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Category:    Home > Reviews > Western > Spaghetti Western > Once Upon A Time In The West (Paramount DVD set)

Once Upon A Time In The West: Special Edition


Picture: B     Sound: B     Extras: B+     Film: B+



After completing his Man With No Name/Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone parted ways with Clint Eastwood and embarked on a new Western that would be a giant step forward in the cycle.  Other filmmakers were catching up with what he had launched with A Fistful of Dollars and wanted to try something more advanced.  He succeeded brilliantly with Once Upon A Time In The West.


First, there is the influence of one of the greatest Westerns ever made, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, the 1954 now-cult classic that also ranks as one of the greatest color films ever made, a remarkably subversive film in its time and to date, and a landmark transition for The Western.  The film had thematics unprecedented in a Western and was exceptionally clever in its approach to subject matter of the truth about the West, witch hunts, and was the first to address the legacy of the Western for better and worse.  It also was groundbreaking in its use of sound and music, beginning with the title character, who has replaced his six-shooter with a six-stringer.


Then there is the second influence less considered, that of The Beatles, especially albums like Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and The White Album.  They had innovated music every bit as much as The French New wave affected film since 1954, and Leone himself had made landmark breakthroughs within The Western, but Once Upon A Time In The West would break past just The Western and become one of the most remarkable films of all time.


Though I have to say it still does not have some of the punch of Johnny Guitar, it comes extremely close and its approach to film sound and its use in narrative was like nothing that had ever been seen before and rarely matched since.  Leone may not have had The Beatles or George Martin, but he had long-time composer Ennio Morricone and his soundtrack for this film is one of the greatest in film history.


In Johnny Guitar, the idea of digetic and non-digetic sound and music, or the music the characters can hear versus the music only the audience can hear.  The film was knowingly coy in the way it played with this.  A later joke after both films from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1973) has the music of The Count Basie Orchestra playing grandly as men ride their horses in the middle of nowhere.  When they stop because that orchestra happens to be in the way, it is funny, because 1) they are really not suppose dot be there and 2) why do they need to be there when the music only needs to be on the soundtrack?  Either way it is funny.  Morricone and Leone deserve some credit for that joke too, especially for those who were fans of their films to begin with.


As with its 1954 predecessor, a woman (Claudia Cardinale, taking on the Joan Crawford role) hopes to build herself a future in the burgeoning expansion of civilization, but that is threatened by a web of dark forces.  Henry Fonda is brilliant in one of the greatest and most daring performances he ever gave as one of the greatest screen villains of all time, the psychopathic killer Frank.  Leone manages to pull a Hitchcock by exploiting Fonda’s all-American reputation by making him an attractive killer, then makes Frank the next step in psychosis in The West after John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s 1956 masterwork The Searchers, itself an art film cleverly disguised as a B-Movie Western.  This would not be the trivial use of an American name Hollywood star by any means.  Leone kept disguising his art under the generic Spaghetti Western moniker.


Jason Robards is the half-breed scapegoat for Frank’s trail of terror, and the cast is rounded out by greats like Charles Bronson, Gabrielle Ferzetti, Woody Strode, Lionel Stander, Jack Elam and Keenan Wynn.  The best way to explain how the sound works in this film is that all the characters realize their situation of existential dread and are far past the point of their debut at such realization.  Being this is the past, with the industrial revolution just taking hold, they are still not gutted out by such over-inundation.  They are affected by their environment, as the characters would be in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), which takes place a few centuries earlier.


Unlike the split between elites and rough types of Kubrick’s films, the majority of everyone here is a rough type and those who are not are in the most jeopardy.  The best survivors are the ones who are the most keenly aware of their environment.  There is a heightened sense of instinct among them and civilization has not started to cut into their sense of nature yet.  That comes with a sense of death and dirt.  Leone pioneered this with his first trilogy, and it reaches an artistic new level with this film.  That is just the beginning of what makes Once Upon A Time In The West a classic.


You have a group of top rate artists making a film, all in exceptional form, with exceptional materials.  That Leone had much more to say about American culture and The Western after his Dollars films is remarkable, but that culture has a wealth of aspects to address.  The Professional Western (groups of guys out to do the dirty work for the money) crossed with a more complex take on the Revenge Western and all involved took it to a new level.


The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image is the best transfer of Techniscope materials I have seen yet and is a giant step forward in the treatment of such material.  We have seen good Techniscope transfers before, especially from Anchor Bay (The Ipcress File, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Once Upon A Time In Italy boxed set; the latter two reviewed elsewhere on this site) and even Hen’s Tooth (Deadlier Than The Male, also reviewed elsewhere on this site).  With its tiny 35mm scope frames, pone on top of each other at only two perforation holes a piece; the only way to avoid grainier images was through the dye-transfer printing process.  The only problem is that the colors are not thoroughly of the dye-transfer type; its richness, its fullness, but this still looks exceptional on every level.  DVDs of THX-1138 (Warner, 1971), a restored The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (MGM), and some unreleased Jean-Luc Godard films will be the next major Techniscope films on DVD coming soon.  This will be very hard to top.


The stunning scope cinematography is by the great Torino Delli Colli, A.I.C., is in a class by itself.  Colli did not shoot all of Leone’s films, but some key ones (Once Upon A Time In America, for example) and prior to this had a fine track record that included key films by Pier Paolo Pasolini.  Some of those works are available in the Water Bearer DVD boxed sets on Pasolini, reviewed elsewhere on this site.


The Dolby Digital 5.1 AC-3 remix is a stunning reworking of the original theatrical mono sound of the film, still available here for purists in both English and Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono.  The great thing about the 5.1 mix is how it employs Leone’s bold score, which owes more to the Rock genre than anything he and just about any other composer had done to that time, Rock music films notwithstanding.  This film helped set the tone for the Rocumentaries of the early 1970s, beginning with Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), whose montages of 16mm footage across the Panavision scope frame were done by no less that a then-unknown Martin Scorsese.


The actual RCA soundtrack of Morricone’s music is never in print, nor has it been issued in one of the new higher-definition audio formats like DVD-Audio or Super Audio CD, so those who love the score will not be disappointed.  It is too bad Paramount did not have the score as an isolated and chapterized soundtrack, but maybe the success of this set will finally cause RCA to reissue the music at last.  This is one of the very best scores ever by a composer with literally hundreds of them to his credit, many most memorable.  We can even say its use of electric guitar is more, important and groundbreaking than anything recorded in the 1980s, but that’s a separate essay.  With that said, it is too bad none of this is in DTS either.


Extras that are here include an excellent audio commentary on DVD 1 with Cardinale, Ferzetti, Bernardo Bertolucci, Colli, John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox and many others.  DVD 2 has the programs An Opera of Violence (28:48), The Wages of Sin (19:36) and Something to Do with Death (18:16) in a featurettes section, Railroad: Revolutionizing the West (6:21) is a film-related featurette that is also historical, profiles of Cardinale, Fonda, Robards, Bronson, and Ferzetti are brief-but-interesting, a long theatrical trailer, and a location gallery that compares the locations form shots in the film to still shots taken of the same spaces today.  The newer pictures may be cleaner and clearer, but note how they lack the character and form of the film’s version, age of the shots notwithstanding.  These rarely overlap information and are all worth their four-hours-long running time.


For a studio that still fails to issue simple trailers on many of their latest, basic DVDs and are not known for their Special Editions, Paramount shows what they are capable of with Once Upon A Time In The West.  For a change, a film never before issued on DVD was not just thrown out there in a lame basic version for people to waste their money on while waiting for the better edition.  This is the better edition and a must see for anyone serious about film.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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