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‘It looks like we're...shy one horse!’
‘You brought two too many.’

The problem with naming the ‘best’ films of all time is that films, like all art, span so many styles and genres it’s basically impossible to compare and contrast all aspects. This extends even to the process of naming the best films in a single genre, which is waylaid by many aspects of subgenre and homage. I want to name Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West the best western ever made, but it’s such a reactive film that it wouldn’t work without decades of ‘lesser’ westerns to compare it to. Leone didn’t invent the revisionist or European (‘spaghetti’) western subgenres, but he did invent a style of western that changed the cinematic landscape forever. His vision wasn’t necessarily a reinvention of previous western revolutionaries like Howard Hawks or John Ford, but his westerns all owe their rich subtexts, and hyper-stylized camera work to every American western Leone ever saw, include relatively trashy Saturday afternoon cowboy and Indian serials. Though The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with all its violent whimsy, is probably his signature film, Once Upon a Time in the West is the ultimate distillation (dissertation?) of Leone’s entire career, and a sort of anti- Dollars Trilogy (which, for the record, is made up of Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Leone’s contributions to cinema aren’t only revisionist, they’re post-modern explorations of the art form, borrowing visual trademarks and sticking them into different context, similar to the approach taken by French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville, along with modern American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. More than a western, a revisionist western, or even a spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West is a western about westerns.

 Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray
 Once Upon a Time in the West DVD
History tells us that Leone wasn’t very interested in revisiting the genre as a director, and had already set his sights on his American gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, which wouldn’t come to fruition until 1984, when (like Once Upon a Time in America and Duck You Sucker) it was released with huge studio mandated cuts, and was generally ignored by mainstream audiences. Following the massive success of the Dollars Trilogy in America, Leone originally turned down United Artists’ acquisition for another western, but was eventually tempted back to the genre by Paramount, who offered him a huge budget, and the cast of his dreams (he also turned down directing duties on The Godfather, for which he was Paramount’s first choice). Determined not to simply repeat his earlier success (much to the chagrin of the studio), Leone hired two young Italian film critics named Bernardo Bertolucci (future director of The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor, etc.) and Dario Argento (future director of Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Suspiria, etc.), and force fed them American Westerns for over a month in hopes of creating an atmosphere that could produce an early screenplay that would cover every niche of the genre (each man was paid a paltry $800 a piece). Argento claims that Nicolas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and John Ford’s The Searchers were the major inspirations, while historian Sir Christopher Frayling points out dozens of other nods to films like High Noon and Shane. Exactly what in the final screenplay is credited to which writer (a list that includes Leone himself and Sergio Donati) is consistently up for argument, but the experiment (Argento’s descriptions of which beg comparisons to the theater scenes from A Clockwork Orange) seems to have worked.

‘You don’t look like the defender of poor, defenseless widows. Then again, I don’t look like a poor, defenseless widow.’

Arguably more important that the deft and loving homage paid through Leone’s languishing visuals are the inversions and subversions of previous western clichés, clichés he and his writers embrace to both celebrate and tear to shreds. The archetypal characters are all turned on their heads; the debonair desert flower is the Madonna and the whore, the anti-heroic outlaw is lonely and tired, the man with no name has a melancholy past that when avenged brings about no satisfaction, and the villain is played by one of America's most beloved good-guy actors, Henry Fonda. The use of Fonda is a brilliant example of Leone’s post-modern anti-western ideals. This is a basic case of stunt casting against type, and the shock of Fonda being introduced as a child murderer was actually enough in itself to sell the idea to period audiences. Fonda’s performance recalls his iconic work in The Grapes of Wrath, he just plays it a bit older, a bit happier, and Leone changes the context. The actor probably could’ve slept through the role and still achieved what Leone intended, but he brings his A-game, and creates another iconic character. I’d also like to argue that Jason Robards and Charles Bronson have never been better, but I have a feeling my affection for the film is blinding me a bit. Neither actor is cast against type, and neither casting choice is particularly subversive, but, oh what the heck, neither actor has ever been better.

 Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray
 Once Upon a Time in the West DVD
The freshest divergent element is Claudia Cardinale’s character, Jill, who isn’t only the strongest female character in the brief history of European westerns, she’s just about the only female character in the subgenre’s history that holds any real sway over the plot. Yes, she is kind of the gooey center of the story, and a bit of a living MacGuffin, but she also has dimensions, and is in the end the hero of the piece, more so than the love-stricken misfit, or the revenge driven outcast. But Cardinale isn’t only a strong character, she’s more emotionally malleable than any of the other four leads. She’s the hooker with a heart of gold, the angelic virgin, the self-preserving monster, the mother, the sister and the lover all in one unbelievably sexy, sure-footed package. She never exerts physical power over the men in the film, but her psychological power is something to be reckoned with. When Robards threatens her, she stands up to him, and establishes that she has no fear of sexual assault. Later she uses her prowess to keep herself alive while in Frank’s custody, a fact Frank is well aware of, but unable to resist. The only man in the film that ever appears to frighten her is Harmonica, who does assault her when they first meet, but is otherwise only driven by his vengeance, and generally good to her, though likely only because he knows her happiness works against Frank’s (it does say something about the misogynistic tendencies of the spaghetti western subgenre that the two good guys both threaten to sexually assault the heroine). On the audio commentary Christopher Frayling goes as far as to point out that Cardinale isn’t only the only survivor among the leads (it’s easy to argue Harmonica is dead in spirit), but that she ends the film as the symbolic mother of the new west.

‘How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.’

Unlike other Italian directors that thrived in the western genre like Sergio Corbucci or Sergio Sollima, Leone wasn’t all that interested in plugging his films with politics. His directorial follow-up, Duck You Sucker, is actually a long-winded meditation on the futility of political stances. But Leone’s actual intent didn’t stop an entire generation of leftists reading their politics into Once Upon a Time in the West, and champion the film as part of their belief system (according to Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling French, youths started wearing brown dusters). I don’t really get a lot of politics out of Once Upon a Time in the West myself, but the film does deal in socio-politically allegorical elements, mostly surrounds the building of the Transatlantic railroad, which in itself ended the mythical Wild West. But to my mind, this is less a genuine political statement than another in the long collection of statements on the film versions of the American west. Since this was to be Leone’s last word on the subject, the presence of the train system, which definitely has a consistent effect on the film even when left out of the discussion, is effectively the director’s way of killing the genre.

If it wasn’t for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West might win the award for the shortest long movie ever made. I’ve seen the 165 minute cut (this disc marks the first video availability of this mix and match 166 minute cut) probably a dozen-plus times, and it’s never felt as everlasting as other classic epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Ran, The Godfather, Malcolm X or The Lord of the Rings, all films (or film series) that I love and watch with semi-regularity. Even shorter, lighter enjoyable epics like the Harry Potter films, Boogie Nights or Gladiator can feel like more of a commitment (obviously, even at 80 minutes a bad movie can feel like an eternity). Besides Leone’s other mega-classic, only Kurasawa’s 207 minute Seven Samurai might rival Once Upon a Time in the West’s relative grace. Leone uses a sort of strange, very European story structure that, like so many other things, basically culminates with this film. Instead of a scene structure that adheres to the plot, the plot here is adjusted to fit what basically equals a series of long scenes that rarely intercut with any other scenes, like a series of short films that happen to work as a coherent whole. Though Leone presses his cinematographic extremes, and takes the time to unveil in his massive scale (which itself certainly adds to the epic runtime), most speaking sequences are, at least according to the script, structured like a stage play. When not acting like an aggressively filmed stage play that plays out on the largest stage in the world, the film is broken into incredibly cinematic set pieces that depend so much on Ennio Morricone’s pre-written and record score they could almost qualify as early music videos. Always a fan of Leone’s work, Quentin Tarantino sort of aped this structural approach to amazing effect for Inglourious Basterds.

 Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray
 Once Upon a Time in the West DVD

Video


‘I saw three of these dusters a short time ago. They were waiting for a train. Inside the dusters there were three men.’
‘So?’
‘Inside the men there were three bullets.’

I’m a little put off by the lack of fanfair this release has received. Not only is this Blu-ray a minute longer than the already restored DVD (if I remember correctly, VHS copies ran 145 minutes, the same as the US theatrical release), it’s been entirely restored. I’m not sure if they worked from the original negative or from the digital master used for the DVD, but there are definite differences between the releases. The DVD to Blu-ray upgrade has nothing on the VHS to DVD upgrade, mostly because the VHS copies were all pan and scan, a process that doesn’t serve any film, but practically destroys Leone’s westerns. Still, against the odds this is certainly the version of the film you (yes you) absolutely must own.

I’ve used the opening sequence for my comparison this time around. The increase in fine detail is not a quantum leap, since the DVD was already pretty impressive, but there are certainly more small things to appreciate. During the sequence, spaghetti western standbys Paolo Stoppa, Woody Strode and Jack Elam’s craggy, sweaty faces are famously set against the desolate vistas of the Flagstone train station. Here we can appreciate both the additional close-up textures (more facial cracks, more beads of sweat, a more pronounced fly), and the sharper background elements (rolling mountains, discernable machinery, wood grain). The gap between the close-ups on the DVD and this Blu-ray isn’t monumental, but once again those once smooth and fussy backgrounds are what really make the difference to my eye. There isn’t a lot in the way of palette variation in the film, mostly warm browns and yellows, so colour quality isn’t a huge issue. The distinction between colours, however similar, is an improvement on the slightly blocky DVD, and the reddest components are especially hardened in comparison. Besides some high contrast highlights, the only particularly poppy items are Peter Fonda’s impossibly blue eyes, which, since the skies are often blown out and nearly white, are close to the only truly cool element in the whole film (though comparatively speaking this is a cooler overall transfer than the DVD).

 Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray
 Once Upon a Time in the West DVD
This release is a new and better experience, but as per usual, it’s not without its problems. Fortunately these aren’t nearly as noticeable as they could be, and appear to have more to do with the source material than the process. There is plenty of film grain, and occasional bouts with minor print damage artefacts, but these remain relatively consistent even in darker sequences. It’s not often an older film like this doesn’t suffer noticeably more grain when lights fade. The best thing about the grain is the fact that it signifies the restoration team avoided smearing up the print with too much digital noise reduction. DNR overload turned the MGM/Fox release of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly into a hot waxy mess (though their For a Few Dollars More transfer was quite good), and I was certainly afraid of something similar occurring here, even though I can’t recall a single time the Paramount people have ever failed in this manner. The mistakes made during this remastering and transferring process revolve around the frequency contrast and sharpness levels, which are all tweaked a bit too high, creating some bleeding highlights, and edge enhancement haloes. I don’t think I’d trade this option for the alternative, which is shallower contrast, and softer blacks, but I also assume there could’ve been a healthy balance between these options. These issues are pretty easy to ignore in favour of the transfer’s highlights, however, and certainly not a reason not to update those DVD copies given the chance.

Audio


‘He's whittlin' on a piece of wood. I've got a feeling when he stops whittlin'... somethin's gonna happen.’

Paramount’s approached remixing Once Upon a Time in the West’s original soundtrack for 5.1 playback with a lighter touch than MGM/Fox did with their Leone releases. There are far fewer added sound effects and artificial sounding surround effects. In this new, uncompressed version of the surround remix is louder, and a bit sharper, but mostly more of the same, which is certainly not a problem. Leone’s use of sound in Once Upon a Time in the West is almost supernaturally effective. Before production, he and composer Ennio Morricone worked through the film’s music based on the screenplay, and worked certain scenes around the rhythm and melodies. Each of the four leads has a specific theme that follows them throughout the film, which makes the music as important to each character as the performance. This operatic quality extends to the non-musical soundscape, where Leone takes a page from the Hitchcock handbook, and creates rhythm and melodies without instruments. Probably the most memorable use of sound is during the second scene, where the McBain family’s assassination is prefaced by the eerie silencing of a field of chirping insects.

 Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray
 Once Upon a Time in the West DVD
Once again, I’ll spend most of my time taking apart the opening sequence, which celebrates sound design more than any other moment in the film, forgoing most dialogue, and holding back score music until the climatic sting. During this sequence the approaching train does fly over the audience’s head, but rather than splicing the effect across from the front to the back channel to create a distinctive directional effect, this mix chooses to simply allow the sound to bleed into the rear channels, which creates nearly the same movement effect, without the odd cut. Later, the train’s steam engines throb and grunt, but most of the sound is still centered on the track, with an effective LFE presence. If the disc’s producers have included addition catalogue effects, as MGM/Fox did with the Dollars Trilogy and Duck You Sucker, I’m unable to pull them apart from the mix. When music does enter, it’s strongly separated into the stereo channels, and creeps into the aural landscape, and along with the terse dialogue, feels like an intrinsic part of the experience rather than a hyper modern extension of the experience. The one thing that has clearly changed between the original mono and this 5.1 remix is the frequency of the gun shots, which still feature that specifically Italian sound, but are really punchy.

There are inconsistencies and minor mistakes throughout the mix, but most of these are due to the limitations that come out of the original recording process, which likely didn’t include a whole lot of on-set sound (Frayling states that none of the sound was recorded on set, and that all vocal performances were recoded in post). The monetary influence led to a more natural aural experience than found in most European-born westerns, but there is still a load of dubbed dialogue and catalogue sound effects set against almost uncomfortable silence. In cases like these we naturally expect the lip movements to not line-up with words, and the sound quality of the dialogue to rarely match from character to character, but besides a couple of distorted high end shouts, and sticky ‘s’ sounds there isn’t much negative here to report. The bigger issue is an occasional problem with Morricone’s music, which often builds in volume to incredible effect. Some of these builds are a bit more awkward on the DTS-HD track than the original Mono track.

 Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray
 Once Upon a Time in the West DVD

Extras


‘People scare better when they're dyin’.’

The extras, which have been carried over from the special edition DVD release, start with a commentary culled from multiple sources including directors John Carpenter, John Millius and Alex Cox, film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, actress Claudia Cardinale and co-writer Bernardo Bertolucci. Frayling’s input is the most valuable. As Leone’s unofficial biographer Frayling knows every inch of the picture, and once again comes to the commentary prepared and well-spoken. He feeds his audience’s minds with oodles of background information on the production, anecdotes from the set, retrospective criticism, and acts as a marker for the footage that was cut from the American release. It can feel like the other participants are interfering with our personal conversation with Frayling at times, but Carpenter, Millius Cox and Hall are apparently actually watching the film while commentating, which is a nice break from most group commentaries that tend to be made out of out of context interviews. The non-Frayling participants don’t fill their time as well either, which is likely why the choice was made to mix them with Frayling, rather than giving Frayling his own track alongside an additional group track. You’ll probably notice I’ve basically ripped this track off for this review without even realizing it until I’d written three pages.

Next up is the first of the featurettes, ‘An Opera of Violence’ (28:50, SD), a retrospective exploration of the film with all the folks that appear on the commentary – Frayling, Carpenter, Cox, Millius, Bertolucci and Cardinale – along with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, and actor Gabriele Ferzetti. Frayling leads the discussion, and along with the other participants, all of which seem to be scholars on the subject matter, run us through Leone’s pre- Once Upon a Time in the West years, the arduous writing process, and casting. ‘The Wages of Sin’ (19:40, SD) covers the use of Monument Valley and other sets/locations, cinematography, and production design. ‘Something to Do with Death’ (18:20, SD) deals with Leone’s work with actors, Morricone’s music, sound design, politics, editing, and retrospect. Also included is footage of Leone himself from a marathon 1984 interview, which is possibly the only footage of the man actually speaking I’ve ever seen throughout the extra features on every special edition release of his films, and a 1975 interview with Peter Fonda. Besides being informative and entertaining, these standard definition, anamorphically enhanced mini-documentaries are a good indication of how much this transfer improves over the DVD release.

‘Railroad: Revolutionizing the West’ (6: 20, SD) is a historical look at the world around the film. This is informative enough, at least as a historical Cliff’s Notes, but would work better as a pop-up option on the film itself, though it isn’t quite long enough. Things are completed with a quick look at the film’s locations then and now (4:30, SD), a production photo gallery (5:20, SD) and a trailer.

 Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray
 Once Upon a Time in the West DVD

Overall


‘You don't understand, Jill. People like that have something inside... something to do with death.’

There were plenty of great Euro/spaghetti-westerns made after 1968 (Sergio Corbucci’s Companeros, Enzo G. Castellari Keoma), but Once upon a Time in the West is still essentially the final word on the subject. Leone did supply audiences with more opinions on the death of the west, but he’d focus more on the reality of lies, such as the lie that is the western hero, and the lie that is the revolutionary western film.  It could easily be argued that Duck You Sucker, which was initial supposed to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich and produced by Leone, is a western, as it takes place in the American west, but it takes place after the mythic west was done, and is generally more of a war film/satire. Leone would also produce and work second unit directing on a couple of spaghetti western spoofs, but spoof usually follows the death rattle of a genre boom. This new Blu-ray release isn’t revolutionary in terms of audio/visual upgrade, but as you can see from these lovely screencaps, specifically when you click on them and look at them full-sized. Extras are the same as the DVD release, but there was nothing wrong with them. Buy it. Buy it now!

*Note: Thanks again to Jonathan Hogberg (Hogaburger) for supplying me with screencaps. These caps have been taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Larger captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not representative of the full quality of the transfer. The DVD caps are taken from the DVD and resized to match the size of the 1080p caps.


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