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"Once Upon a Time in the West" {Blu-ray}
Reviewer:
Wayne Klein
Studio: Paramount
Genre:
Action
Release Date:
5/31/11
Special Features:

Multiple commentary tracks, featurettes, three part documentary, production galleries Rating: PG for violence

Review:

Creating a mythic western with operatic overtones is no easy feat; John Ford and Howard Hawks managed to do so creating a signature style that distinguished their westerns from the average stuff released by the major studios. Leone likewise created a distinctive style that many other European directors imitated (and at least one American director/actor by the name of Clint Eastwood melded in his own unique style combining elements of Leoneís larger-than-life storytelling style with the terse, direct style of Eastwoodís mentor the late great Don Siegel) but no one could match him for his storytelling skills. Sure, they could ape the way he shot his action sequences but in most cases they were just empty action sequences without resonance. ***

Once Upon a Time in the West arrives in a handsome transfer true to the look of the original exhibition (in fact it probably looks better than the original theatrical showing). Shot in Techniscope a format where the frame size is roughly the size of a postage stamp often producing images that lack the richer detail of other formats, this is the best the film has ever looked. Techniscope often had a very rough looking and grainy image so the representation of the film here is pretty accurate to what the film would look like when it was exhibited in theaters back in the day. ***

I didnít see Once Upon a Time in the West until it was shown on TV and then, later, saw it in a revival house when a more complete print was discovered in 1984 (the previous version of the film shown theatrically was cut by Paramount at the time significantly in hopes that the shorter version would do better in theaters and then it was combined as part of a double bill still producing little to no interest at the time). The restored version here runs about 1 minute longer than the version that I recall seeing and that minute doesnít amount to much beyond slightly lengthened scenes. Still, I have to give credit to Paramount for including the longer version and the original version that was at first exhibited in theaters. This isnít the most complete version out there however as there is an Italian print that runs about 4 minutes longer but is completely it isnít in English. With most of the actors dead and gone itís unlikely that we would see that version with redubbed dialogue much as we did with the restored version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly that MGM put out about a decade ago. ***

The plot for those unfamiliar with it is convoluted but simplified to an extreme runs something like this: Frank (Henry Fonda in only his second role as a villain)is hired to wipe out the McBain family so that a greedy train baron named Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti)can snap up all the land that a new railroad is being built on for a song. Frank frames an outlaw on the run named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) for the murders. Frank finds himself being hunted for some unknown reason as well by a mysterious gunman called Harmonica (Charles Bronson). When McBainís new wife Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives staking her claim on the McBain homestead, Frank finds his job complicated particularly when Cheyenne and Harmonica loosely team up to take out Frank and Morton. ***

Fonda is absolutely chilling as Frank and Robards imbues Cheyenne with menace, humor and a bit of the philosopher. Robards remains a delight playing Cheyenne as more of a menacing scoundrel than the sociopath played by Fonda. Originally written with Clint Eastwood in mind the role of Harmonica is nicely played by Bronson who had a persona not unlike Eastwoodís although one could easily imagine Eastwood in the role. Sir Christopher Frayling in his commentary track for the film hits the nail on the head when he comments that of all of Leoneís films this one has the most dream-like quality from the entrance and exits of characters to the way we are dropped into the middle of a story already taking place even to the fact that much of the story and the lives of the characters exist outside of the context of the film itself. The musical motifs are even stronger characters here than in previous Leone movies. All of this contrasts nicely with the gritty, rough look of the film. ---

Image & Sound:

Once Upon a Time in the West has never looked particularly pretty. Itís a gritty film mired in earth tones but having said that the film looks better than it has ever looked. Detail is sharper here than the DVD and, in many respects, the high def format is quite unkind to the film showing the limitations of the Techniscope process. The film canít improve the source material and Paramount has done a terrific job of translating the film to high def home video. Blacks are solid enough although detail will sometimes get a bit murky during darker scenes (again, more of a byproduct of the original source than the transfer).

Special Features:

Almost all of the special features are ported over from the 2003 2 disc DVD edition. Three documentaries appear on the second disc and include interviews with Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Bernardo Bertolucci (who helped come up with the story) and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. Of the three I found An Opera of Violence to be the most enlightening but all three are very good. The featurette Railroad: Revolutionizing The West brings added background as the coming of the railroad is instrumental to the plot of the film. ***

We get commentary from other film directors (including John Carpenter and John Milius)that helps bring added depth to the film. There's also commentary from Leone biographer Christopher Frayling and film historian Dr. Sheldon Hall. I personally felt that the most interesting comments were from the film directors vs. the historians. Regardless of which commentary track you end up listening to all of them are informative. ---

Final Words:

West was one of Leone's most important pictures and has finally been returned to that position with the restoration of the cut footage. The extras and care with which the transfer was handled make this an essential addition to any collection

 

 
 
 
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