ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
Review by Gordon Justesen
Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson
Director: Sergio Leone
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono, French Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 165 Minutes
Release Date: November 18, 2003
matters now--not the land, not the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cause I know
that now, you tell me what you're after."
at the point of dyin'."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
TRIVIA: Leone's sole purpose
for making this movie was be allowed by the studios to make his epic gangster
film, appropriately titled Once Upon a
Time In America.
I must say that
getting the opportunity to view this film in its widescreen format is a bonus in
its own right, and Paramount has done a most exceptional job in converting this
classic to the DVD format. The anamorphic picture, while not completely
outstanding, must be given credit for doing the most it can with this late 60s
release. Leone's many shots of wide landscapes get a most terrific treatment, as
they fill the screen with endless beauty. A couple of shots do suffer a bit
simply from cases of both noticeable age and slight grain, but these flaws are
strictly minor, as this presentation explodes onto the screen with more highs
The 5.1 sound mix
is something of an achievement, as this movie has only been available through
network TV repeats, or standard home video performance. The range of performance
here is by far more wide and dynamic as you would expect for movie with more
than 30 years age to it. Of course the highpoint of the presentation, as if I
even need to mention it, is Ennio Morricone's score, which is lifted to stirring
new heights thanks to this solid sounding presentation. Other elements including
the roar of train engines, gun battles, and basic dialogue are all give superb
enhancements. A terrific performance on behalf of Paramount.
Fans of this film
who've been patiently awaiting its arrival on DVD will no doubt get a lot more
bang for their buck, as Paramount loads their gun barrels with this knockout
2-disc set package.
Disc 1 includes a
commentary track with multiple contributors, including directors John Carpenter,
Alex Cox, and John Milius. Also featured on this track is Sergio Leone
biographer Sir Christopher Fryling and film historian Dr. Sheldon Hall, and
additional comments from cast and crew members.
Disc 2 contains
even more, including three in-depth documentaries; "An Opera of
Violence", "The Wages of Sin", and "Something to Do With
Death", each of which includes interviews with cast and crew members, as
well as filmmakers/devoted fans of the movie. Also featured is an additional
featurette titled "Railroad: Revolutionizing the West", a production
gallery, a trailer, and cast profiles.