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HTF REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in the West (Very Highly Recommended!)

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#1 of 276 OFFLINE   Scott Kimball

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Posted November 07 2003 - 06:57 AM

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Once Upon a Time in the West

Studio: Paramount

Year: 1969

Rated: PG-13

Length: 165 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio: DD 5.1 English Re-mix, Restored English Mono & French Mono

English Subtitles

Commentary, 3 documentaries, 1 featurette, galleries, theatrical trailer
Release Date: November 18, 2003

The Film
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Look
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!

The Sound
But first...
... 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.

Special Features
All of the special features are anamorphically enhanced!

Commentary Track
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.

Cast Profiles
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!

“Easter Egg”
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.

Final Thoughts

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!

#2 of 276 OFFLINE   Lewis Besze

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Posted November 07 2003 - 07:21 AM

Oh boy, I must have lived in the cave for the past.I had no idea this coming out right now,and I'm very pleased that it does.This is the most wanted film for me from Paramount,finally!Posted Image
I remmember 2 years ago there were talks that Paramount went to the Leone family to restore this film as all available negatives/prints weren't in good shapes.Turned out that Leone had one in his posession in pristine condition,which hopefully the one being used here.
Thanks for the review,and I can't wait!

#3 of 276 OFFLINE   Dome Vongvises

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Posted November 07 2003 - 07:28 AM

In before the lock.....oops, wrong universe. Posted Image

I saw this for the S&S Challenge, and I'm definitely getting this one. I haven't been this impressed with a film since The Third Man.

Posted Image for the review.

#4 of 276 OFFLINE   Randy A Salas

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Posted November 07 2003 - 07:30 AM

It's so gratifying to see John Carpenter involved in this DVD. He's such a big fan of the film and had lamented in the only interview I did with him that there had never been a worthwhile home-video release of it--until now. Kudos to Paramount for getting him--and the other big-name fans--involved.
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#5 of 276 OFFLINE   Zen Butler

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Posted November 07 2003 - 07:44 AM

Thank you for an awesome review. This is my favorite western ever and one of my favorites of all time. I can't wait.


#6 of 276 OFFLINE   BruceKimmel


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Posted November 07 2003 - 08:25 AM

Lived in a cave indeed, since I (and others) have been writing about this exquisite transfer right here at the HTF for over six weeks. One little correction: The 165 minute running time is NOT the "European cut". That was the original running time here in the US on its initial release. A couple of weeks into the run it was cut by Paramount (think that version ran 140-somthing minutes) and that version was the one commonly available for many years. But, the original US running time is represented on the new DVD. The Italian version (which I have on an import DVD) runs two or three minutes longer - the added time is at the very end of the film - the US credits roll a good minute and a half sooner than the Italian. It's interesting to watch the trailer, which is obviously a Technicolor trailer - I prefer the blue of the skies in the trailer to the blue in the transfer - but it's quite a minor quibble.

#7 of 276 OFFLINE   Ray H

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Posted November 07 2003 - 08:58 AM

I'm considering buying this since it's so cheap and sounds so great, but I haven't seen the movie before. And I rarely buy movies sight unseen Posted Image

I've passed on the chance to watch it on AMC because they only show the pan & scan version, which looked pretty horrible. I know everyone says this is a masterpiece and all, but I've only seen two Leone films before. I thought Once Upon a Time in America was great and I love The Good, The Bad and the Ugly so my question is, what are the chances I won't love this? :b
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#8 of 276 OFFLINE   Jordan_E



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Posted November 07 2003 - 09:09 AM

Ray, I envy you when you see this movie for the first time. It is that good.
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#9 of 276 OFFLINE   oscar_merkx


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Posted November 07 2003 - 09:49 AM

to me this is the dvd release of 2003

Cannot wait to watch this

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#10 of 276 OFFLINE   Andy_MT


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Posted November 07 2003 - 10:16 AM

have to say the ee in that first screen shot does not look "mild and not overly distracting". it's looks very obnoxious.

#11 of 276 OFFLINE   Scott Kimball

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Posted November 07 2003 - 10:24 AM

Don't go by the screenshot to judge the EE. My capture utility automatically sharpens when it resizes. I'm trying to figure out a way to turn off sharpening... or else I'll have to capture at full resolution and downsize manually. The EE is noticeable in places, but the screenshots make it look worse than it is. ... one of the many reasons why I'm often hesitant to use screenshots. Honestly, I didn't scrutinize the screenshots post-capture. I try to set everything to be as automatic as possible so I can post reviews more quickly. -Scott

#12 of 276 OFFLINE   Carlo Medina

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Posted November 07 2003 - 10:45 AM

I was going to say that the first screen cap was reduced and probably had artificial sharpening done to it by the reduction process. Still, I bet there's a little bit of EE there. That's where it would be most obvious (stark light to dark transitions on the borders of the men's clothing). But nothing like what you see on that screencap.

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#13 of 276 OFFLINE   Randy A Salas

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Posted November 07 2003 - 10:45 AM

[quote] Don't go by the screenshot to judge the EE. [quote]
Not to mention that that's a pretty dinky photo to judge edge enhancement in any movie.
Randy A. Salas
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#14 of 276 OFFLINE   Joseph J.D

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Posted November 07 2003 - 11:09 AM

I'll definately pick this one up. This will be a first time viewing for me as well. Sure, I've have my chances to see it before....but who in their right mind would want to watch this on TV with commercials and pan-n-scan? Ugh!

Looking forward to the DVD.Posted Image
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#15 of 276 OFFLINE   Justin W

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Posted November 07 2003 - 11:40 AM

Ray, if you liked Once Upon a Time in America and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, it's almost unfathomable that you wouldn't like this. Buy it! I'm pumped. 10 days.

#16 of 276 OFFLINE   HankM


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Posted November 07 2003 - 11:51 AM

Can't wait to bring this one home. That opening scene is great! Posted Image
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#17 of 276 OFFLINE   dpippel


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Posted November 07 2003 - 12:48 PM

To say that I'm *really* looking forward to this release is an understatement. I'm a huge Leone fan (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly being my favorite western of all time) but have never seen this film. I know - blasphemy. It will be a huge pleasure to experience it for the first time.

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#18 of 276 OFFLINE   Ric Bagoly

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Posted November 07 2003 - 01:22 PM

The "spot" on my shelf is already cleared out...
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#19 of 276 OFFLINE   StevenFC


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Posted November 07 2003 - 05:21 PM

This movie will soon be mine to watch as I please. In it's OAR no less. My life has a lot of things in it that could be better, but every so often I get a little gift like this that helps it all even out.
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#20 of 276 OFFLINE   Roderick Gauci

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Posted November 07 2003 - 11:17 PM

I really hate to rain on anyone’s parade but personally I’m disappointed Paramount didn’t opt for the longer version of the film (which I taped off Italian TV some three years ago and which, incidentally, will be shown again next week) available on the Italian PAL DVD. The IMDB has a list of the differences involved, and which concern more than just the end titles (as Bruce Kimmel has claimed): “Even the original Italian version was heavily edited, obviously for time reasons; though the scenes cut from it were relatively unimportant (Frank getting a shave before the Flagstone auction, Harmonica being beaten by three deputies) they would nonetheless explain numerous things such as Harmonica's scars that are apparent towards the end of the movie but are not present early on.” “The opening scene is several minutes shorter in the current American print, as, according to Christopher Frayling's biography of Leone, Leone's daughters Rafaella and Francesca appear as girls playing near the station - but in my copy of the VHS, no such girls appear.” The last section, and perhaps the most important, I edited because it contained a number of grammatical errors and inaccuracies: “The Italian DVD is an extended version of the movie; Running Time: 171 mins. at 25 frames-per-second, which would make it some 178 mins. at 24 fps – a full 13 mins. longer [and, therefore, not ‘two or three’ as per Mr. Kimmel] than the Theatrical Release Version (which has been utilized for Paramount’s DVD)! The principal differences are the opening sequence, which is much longer (look at Jack Elam’s ‘game’ with the fly), and the closing too (the panoramic shot is complete before the titles C'ERA UNA VOLTA IL WEST appear). Another missing scene, which has disappeared from all the European edits, is in it: after the station scene, Harmonica holds his arm because he has a terrible pain in it, and returns to his horse.” I’ll still be buying the DVD for the solid transfer and awesome supplements BUT we definitely should have had both versions of the film, not to mention the choice of listening to the Italian soundtrack (the script was written in Italian, after all, and doubtless some of the original ‘vision’ will have been lost in the translation)…

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