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Blu-ray Review: Once Upon a Time in the West

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The Film

Finding a consensus in regard to Sergio Leone’s best film is a fool’s errand. Leone has about half a dozen that could all be considered serious contenders or have their share of passionate supporters — pretty much every movie in his two famous trilogies. While The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is the popular favorite (at least according to iMDb rankings), it’s Leone’s next film, Once Upon a Time in the West, which might tip the scales, in my opinion.

Once Upon a Time in the West is grand entertainment, told on a massive scale — filled with Leone’s lingering close-ups and Ennio Morricone’s resoundingly memorable score. It’s a tale of the disintegration of the Old West, but boy, do its inhabitants — the cowboys, bandits and thieves — sure get to go out on a high note.

There are conflicts both personal and institutional in the film, where a scheme to build a town in the middle of nowhere ignites greedy passion on all sides and a woman finds herself in the middle of a three-man showdown. Claudia Cardinale stars as Jill, a former hooker traveling from New Orleans to meet the man she married a month ago and his three children.

But when she arrives, she finds they’ve all been murdered. The culprit is Frank (Henry Fonda, in one of the greatest against-type casting coups), but he’s framed well-known bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) for the massacre. Complicating the situation is the presence of a mysterious loner (Charles Bronson), known only by his mournful harmonica playing and his unknown grudge to settle.

All three come into Jill’s life at various points, and it’s not always clear what their respective intentions might be. Soon, it becomes obvious that Jill’s not nearly as helpless as she might appear, and there are enormous stakes involved with the ever-expanding railway, personified by the railroad baron (Gabriele Ferzetti) who gets in over his head.

Once Upon a Time in the West paints with subtle strokes, but allows it ambiguous characters to exist on a majestic western palette. Leone embraces both spectacle and introspection simultaneously — much in the same way that master filmmaker John Ford did in his thoughtful brand of westerns. Leone earns every minute of his slowly but deliberately paced masterpiece.

The Blu-ray Disc

Once Upon a Time in the West is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Paramount has done a stellar job with this presentation, which features incredible amounts of fine detail, especially apparent in Leone’s trademark close-ups. Every nook and cranny in Bronson’s face is reproduced with exacting precision, and it’s not just the close-ups that look good. Image sharpness and clarity is highly improved over DVD. The film’s grain structure is intact and pleasantly noticeable throughout, giving the image a strong film-like quality. Colors are mostly vibrant and true, although faces can look a little oversaturated and tend toward the red end of the spectrum, although it’s not a bad look and may replicate the intended color timing.

Audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that expands the film’s mix subtly and effectively. Dialogue is perfectly clean, effects are credibly dynamic and Morricone’s score features great clarity. The original mono mix is also included.

The disc features both the theatrical cut and the minute-longer restored version, seamlessly branched here.

Special Features

All the extras from the special edition DVD are ported over here, and everything, save for the theatrical trailer, remains in standard def. An audio commentary with a long list of participants — historians Christopher Frayling and Sheldon Hall; directors and fans John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox; Cardinale; and writer Bernard Bertolucci — is included, along with three lengthy featurettes about the making of the film. A short piece on the history of railroads in America, a look at the locations then and now, and a gallery of production photos round out the disc.

The Bottom Line

Picking a favorite Leone film might be a difficult task, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t consider the masterful Once Upon a Time in the West, especially with it looking this good.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.