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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti, Woody Strode
Director: Sergio Leone
Audio: DTS HD 5.1, Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 165 Minutes
Release Date: May 31, 2011

The future don't matter to us. Nothing matters now - not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cause I know that now, you'll tell me what you're after.

...Only at the point of dyin'.”

Film ****

If the western genre is to be forever represented by a single motion picture, Once Upon a Time In the West is that film.

Even prior to this film's release in 1968, director Sergio Leone had already become a name to be recognized in this genre of films. The late-great filmmaker had already sealed his legacy by practically inventing the term "spaghetti-western" with his legendary series of films starring Clint Eastwood; A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. Although these three films are indeed make up a trilogy, with GB&U as the final installment, Leone's follow-up would no doubt signify as the ultimate closing piece, as well as the director's conclusion to his personal vision of the west.

And that vision is precisely what makes Once Upon a Time In the West the sweeping masterpiece that it is. Never before had the west been envisioned in such a dark manner, resembling something like an opera, but it hasn't really been done since, except maybe for Eastwood's Unforgiven, which is much darker kind of western. To watch the film is to be engulfed by it's every move and frame.

Leone's film remains as potent and masterful in today's era, because it has a rare poetic feel to it that doesn't find its way into many American movies, let alone a western. Leone paints a visionary and poetic portrait of the west that, except for the vision of the late Stanley Kubrick or Terrance Malick, could not be matched by any other director in my book.

Alongside its sweeping scope, Once Upon a Time In the West has long been known as the ultimate vengeance tale, told in its purest form. On a first viewing, this may not become entirely clear to the viewer until the film's end. However, what is clear early in the film is that each of the central characters is on a personal mission, with motives uncertain.

The story opens at a train station where a mysterious figure known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives. He takes out a gang of thieves who don't take a liking to him. The man carries a harmonica with him at all times, playing a tune whenever he is taking down someone with his quick trigger finger. The mysterious man's quest coincides with the film's other central characters, who will eventually connect against the backdrop of the development of the railroad, one that is destined to change the fate of the west forever.

Perhaps the most memorable character of the story is the villain, Frank, who's a hired gun working for a notorious railroad baron. The main reason Frank is the most memorable is perhaps the actor portraying him delivered such an astonishing revelation. Henry Fonda, who at that point was loved by everyone for portraying the everyman in his movies, gave perhaps his most remarkable performance to date as the bloodthirsty killer without a conscience. His introduction is by far one of the striking of any screen villain, as Frank. Having just slaughtered an entire family, Frank is given no choice but to execute the remaining family member, a young boy, simply because one of his cohorts gave away his name. It's a monumental and chilling moment.

Following this incident is the arrival of Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who happens to be the wife of the man who was just killed by Frank. She also, as it turns out, is to inherit the same area of land that Frank and his boss, the railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) are plotting to get their hands on at any costs. This will eventually place the newly-widowed Jill in a compromising position, especially when caught in grasps of Frank, whom she is amazingly seduced by.

The last of the characters is the bandit known as Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who makes an unexpected alliance with Harmonica to protect Jill against Frank's clutches. Robards provides a unique character, one who is in many ways nothing more than a lowlife, but manages to have a complex outlook on life. As it turns out, Harmonica is wanting Frank to catch up to him so that he can settle a long awaited score, and it leads to one of the most spectacular, if not THE most spectacular, western face-offs of all time.

Another important element in Once Upon a Time In the West is the outstanding music scored by Ennio Morricone. Words cannot describe the sheer beauty of the music Morricone unleashes onto this piece, but one thing's for sure, it will remain in your head long after watching the movie. Morricone has gone on to become one of the industry's most prolific composers, having collaborated with the likes of John Carpenter (The Thing) and Brian De Palma (The Untouchables, Mission to Mars), and although he has since gone on to make powerful movie music, his score for Once Upon a Time In the West remains his pure crowning achievement.

Not enough can be said about how powerful of a movie experience Once Upon a Time In the West is. If it's your first viewing, I envy you greatly because you are guaranteed an astonishing journey from beginning to end. Once you've watched it, you'll feel as if you have never seen, or experienced anything like it before.

Video ***1/2

Paramount has most definitely issued an upgrade with this Blu-ray release when compared to the DVD release from 2003, which while flawed in parts was the best transfer of that film at the time. The 1080p helps establish much more lush detail in Leone's extravagant vision of the west. The landscapes of the old west have never looked more astonishing to the eyes, and the details of the actor's faces in the many close ups are extremely well rendered. If you were curious to see just how blue Henry Fonda's eyes were, this will no doubt show you! The sun baked setting has more of an impact on the visual senses now more than ever, thanks to the superb quality of the HD picture!

Audio ****

WOW! This has got to go on record as one of the best sounding Blu-ray discs of any release from 60s. From the deafening sounds of the gunshots, to the sweeping beauty of the monumental score by Ennio Morricone, fans of this film are likely to have their lower jaw drop as a result of hearing this film remastered in DTS HD glory. Morricone's score, tied with The Mission for his best work ever, will astound your ears more so than ever before, and the entire score will be embedded in your head long after this presentation (in a good way, of course). Hands down, the best sound presentation of any of Leone's work!

Features ****

All of the wonderful extras from Paramount's initial two-disc DVD release have all been transported onto this single disc Blu-ray edition. However, we do get a first in the added bonus of a Restored version of the film, which runs only a minute longer, and is presented in its original mono presentation. Extras-wise, this includes the fantastic commentary track featuring directors John Carpenter, John Milus and Alex Cox, as well as Film Historians Sir Christopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall and various cast and crew members. We also get a rousing collection of behind the scenes documentaries including “An Opera of Violence”, “The Wages of Sin”, “Something to Do with Death”, “Railroad: Revolutionizing the West” and “Locations Then & Now. Rounding out the extras is a Production Gallery and a Theatrical Trailer, presented in HD!

Summary:

For me, Once Upon a Time in the West remains the one film that forever changed the vision of the west. The genre hasn't been better represented than what Leone brought to the screen in 1968. And this Blu-ray release is a definite must have for lovers of this film and true cinephiles!

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