Once Upon a Time in the West
Length: 165 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio: DD 5.1 English Re-mix, Restored English Mono & French Mono
Commentary, 3 documentaries, 1 featurette, galleries, theatrical trailer
Once Upon a Time in the West is almost unanimously viewed as Sergio Leone’s finest work. It’s a masterpiece, really - a Western Opera. While not without humor, it’s a darker and more epic film than Leone’s Dollars trilogy... and that’s not a complaint.
Once Upon a Time in the West is sometimes called a parody of American westerns, but I think it’s far too reverent to be considered parody. It’s an amalgamation of some of the greatest moments from western cinema, but spun with European sensibilities. The story isn’t new... we saw it before in Johnny Guitar. Many of the scenes are lifted from great films like High Noon, Johnny Guitar, Shane, Pursued, The Searchers... and others. What makes it great is that it references these classics without being enslaved by them. Leone puts his own spin on these things, and calls them his own. The greatness isn’t in the originality, it’s in the delivery.
What we have here is essentially a story of revenge amidst the era of the robber barons and the birth of the railroad in the American West. The pacing is slow even for a Leone film, but that merely gives the actors more time to become their characters, and us more time to to believe in it all.
The film runs 165 minutes (this is the longer European cut), but has only 15 pages of dialog. The characters in this film speak volumes with their eyes and pregnant pauses. There are several long stretches in the film with no dialog whatsoever... and the classic opening sequence runs almost 10 minutes with nary a word. This opening sequence has no music, either. Amplified natural sound, inspired by the works of John Cage, is used rhythmically throughout. It seems a bit odd to break the silence and laugh out loud while Jack Elam takes on a housefly, and Woody Strode gets dripped on.
The casting, against type, of Henry Fonda as one of the most evil men in Western Cinema was genius... and I can’t picture anyone other than Charles Bronson as “Harmonica.” Bronson takes over “the man without a name”, the outsider, that Clint Eastwood played so well in Leone’s westerns before him. Rounding out the cast are Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, and Gabriele Ferzetti.
The slow pacing of this film is one of its virtues. You can’t help but be mesmerized by this film. It is near perfection, and I consider it among the top five movies ever made about the American West.
I’m absolutely delighted by this 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. I could easily be convinced that this film was shot 10 years ago instead of 34. The print is free of blemishes. Colors are warm and well saturated. The picture is bright and high in contrast with excellent shadow detail. The picture is quite sharp... you could count every hair in every beard, if you were so inclined. Leone’s trademark closeups show every wrinkle, every pore on the skin, every bit of stubble. The only downside is that edge enhancement is occasionally visible - but it is mild and not overly distracting. Overall, it’s really outstanding!
... a note on Italian-made films...
Many Italian films through to the 1980’s were shot “MOS,” or, without sound. A microphone or two were usually on the set for recording a wildtrack and for assisting in post-production synching, but the actors were not explicitly recorded on the set. The films of Sergio Leone are no exception - they are all “post-synched” - actors went back and “looped” all of their dialog in post. Further, even Leone’s American Western films usually feature actors and actresses whose native language is not english. Sometimes, actors would speak their lines in italian on the set, and speak english for the dub. Also, Leone didn’t have a command of the english language himself, and often allowed actors to rewrite their dialog on-the-fly. I bring this up for those of you who may not be familiar with Leone’s films, so that you will understand that there is no sync problem in the transfer. It will seem that mouths are occasionally not matching dialog, or that the dialog is out of sync - and sometimes the dialog will have a timbre that doesn’t match the environment. This is in the design of the production and is no fault of the audio mix on the DVD.
Now, having said that, the sound on this DVD is very well presented. There are two english tracks: a remixed Dolby 5.1 surround track, and a restored english mono track. There is also a french mono track. The remixed 5.1 track sounds quite nice, opening up Ennio Morricone’s memorable score across the front soundstage, with some mild reverb in the surrounds. Surrounds provide a subtle ambiance. Frequency response is good, dialog is always clear and centered.
If you choose to go with the restored english mono track, I think you will be pleased with that as well. It has been nicely cleaned up, has a fullness to it, and dialog is always clear.
All of the special features are anamorphically enhanced!
The feature disc contains a commentary track by film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Seldon Hall, plus contributions from directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox - all of whom were influenced by Leone’s work. Also contributing to the commentary track are Claudia Cardinale and other members of cast and crew. Frayling dominates the track and passes on a wealth of knowledge of Leone in general, and this film and its progenitors in particular. Whenever a scene pays homage to an older western movie, Frayling points it out, and speaks of Leone’s own twist on the scene. He knows the trivia behind the scenes as well, telling how scenes were filmed, the shortcuts taken, problems encountered, etc. The commentary serves not only as scholarly discourse, but provides anecdotes and trivia for entertainment value as well.
Three documentaries are found on Disc 2, all are parts of the same whole and could have easily been delivered as a single piece with chapter stops. The documentaries cover Leone’s early career, the genesis of the Spaghetti Western leading up to Once Upon a Time in the West, and the making of Once Upon a Time in the West. The last piece rounds out the discussion with reaction to the film around the world, and perception of the film today. Interviews in the documentaries include: Sergio Leone, Claudia Cardinale, Bernardo Bertolucci, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox, and historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, among others. The documentary breakdown is as follows:
An Opera of Violence (28:48)
The Wages of Sin (19:36)
Something to Do With Death (18:16)
It was nice to see so many people who worked with Leone, or were inspired by him, take part in this documentary 34 years after the film premiered.
Railroad: Revolutionizing the West (06:22)
An unusual piece in its delivery, this short featurette is about the arrival of the railroads in the west, the corrupt atmosphere this often created, and how all this relates to Once Upon a Time in the West. It plays more like a multimedia presentation on a computer than a short documentary - with film clips and still pictures playing in a window. While the narrator speaks, the text of the narration appears below. Occasional cuts to full-screen interviews are seen. While the delivery is unusual, the piece is interesting - though I would have lost interest if it were any longer.
These galleries play as a short video, with music and nice transitions between images. I generally prefer this format over the click-through type of gallery.
Locations Then & Now - Stills Gallery (04:28)
This is an interesting item. We see stills from the film, then we fade to a still shot of the location as it exists today, without the sets and props.
Production - Stills Gallery (5:17)
Images from the shooting of the film.
A typical “Cast Profiles” section... always a nice addition. A nice touch here is when you select an actor, their character’s theme music from the film plays for a few moments.
Original Theatrical Trailer
And... it’s anamorphic!
There is an additional trailer available on Disc 2.
From the Main Menu, highlight “Documentaries.” From there, hit the left arrow key. The movie title will highlight. Select and enjoy.
One of the finest Western movies ever made is treated to one of the best special editions in Paramount’s library. An excellent transfer and engaging special features makes this a “must buy.”
Very Highly Recommended!