Written by: Michael Den Boer on July 22nd, 2004
Theatrical Release Date: Italy, December 21st, 1968
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati
Cast: Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti
DVD released: November 18th, 2003
Approximate running time: 165 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono French
DVD Release: Paramount Pictures
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $14.98
There were three men in her life. One to take her… one to love her… and one to kill her.
The film opens with one of the longest opening credit that I have seen so far in any movie. Three gun fighters wait for Harmonica (Charles Bronson), at a train station. Morricone’s sound design as they wait is remarkable as the tension builds as water drips on one of the gunfighter’s hat as the windmill creaks away. In an early amusing moment a fly lands on one of the gunfighter’s beard as he tries to blow it away before finally trapping it in his gun. Harmonica starts to play his namesake as the train pulls away as Leone set ups one of his more awkward standoffs three against one that ends in a blaze of bullets. Jill (Claudia Cardinale), shows up in Flagstaff to her secret marriage to Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), a wealthy land owner with big dreams. By time she gets there she walks into a massacre carried out by hired gun Frank (Henry Fonda), he has killed Brett and his three children leaving Jill as sole heir to his property. Frank was hired by railroad tycoon Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti), and when half breed Cheyenne (Jason Robards), is falsely accused of the crime he joins forces with Jill and Harmonica. The rest of the movie both sides maneuver as they try to gain the upper hand over the other which leads to a final showdown between Frank and Harmonica to settle some unfinished business.
Leone after completing ‘The Dollars’ trilogy had grown tired of the western genre and he had come across a book he wanted to make into a film The Hoods. Paramount approached Leone to do another western and he agreed on the condition that he could make his dream project The Hoods which would later become Once Upon a Time in America. Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone had grown apart by the time they made The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, so Leone would have to find another strong silent type to play the lead in Once Upon a Time in The West, enter Charles Bronson. Leone had Morricone compose the films score before any shooting started and Leone would play the music in the background for the actors. Paramount would offer Leone the chance to direct The Godfather after the box office failure of Once Upon a Time in the West. He would pass on the offer instead opting to direct his dream project Once Upon a Time in America.
Through images Leone is able to convey so much in Once Upon a Time in The West and even though the plot is thin Leone keeps things moving and interesting. Once Upon a Time in The West is Leone’s love letter to American westerns it is the most beautifully filmed and masterfully paced films ever made. Leone is most known for staging his action in long drawn-out ritualized set pieces and with this film he really perfected this approach. Beginning with For a Few Dollars More, until his last film Leone employed the dream sequence as another avenue in which to relay more background about the character and info to the audience. Another Leone trademark is close-ups of faces and eyes and in Once Upon a Time in The West his ultra close up of Harmonica as he remembers why he hates Frank so much heightens the mood.
Casting a movie can make or break a movie and Leone with Once Upon a Time in The West assembles an a list cast. Charles Bronson as Harmonica is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s man with no name character, still Bronson makes the part all his own. Casting Henry Fonda as the movie’s villain Frank proved to be excellent choice and imagine the audience’s reaction to seeing this American icon kill and murder children. Jason Robards gets plenty of screen time as Cheyenne a charismatic half-breed who is constantly being caught and rescued. In one of her best performances of her career is Claudia Cardinale as Jill the sympathetic one, who will do whatever she needs to find out how killed her family. Morricone for this film organized the music into leitmotifs one for each of the four leads. Once Upon a Time in The West is one of Morricone’s greatest achievements and The Man with a Harmonica is a haunting piece that stays with you long after the film is over. Once Upon a Time in The West is more like an opera then a film as the music more than anything drives the story. The films final showdown between Frank and Harmonica is one of cinemas most pure and stylized gun fights ever committed to film. Once Upon a Time in The West is Sergio Leone’s most character driven and intimate that is loaded with exquisite photography and outstanding performances from all the cast. Overall Once Upon a Time in The West is truly a landmark that we are likely to never see the likes of such a film ever again.
Once Upon a Time in The West is presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio and has been given the anamorphic treatment. Despite its age there are no blemishes or scratches and flesh tones are naturally rendered. The colors are rich in detail and the Black levels are solid with shadows that are deep. Despite this film being nearly 35 years old this transfer is so clean and clear that you can make out every wrinkle, every pore and every bit of stubble with the greatest of detail.
There are three audio options included on this DVD English 5.1 Surround, English Restored Mono and French Mono. The newly created 5.1 mix is dynamic as it makes good use of the directional sound field and the surrounds usage is never aggressive as the 5.1 remix remains faithful to the original mono mix. Ennio Morricone’s score and sound design has never sounded better with some mild reverb coming from the surrounds. Paramount has given Once Upon a Time in The West a full makeover going over every frame and sound with a microscope.
Paramount for this DVD edition of Once Upon a Time in West has given this classic the red carpet treatment as they have spread a wealth of extras over the two DVD set. Disc one includes an audio commentary track with film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Seldon Hall and directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox. Claudia Cardinale and other members of cast and crew also participate on the audio commentary. Christopher Frayling dominates the audio commentary track that is full of enough anecdotes and trivia to entertain the listener for the duration of this lengthy film. On the second disc is the wealth of the extras is and all of the special features are anamorphic enhanced. There are three documentaries ‘An Opera of Violence’ (28:48), ‘The Wages of Sin’ (19:36) and ‘Something to Do With Death’ (18:16). The documentaries include interviews with Sergio Leone, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, Claudia Cardinale, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, and historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall. These Documentaries like the audio commentary track offer treasure trove of insist into Leone the man and Once Upon a Time in The West, The film. There is also a featurette titled ‘Railroad: Revolutionizing the West’ (6:22) and it is an interesting piece that explores the arrival of the railroads and how they changed the west. Other extras include the films original theatrical trailer and there is also an Easter egg on disc two an additional trailer. That can be found from the Main Menu by highlight Documentaries and then press the left arrow key and the movie title will highlight. Cast and crew Bio’s have been included and finally there are two image galleries ‘Locations Then & Now stills’ (4:28) and ‘Production stills’ (5:17). Both of the galleries play like a short video’s as Morricone’s music accompanies the photos. Paramount’s DVD for Once Upon a Time in The West is a dream come true for Leone fans as we get breathtaking A/V presentation and an abundance of extras at an extremely reasonable price. Overall Once Upon a Time in The West gets a must have DVD release that should be in everyone’s collection.