Review of "Once Upon A Time In The West [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)"

published 10/10/2011 | hogsflesh
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Pro Classic Western looking good on Blu-ray
Cons The extras are very samey
very helpful
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Characters / Performances
Special Effects

"People scare better when they're dying"

A showdown at a station

A showdown at a station

A review of the Paramount Blu-ray, currently £13. It’s quite new, so will doubtless come down in price.

This is the greatest of Sergio Leone’s Westerns. It followed his ‘Dollars’ trilogy, which made a star of Clint Eastwood, and was the first time Leone had Hollywood money and the chance to film in the US (although most of the film was shot in Spain).

Year: 1968
Director: Sergio Leone
Stars: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards
More information available at:
IMDB user rating: 8.8

As the new railroad creeps towards the West Coast, Irishman McBain owns a prime piece of land on the route it must take. Morton, the evil railroad boss, wants him removed, so his brutal enforcer, Frank, murders McBain and his family. Unfortunately, they don’t get his wife, Jill, a former prostitute travelling from New Orleans to join her husband. Now finding herself alone and in danger, she becomes involved in the schemes of loveable bandit Cheyenne and the enigmatic ‘Harmonica’, who has a score to settle with Frank.

That’s quite a lot of plot, but really all you need to know is that it’s about how the fates of the four main characters – Frank, Jill, Cheyenne, Harmonica – are entwined. The plot feels almost unimportant. Great Westerns invariably deal with the end of the old West as civilisation and money move in, and here the railroad brings order to the frontier. Our four main characters are Western archetypes, who need to adapt or die out. Jill and Frank, at least, are trying to do so, although Morton scorns Frank’s efforts. There’s an unreal, almost fairy tale feel to the story (‘once upon a time…’).

The characters are essentially the same three – good, bad and ugly – as in Leone’s most famous film, with the addition of the beautiful woman to act as their potential prize. Claudia Cardinale is incredibly sexy and does all she needs to, although the part is a bit weak. The three male stars are superb, though. Henry Fonda is cast against type as the evil Frank, his blue eyes twinkling as he guns down children. He moves with an almost balletic grace, and it’s one of his more enduring performances. Jason Robards is great as the jovial Cheyenne, although it’s an odd part that doesn’t seem to add much to the plot – the character’s big moments all take place off screen. Charles Bronson is perfect as the granite-faced Harmonica, doing what’s right in order to force a confrontation with Frank. It never looks like he’s really playing that mouth organ, though.

The film is damned long, two and three quarter hours. Leone likes to take his time. Famously, the film begins with ten minutes of largely dialogue free build-up as three assassins wait for a train to come in. The actual gunfight that finally ensues lasts about three seconds. Leone’s gunfights are all about build-up, and if you’re not a supernaturally good fighter in a Leone film, you’re dead meat. After its slow opening, the film then takes 15 more leisurely minutes to kill off McBain and his family.

The film has a pace and rhythm all its own, and if you’re not up for a film that takes its sweet time getting where it goes, you’d best just avoid this. Oddly, it’s only during a period of plot furtherance about an hour and three quarters in that the film drags a bit. When it’s just composing endless shots of people wandering around the old West, it’s utterly compelling. Although there are very few gunfights compared to the running time, this still feels like a violent film. It’s got a curious ‘arthouse meets exploitation’ vibe, enhanced by the fact that most of the supporting cast are Italians who are obviously dubbed. Leone’s collaborators on the story were Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, so it has one foot in each camp.

The film is beautifully designed and looks incredible. The rolling prairies and huge blue sky scream classic Western at you, and there are a few scenes shot in Monument Valley where John Ford shot many of his movies. Leone’s films are all about small details – flickering eyeballs, heavily stubbled faces – and they’ve rarely looked as good as they do here. The music, by Ennio Morricone, is justly famous, and is one of my favourite soundtracks (one of the few that works as an album without the film). Each character gets their own theme. While Cheyenne’s sounds a bit too Steptoe and Son, the others are iconic, especially Frank’s doom-laden guitar chords. And the film makes great use of other sounds: the creaking, clattering noises at the station as the assassins wait for their showdown add greatly to the sense of anticipation, and the industrial sounding steam engines sound the death knell for the horsebound Westerners’ way of life.

There aren’t many weaknesses to the film. The plot seems to get a bit tangled at one point, with it feeling like there should have been another scene or two explaining how certain characters got to certain places, but I guess the film was long enough already. And Jill and Frank’s scene together feels unnecessary, as if it was added just to give Cardinale and Fonda some time together on camera. But these are minor points.

Ultimately, this is a film that, if you’re in the right mood, completely captures you with its almost hypnotic pace. It gives what is really just pulp fiction an astounding emotional resonance in its final scenes. Along with The Wild Bunch, made at about the same time, this is my favourite Western.

Blu-ray and extras

Happily the Blu-ray is excellent. There’s plenty of detail visible, with the stubble and facial pores of actors particularly well presented. It looks like the grain in the image has been reduced digitally, which gives certain shots a slightly odd sheen, but the colours are rich and this does justice to a film that really is a visual treat.

There are two versions of the film, the theatrical version and a ‘restored’ version. There’s not much difference in running time. Extras-wise, only the theatrical trailer is in HD.

Otherwise we get several separate documentaries in which some surviving participants (Bertolucci and Cardinale) and a few critics and filmmakers (including Christopher Frayling, author of a book on Leone; and Alex Cox, author of a great book on Spaghetti Westerns) discuss the film. These are OK, but I don’t understand why they’ve been split into three documentaries when all feature the exact same people.

Apart from an image gallery, the other extra is a commentary. It again features the people who were already on the documentaries, and is a disjointed affair, not feeling like a proper commentary as everyone obviously recorded their parts separately. Frayling has a few interesting things to say, I guess, and Cox picks holes in the film’s continuity. Oddly, the commentary and the trailer are the only extras mentioned on the back of the box. The cover image also looks peculiar, as if Claudia Cardinale’s legs have turned into a tree trunk.

Still, I don’t imagine anyone will buy this for the extras or the DVD cover. Get it for the film – this is a great Blu-ray presentation of a real classic.

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Comments on this review

  • jonathanb published 22/11/2011
    I've never seen this but it sounds well worth a watch.
  • KarenUK published 24/10/2011
    Claudia Cardinale is stunning!
  • Templar19 published 23/10/2011
    For some reason, every time I think of this I hear Charles Bronson's strange delivery. 'I like my water frish!'
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Product Information : Once Upon A Time In The West [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Fonda, Henry

DVD Region: Blu-ray

EAN: 5051368216232

Director(s) (Last name, First name): Leone, Sergio

Classification: 12 years and over

Production Year: 1968


Listed on Ciao since: 09/09/2011