and a very fine layer of grain throughout give the image a striking and appreciable cinematic quality, making this the finest presentation of one of the greatest westerns ever made.
The Film Foundation (again, assuming the transfer was sourced from their work, which still seems likely as Paramount did participate in the effort) has also restored the film's soundtrack from the original magnetic audio tracks. The results are also terrific and a splendid joy to listen at home. Although given an option between the original monaural track and a modernized 5.1 version, I opted for the DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound so as to determine the extent of the damage done.
To my surprise, the engineers at Scorsese's organization have done a marvelous job, giving fans a highly entertaining lossless mix they're sure to love. Working mostly from the film's original sound design, the track has been elegantly enhanced to the rear speakers with very subtle ambient effects, employed only when a scene or the narrative requires it. For example, the sequence at the McBain household just before the entire family is gunned down. All sorts of critters can be heard throughout, filling the room with the sounds of desert wildlife. Caught in this mesmerizing moment, the sudden hush of silence is riveting and suspenseful. This creates an immersive soundfield that's wholly engrossing, terrifically adding to the film's overall experience.
The soundtrack is generally a front-heavy mix with precise, intelligible dialogue reproduction and good balance between the channels. The mid-range is consistent and delightfully expansive, rendering an upper frequency response that's sharp and well-detailed. Ennio Morricone's much-loved and celebrated musical score takes great advantage of this, spreading across the entire soundstage with rich clarity and warmth. Possibly most shocking is a robust and effective low end which provides each gunshot and locomotive engine with a great deal of weight and presence. 'Once Upon a Time in the West' sounds utterly fantastic!
Paramount repeats the same assortment of special features seen on the 2003 Collector's Edition DVD.
Celebrated as the finest — if not the greatest — western ever filmed, Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West' is a beautifully rhythmic masterpiece about the introduction of industry and technology signaling the end of the mythic west and the gunslingers of romantic lore. The classic epic stars some of the most memorable performances from Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda and features one of Ennio Morricone's best musical scores. This is Leone at the height of his creativity, a film with perfect poetic movement and balance. This Blu-ray edition brings the movie to life with an excellent A/V presentation and a healthy collection of bonus features. This is a must-own for Leone and genre devotees, the quintessential Italian western that can be enjoyed as both a great action flick and as a piece of film art which can be studied for many decades.