Once Upon A Time In The West

Once Upon A Time In The West (1969)
Paramount Home Video
Extras: Commentary Track, Various Featurettes, Location Gallery, Production Gallery, Cast Profiles, Trailer

"Once Upon A Time In The West" is uniformly hailed as Sergio Leone’s best film. While his entire body of work is and remains impressive, every renewed viewing of "Once Upon A Time In The West" creates an increased sense of admiration in me as I discover more and more little details and elements that elevate this film into a league of its own. Paramount has been withholding this film from DVD for a long time but finally they make good with a 2-disc Special Edition that I was very eager to explore.

It is a little hard to create a synopsis for "Once Upon A Time In The West" without giving away important plot points, so I won’t. Part of the fun of this movie in particular is trying to find out what is happening and what people’s motivations are. The film starts with three gunslingers at a remote, desolate train station in the relentless heat of the summer for the train to arrive. Two hours late it finally arrives but the man they’ve been waiting for doesn’t’ seem to be on it. They begin to turn back when from the other side of the tracks they hear the sound of a harmonica playing. And there he stands, Harmonica (Charles Bronson), the man they sought to kill, but who is just as fast as any other gunslinger in the West. What follows in the next 165 minutes is the story of Harmonica and his past, as well as the story of a number of people around him, as they all try to overcome the obstacles in their lives.

"Brilliant" is almost too small a word to describe the masterful work that is "Once Upon A Time In The West." The film is utterly impressive, beautiful to watch, masterfully paced and carefully plotted. Gradually the story unfolds as people’s ideals and motivations unravel. The viewer is always involved in a guessing game to figure out why certain people behaved the way they did and how it will affect the overall story, almost like a game of "Clue." At the same time, with its gritty Spaghetti Western look, the movie tells a most intriguing story of greed and the change of the West as a result of the industrial revolution.

The casting of the movie is what ties it all together. Charles Bronson as the enigmatic Harmonica is one of the key characters, and he carries much of the story and is the central focus of the film’s sometimes puzzling mystery. In a drastic image change at the time, we are presented with Henry Fonda as the movie’s villain – which makes him all the more sinister, of course – who is so despicable that you wish you could kick him yourself a bit. Claudia Cardinale puts in one of her best performances as Jill McBain, a widow who is entirely out of place in the West at first but quickly settles and learns the rules to play by, as she tries to find out the mystery behind her family’s untimely and terrible death. Jason Robards plays Cheyenne a charismatic half-breed in the middle of it all, trying to steer away from trouble, yet being pulled into the events time and again. Add to this principal cast some of the most memorable faces of Western films and you get an idea of what "Once Upon A Time In The West" looks and feels like.

Paramount home Entertainment has created a breathtaking presentation of the movie on this DVD. Despite its age, the film is absolutely clean and clear. I was not able to find a single speckle or mar in the transfer at all. Every frame has been painstakingly cleaned up to create a presentation that completely belies the movie’s age, making it look like it was shot only recently. Colors are wonderfully rich, perfectly restoring the sandy palette used in the film with very natural skin tones and overall balance. Black levels are absolutely solid, creating deep blacks that root the image and shadows that are deep, yet never lose detail or break up. Sadly, some edge-enhancement has been applied to the film and I’m not sure why Paramount decided to negate some of the hard work that must have gone into the restoration of the print only to have it degraded by the halo effects of the edge-enhancement. The artifacts are mostly light only, but there are some key scenes where the halos become very distracting and extremely noticeable. The compression on the other hand is without a flaw once again.

A fully remixed <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio mix is part of the release, and it is a rich experience that makes good use of the directional sound field. Surround channels are used to good effect, though to remain faithful to the original mono mix, surround usage is never blatantly aggressive. It conjures up rich ambient effects as well as very directional sound effects that dramatically heighten the experience of the film. The original mono audio track is also included on the release.

The DVD contains a <$commentary,commentary track> featuring Sergio Leone biographer Christopher Frayling who tells a lot about the film and its countless underlying references to other movies. It is a wonderful commentary, though I’m surprised that as his biographer Frayling continually mispronounces Leone’s last name. (It is Leone, pronounced like "Leon-eh", not "Leon-y") Still, the commentary is a treasure trove of information and especially as other commentators are brought in, you will find that there is so much information and insight in this track that it is almost overwhelming. Claudia Cardinale, John Carpenter, John Mlilius, Alex Cox and many others make their appearance on this commentary talking about various aspects of the movie and how it has influenced their own lives and works. If you love "Once Upon A Time In The West" you cannot afford to miss this commentary. It is simply remarkable!

On the second disc of the set you will find all the extras, such as three wonderful featurettes. "An Opera Of Violence" takes a look at Sergio Leone’s background and how he came to make the film the way he did. His influences and how he amalgamated them all to create this timeless masterpiece full of cynicism and genre observations. "The Wages Of Sin" is another featurette on the release, which takes a close look at the look and feel of the film. It explains how Leone made some deliberate choices to heighten the atmosphere of the movie and to achieve the look he desired. "Something To Do With Death" is the third of these featurettes taking a look at some of the style that Leone was applying to the making of the film, most notably how he used sound and music to enhance the atmosphere of his film.
Each of these featurettes is about 30-minutes in length and features countless interviews, including Henry Fonda and Sergio Leone himself, alongside many of his cast and crew members, historians and other filmmakers.

A 6-minute featurette on the disc then takes a look at the impact the railroad had on the West. It is nicely put together and features a lot of interesting information.

A really cool feature on the disc is an image gallery that revisits some of the movie’s key locations. Directly comparing these locations to the way they looked in the film and how they look like today, this gallery in a way increases the sense of timelessness of the movie as well as the sheer beauty of the locations. A gallery with production still is also included as well as textual cast profiles of the principal cast members. Last but not least, the DVD also contains the film’s original theatrical trailer.

"Once Upon A Time In The West" is a marvelous film that gets better with every viewing. It is daring and breaking with convention in many ways, still, and it tells an epic tale that is perfectly captured on the screen. Paramount has finally given this film a splendid home on DVD – though the edge-enhancement is a bit of a detractor – complete with some superbly put together extras. Clearly, this is a must-have DVD for any DVD collector and movie fan!