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Featured Blu-ray review: Once Upon a Time in the West

July 13th, 2011

Once Upon a Time in the West - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Once Upon a Time in the West is a film that was unappreciated when it first came out and really struggled at the box office. However, it has aged amazingly well and is considered by many to be one of the greatest Westerns of all time. (This includes Roger Ebert, whose original review is the only negative review on Rotten Tomatoes.) Will I be adding my voice to the choir of praise? Or will I be one of the few dissenters? And if it is the former, does the Blu-ray do the film justice?

The Movie

Once Upon a Time in the West takes place in the town of Flagstone and focuses on five major players. The first, known only as Harmonica, whom we meet shortly after the opening credits when he is greeted coming into town by a trio of gang-leader Frank's men. He's not really welcome.

We then meet the McBains, a widowed father and his three children, as they are setting up a party. His new wife, Jill, is about to arrive from New Orleans and he wants everything to be perfect. It's not to be, as Frank shows up and guns down Brett McBain and his three kids in cold blood. But before Frank's men leave, he takes the time to frame Cheyenne's men, Cheyenne being the leader of another local gang, who has recently been arrested.

Once Jill McBain arrives, there's no one to pick her up, she rides to her new home with one of the locals. When they stop by a bar on the way, the bar patrons witness Cheyenne's arrival on his way to jail. Cheyenne's men where supposed to free him at this point, but they were late, so he had to take the initiative. Also at the bar is Harmonica, who tells him someone posing as his men tried to kill him earlier. Since no one is crazy enough to pretend to be a member of Cheyenne's posse, he dismisses the possibility and assumes Harmonica is just lying. However, when his men are attacked for the killings at Sweetwater, he changes his mind and heads up there to investigate.

We meet the final player more than an hour into the film, Morton, and the plot finally starts coming into focus. Morton is a railway baron and he is trying to build a line straight from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but he has two serious impediments. Firstly, he's dying of tuberculosis, so he hasn't much time. Secondly, he'll need a source of water for the steam engines. That's where Sweetwater comes into play. After years of trying to make it, Brett McBain finally found a large enough source of water to strike it rich. Morton had hired Frank to scare the McBains into selling. Now that Jill McBain has taken over the homestead, the plan remains the same.

However, Jill McBain has allies. Cheyenne's helping her out, because he doesn't like being framed for killings he didn't commit, especially killing kids. And Harmonica has a grudge against Frank, which isn't explained for more than an hour.

I think I understand why this film earned mixed reviews when it first came out. It is a long movie clocking in at nearly 3 hours. Much of the film is classic shots borrowed from other iconic movies with not much in the way of plot. The opening credits alone take ten minutes and there's barely a word spoken. It literally takes more than an hour before we learn about the main conflict in the movie. I can understand a lot of people arguing that a lot of this movie is filler. However, that "filler" is some of the best shots Sergio Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli shot. Every shot could be used in film school. Granted, many shots are borrowed from many classics in the genre, but it takes the practice of homage to a new level.

Plus it is populated by some incredible actors, and for nearly all of them, this is the best film they've been in, or at the very least, the top five. You could argue Henry Fonda was better in 12 Angry Men, or perhaps The Grapes of Wrath, but having him play against type as the villain was a risk that paid off, at least in the long run. That might actually be a big factor in why the film struggled during its initial release. Claudia Cardinale has a strength to her character that is usually lacking in westerns of the era, or westerns of any era. Charles Bronson was in a number of excellent films, including The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven, but never is his acting put on display better than in this movie. Jason Robards, Jr. brought a little humor to the film, as the gang leader who is clearly not as bad as his reputation, although his character doesn't drive the plot as much as the others.

If you are not a fan of Sergio Leone's style, you might find the film self-indulgent and overly long. However, most fans of his, or of westerns in general, will love this movie.

The Extras

Extras are all ported over from the Special Collector's Edition DVD, released in 2003. This starts with an audio commentary track hosted by Lancelot Narayan and edited from interviews with Claudia Cardinale, several directors who were inspired by the film, and a couple film historians. Tracks that are edited together from various interviews usually don't have quite the same flow as audio commentary tracks recorded at once, but this is still absolutely worth checking out. An Opera of Violence is the first featurette. It runs nearly 30 minutes and focuses on Sergio Leone's career in general and the film's place in cinema history in particular. The Wages of Sin gets into the specifics of shooting the film. Something to do with Death can be divided into three parts with the first about the use of music and sound in the film, while the second half deals with the cuts to the film, and the final has several interviewees talking about their first reaction to the film. Railroad: Revolutionising the West is a short featurette on the real life effects of the railway. There are two photo galleries, the first looking at locations in the movie and what they look like now, while the second is a more traditional production still collection.

The Blu-ray also comes with two versions of the film, the theatrical release and the restored release. The theatrical release is the version seen in cinemas here when it was first released, while the restored version is what Sergio Leone originally wanted.

Looking at the film's technical presentation, and I'm happy to report that the video and audio has aged as well as the film itself did. The level of detail is amazing throughout, under a thin layer of grain. (Although I don't like it when people talk about grain as if it is something laudable about older movies, and hate it when they stick it in post-production, I'd much rather have the natural level of grain than overuse of Digital Noise Reduction, which kills detail.) The color palette is limited due to the nature of the movie (there are a lot of shades of brown) but are as prominent as needed, where needed. The contrast is good and there are plenty of details in the shadows. I think I noticed a couple of minor print problems (a thin vertical line here, a tiny spec there) but I don't think I would have noticed them if I hadn't been looking for problems. The audio has been upgraded from the original mono (the restored mono track is included). The track is still front-heavy, but there are enough ambient sounds, as well as the score, coming from the rear speakers to envelope the viewer.

Finally, we get to the price. After factoring the Amazon.com discount, this Blu-ray costs $12.49. I would have been impressed with $15. I would have easily recommended the release if it cost $20.

The Movie

Once Upon a Time in the West made its Blu-ray debut about a month ago, and while I had to wait a bit to get a screener, it was completely worth it. It looks amazing, it is shovelware but there are plenty of extras, and the price can't be beat. Pick of the Week material.


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Filed under: Video Review, C'era una volta il West