|Once Upon a Time in the West|
|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 18 November 2003|
Long considered a masterpiece of Western cinema, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” pays homage to the Western genre in a way that both paints the genre in superb technical detail and capitalizes on its popularity to fashion twists and turns that only Leone could deliver. Many consider this film to be the first post-modernist Western, since it draws so heavily from many John Ford films, including “High Noon” and “The Searchers.” Restored to its original uncut form, cleaned and re-transferred, including an all new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, as well as the restored original mono track, this edition brings the mastery of 36 years ago into stark relief and contrast with what is considered to be today’s art house genre films.
Once upon a time in the west, in a fantastic and famous opening sequence (one that every film student is made to see at least three or four times), we are introduced to Harmonica (Charles Bronson), a dangerous man of few words who has just come into town, his presence accompanied at all times by the harmonica he plays. Coming in on another train into the main area of the town of Flagstone is Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale, one of Italy’s greatest beauties). She is on her way to the area outside of town known as Sweetwater, where her new husband and his children await her arrival. In another famous sequence, before Jill arrives, the entire McBain family is gunned down by a group of rogue men, lead by Frank (Henry Fonda), ruthless enforcer of Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), an Eastern robber baron who is intent on bringing the railroads west at any cost and at high profit to himself.
As Jill is taken to her new home, she stops at a way station, where she meets not only Harmonica, but also Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a recently escaped outlaw with a penchant for flair and fairness. Jill afterwards makes it to Sweetwater, only to find her new husband and his children laid out on tables, dead. Cheyenne drops in and informs her that Morton is most likely behind the killings. Matriarch to a slaughtered family, Jill vows revenge and immediately sets out to keep hold of McBain’s original intentions. Harmonica is going after Frank, for reasons as yet unknown, and when the two meet, Harmonica responds to Frank’s “Who are you?” with the names of various dead men, men whom Frank has killed. What ensues is a typically Leone look at one woman’s determination to keep hold of her land, another man’s search for revenge, and another’s revelation of honesty and principle.
When it was initially released, “Once Upon a Time in the West” was considered to be a middling work, overly long and overly stylized. In an effort to keep the running time down, the studio had removed over 20 minutes of footage, but success was still elusive. Having been made after the “Dollars” trilogy (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” all starring Clint Eastwood), “Once Upon a Time” was considered to be too arty. Restoring the cut 20 minutes actually helped the film, and in some areas of the world it blossomed. Ultimately, this film has been recognized mostly after the fact by critics and fans alike as a masterpiece of the Western genre. Blessed with incredibly talented actors, displaying one of the greatest genre soundtracks of all time – by Ennio Morricone – and featuring not only the flair and attention to painstaking detail that was a hallmark of Leone, but also a simplicity of storytelling that features only 15 pages of dialogue, this is truly one of the greatest Westerns of all time.
The bonus material for this special edition is very up-to-date. Completed in 2003 by an English production company, the documentaries include new interviews with Cardinale, Ferzetti, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli and others. There are two old interviews featuring the late Leone and the late Fonda, who relates the always amusing contact lens story. It is an interesting look at not only a great film, but also at one of the biggest and most important names from cinema in the 20th century. Added are the original trailer, whose film rating will amuse people, a featurette about railroads, a few sparse cast profiles, and two sets of stills, one an intriguing look at the locations both back in 1967 and how they look today. The commentary is very detailed, but due to the great number of people involved, it can seem a bit convoluted. The best bits are from Sir Christopher Frayling, a biographer of Leone, whose comments throughout the special features are the most lucid and well-presented. Nevertheless, this is a refreshing idea from the DVD producers, allowing some great cinematic minds to discuss the film in commentary form in a bit of posthumous tribute to Leone.
Having seen the laserdisc version of the recut film in 1995, it is amazing how much improvement was done for this release. The transfer has been cleaned and retouched so that, 1960s film stock aside, the film doesn’t look anywhere near 36 years old. The color saturation is the biggest surprise, as many of the formerly muted colors burst forth with renewed enthusiasm, creating the original desired contrast between Sweetwater, the railroad and the town of Flagstone. A special treat is the creation and addition of a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital mix. As sound and music play explicitly large roles in the film, the reintegration and separation of the sound elements is done skillfully and effectively here. The original mono track has been remastered as well, giving new life to what had been a very tinny-sounding dialogue track. Of course, now that we are so spoiled with superior sounds these days, there is no need to listen to the mono track, except for nostalgic purposes or on the chance that you only have a television speaker putting out sound.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” is a film not only for Western buffs but also for film connoisseurs and anyone who really appreciates well-timed one-liners. Correctly utilizing all the talent he had around, including his own, Sergio Leone produced a true masterpiece of cinema that is brought to new life with this special edition DVD.