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Once Upon A Time In The West
Reviewed by: Wayne Klein
Genre: Western
Video: 2.35:1 Widescreen anamorphic
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English 1.0 Mono, French Mono
Languages: English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Length: 165 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Release Date: 11/18/03
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Commentary: Directors John Carpenter, Alex Cox and John Milius; Sheldon Hall and Christopher Frayling
Documentaries: An Opera of Violence; The Wages of Sin; Something To Do With Death
Featurettes: 1
Filmography/Biography: Cast Profiles
Interviews: Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Bernardo Bertolucci and Tonino Delli Colli
Trailers/TV Spots: Theatrical Trailer
Alternate/Deleted Scenes: None
Music Video: None
Other: Production Gallery
Cast and Crew: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Lionel Standler, Frank Wolff, Keenan Wynn, Paolo Stoppa
Written By: Sergio Donati, Mickey Knox (English dialog)
Produced By: Fulvio Morsella
Directed By: Sergio Leone
Music: Ennio Morricone
The Review:

Told like some mythic western fairy tale, Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West may be his best film. It's outrageous and darker than an John Ford western. Leone's trademark sweeping camera moves and larger than life moments are all here. What makes West so memorable is the way it plays with the western genre, the myths perpetrated by cinema and the more self consciously arty European cinema (in contrast to the narrative pulp driven American cinema). It's also as simple as this; Leone fills the screen with images as epic as anything written by Homer.

The plot itself isn't as important as the way its told. In the hands of a more conventional director, West could have still been a very good western but it would have lacked the central element of all Leone's films--the element of satire that brims beneath the surface of his films. There was also a sense of irony at work in all Leone's westerns that helped to breathe new life into a moribound film genre.

Harmonica (Charles Bronson)is on the trail of Frank a ruthless sociopath and killer. We're never clued into why but Frank, despite his brutal nature, is clearly concerned about Harmonica; he sends three of his best men (two of them are played by Ford regulars Jack Elam and Woody Strode in a brilliant nearly wordless opening sequence) to meet him at the train station and kill him. Harmonica's nickname proves to be a misnomer; he plays a series of long, mournful notes almost like a bizarre funeral march as a prelude to killing all three.

Shortly after meeting Harmonica, we see just how ruthless and deadly Frank can be. He quietly attacks the McBain family who are preparing a feast to welcome their father Brett's new bride. In a brilliantly shot sequence (almost as stunning as the opening sequence), Frank and the members of his gang gun down the family. We see Frank for the first time and we're stunned as we recognize the blue eyes of Henry Fonda.

Shortly after the murders, McBain's new bride arrives (Claudia Cardinale) in town. When she isn't greeted at the station by McBain or eldest son, she hires a driver to take her to her new home. She arrives just as the funeral is commencing for the family on the very day the McBain family was to celebrate her arrival and the marriage. The murder is blamed on Cheyenne (Jason Robards) an escaped convict and his gang of men. Cheyenne wants to get to the bottom of who murdered the McBains almost as much as his bride. It seems the town has formed a posse and they're pursuing Cheyenne. While Cheyenne doesn't shy away from admitting he's murdered men before, he is offended that someone would think he would kill children.

There are mysteries throughout this fine film; who is Frank and why has he murdered an innocent family celebrating a wedding? Why is Harmonica pursuing Frank?

Image and Sound:

The DVD transfer is vivid and sharp. The film has some minor blemishes in the form of edge enhancement but even these aren't a major issue. The film's rich color and cinematography are finally rendered in an aspect ratio similar to the original theatrical version. None of Leone's widescreen images are cropped and we see Monument Valley in all its glory (which is important as the valley itself is an important character).

Paramount has done a spledid job of presenting the most important part of the film--it has been restored to its original running time. When the film first appeared and the box office wasn't all that great, Paramount pulled it from circulation, recut it removing about 30 or so minutes of the film. The recut film was re-released and did just as badly before at the box office. The longer cut of West hasn't been seen in the United States in quite some time. Surprisingly, the original negative with the restored footage looks marvelous. Obviously, they didn't have to piece together the film from a variety of sources (and if they did the look of the film is even more impressive).

The soundtrack is almost as good as the visuals. The film is presented in Dolby Digital (English 5.1 Surround) with a restored English mono track. Not surprisingly, the dialog is slightly out of synch with the picture (as it was during the original release). Since the film was directed and edited by an Italian crew, this shouldn't come as a shock.

The Extras: 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. There's also a cast profile which, although interesting, I found to be less than essential.
Commentary: This two DVD set comes with a number of extras. Unfortunately, Leone died in the 80's before the advent of DVD's (or popularity of laserdiscs) so there's no audio commentary from him. Instead, 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 biographher Christopher Frayling and film historian Dr. Sheldon Hall. I personally felt that the most interesting comments were from the film directors vs. the historians.
Final Words: Overall, 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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