Once upon a time, Judge Gordon Sullivan was a hired killer for a garden miniature railroad.
Our review of Once Upon A Time In The West, published December 9th, 2003, is also available.
"People scare better when they're dying."—Frank
Before Once Upon a Time in the West arrived for review, I just happened to be checking out IMDb's Top 250. I was surprised to find OUATITW on the list at No. 20, with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as the only Western higher on the list (at No. 4). I certainly don't begrudge the film its place on the list, but that does put it higher in viewers' esteem than Stagecoach , The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, or Unforgiven. On any given day, I would personally rather watch any of those films than Once Upon a Time in the West, but re-watching the film for this review made me realize just how appropriate the film's high standing is. Even if I may not always want to get into an almost-three-hour film, Once Upon a Time in the West seems to reflect, borrow, or preempt every other Western, so large is its scope and feel. That sense of scale is only aided by this fantastic Blu-ray release, which ups the ante on the previously beautiful DVD release from 2003 by including all those extras with improved picture and sound for this brilliant feature.
Facts of the Case
Once Upon a Time in the West is the story of three men and one woman:
• Frank (Henry Fonda, Young Mr. Lincoln) is a hired killer for the railroads. He clears the landowners off so that the track can be laid. Near the film's opening, he kills Mr. McBain and his three children.
• Mrs. McBain (Claudia Cardinale, The Leopard) is newly married to Mr. McBain. As the film opens, she is riding out to his homestead, Sweetwater. With her husband killed by Frank, Mrs. McBain desires revenge.
• Harmonica (Charles Bronson, Death Wish) is a quiet gunslinger with an axe to grind concerning Frank. He decides to help Mrs. McBain exact her revenge.
• Cheyenne (Jason Robards, Magnolia) is a bandit, and the one Frank frames for his murder of the McBain family. He too decides to aid Mrs. McBain in her quest for vengeance.
In the real world, distillation is a process that typically refines a substance, with the result being a smaller amount of purer material than one started with. The magic of Sergio Leone's cinema is that he seems to distill the Western, but instead of ending up with something smaller and purer, he gives us a film that takes the raw materials of the Western and blows them up to a size that's almost painful in its grandiosity—and yet Leone is in such firm command of his cinematic materials that it can't help but work. Take, for instance, the film's opening sequence. On paper, its job is to present the titles and introduce to one of our three main characters (Harmonica). Three bad guys show up at a train depot, a train appears, Harmonica gets off, and a very short shootout ensues. It's a 3-minute scene in every other Western ever filmed, as throwaway characters are dispatched to show the quickness of the hero. Not in Once Upon a Time in the West; here the scene clocks in at around 12 minutes, with multiple angles of weathered faces and the details of the train station. It simultaneously feels both too long, and just right, like Leone is so in control that he can let a scene like this go off the rails a bit just to prove he can.
That introductory scene also highlights one of Leone less remarked-upon attributes; his films, for all their male bravado and violence, are often quite funny. The way Leone languidly lets his first scene play out shows he's not above a bit of a wink towards the audience. That kind of self-reference and lighthearted humor continues through much of the film, and is especially evident in the interaction of Cheyenne and Harmonica.
It took a couple of decades after the film's premiere in 1968, but Once Upon a Time in the West has reached a solid place of critical admiration, and that's reflected in this superb Blu-ray release. To start off with, the 2.35:1 AVC-encoded transfer is a marvel. The print it was taken from is in amazing shape, and this transfer is simply brimming with detail. Hard-worn faces become roadmaps, and the smoothness of the leather in gun holsters simply jumps out of the frame. Color accuracy, favoring the browns and tans of the desert landscape, is strong, though a bit red at times. Grain is perfectly handled, and black levels are deep and rich.
Fans are given the opportunity to appreciate Once Upon a Time in a new DTS-HD 5.1 track or the film's original mono. The new DTS-HD track is superb, with impressive clarity in everything from ringing ricochets to whispered dialogue. Ennio Morricone's excellent score has a little more room to expand with this mix as well. There's not a lot directionality to the mix, but for the film's age, this is a wonderful way to hear it. Again, purists will appreciate the 1.0 mono track that recreates the film's original presentation.
This Blu-ray features two cuts of the film: the theatrical and a "restored" version that includes a few extra moments.
Extras are stunning, though all ported over from the 2003 DVD. They start with a multi-person commentary. Leone scholar Sir Christopher Frayling dishes on the film's history, its production, and reception. He has a tendency to describe the film a bit too much, which may be necessary occasionally with a film as opaque as this one, but some fans might find it frustrating. Then there are the appreciative comments of three radically different directors: John Carpenter, Alex Cox, and John Milius. Then there's more background from historian Sheldon Hall, as well as personal reminisces from Claudia Cardinale. This commentary is followed by a trio of documentaries that focus on Leone's early life in film, the making of Once Upon a Time in the West, as well as more general information about the film and its score. There is also a short featurette that looks at the impact of railroads on American life. Then we're treated to some stills galleries with location pictures (then and now), and production stills (set to some of the film's score). The film's trailer is also included (in HD, no less).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I said earlier, Once Upon a Time in the West is not a film I would reach for on a random day. One must prepare oneself for a two-hour-and-forty-minute film that's paced as languidly as this one. The film can feel slow, and unfolds almost as if in real time. To those raised on filled-to-the-brim contemporary action films, Once Upon a Time in the West might feel like slow torture.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly may be Leone's most popular film, and his masterpiece. If that's the case, then Once Upon a Time in the West is a very close second (and I can imagine the two movies in a Mexican standoff, probably with A Fistful of Dollars, for the title of best Sergio Leone film). This Blu-ray gives the Once Upon a Time the kind of release a film of this stature deserves: a beautiful restoration of picture and sound coupled with informative extras. Considering how important the look of a film is to a Leone picture, this Blu-ray is easy to recommend for an upgrade.
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