Once Upon a Time in the West (4K UHD)

Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Sergio Donati & Sergio Leone (story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, & Sergio Leone)
Stars: Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Henry Fonda (Frank), Jason Robards (Manuel “Cheyenne” Gutierrez), Charles Bronson (Harmonica), Gabriele Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Woody Strode (Stony), Jack Elam (Snaky), Keenan Wynn (Flagstone sheriff), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Lionel Stander (Barman)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1968
Country: U.S. / Italy
Once Upon a Time in the West Paramount Presents 4K UHD
Once Upon a Time in the West

Director Sergio Leone did two things better than just about any other director before or since: shooting close-ups and choreographing memorable entrances for his characters. Those two skills, which are on impressive display in every feature-length film he ever made, were never so stunningly combined as in the revelation of the villain, Frank, in his masterpiece Once Upon a Time the West (C’era una volta il West).

The scene takes place near the beginning of the 165-minute western, and it starts with a homesteader family, the McBains, preparing a feast to celebrate the arrival of the widower father’s (Frank Wolff) new wife. The celebration is cut short, though, when bullets from unseen assailants take down every member of the family—father, daughter, and son. There is one person left, a 10-year-old boy who come scampering out of the house and is met with the grisly sight of his entire family dead on the ground, gunned down in cold blood. Then, the men emerge out of the brush, tall, hulking figures in full-length leather dusters.

The camera slowly dollies around the leader, an imposing man dressed all in black, and when it comes around to the front, we are given one of the great shocks in modern cinema: This ruthless killer is played by Henry Fonda, the longtime Hollywood leading man whose name up until that point had been virtually synonymous with upstanding characters of great moral integrity. This was Wyatt Earp from My Darling Clementine (1946) and Honest Abe from Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), both directed by John Ford. This was the dissenting juror as moral voice in 12 Angry Men (1957). Yet, here he stands, and Leone gives the audience a moment to register the delicious irony of it with a sustained close-up that takes Fonda’s sparkling blue eyes and instantly recognizable smile and turns them both into instruments of evil. And when Frank guns down the kid, it’s clear we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Once Upon a Time in the West is Leone’s masterpiece, the pinnacle of his storied career. He didn’t want to make another western, having just finished his Dollars trilogy with Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)—but U.S. financiers would only give him money if he made another one, so he took their offer and made one of the greatest westerns ever. Grandly operatic in both scale and tone, Once Upon a Time in the West is more about the western genre than it is about anything that actually happened in the southwest United States in the late 19th century. Brimming with homages to just about every memorable western imaginable, particularly John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), Once Upon a Time in the West is a brilliant metafilm that plays as both a stirring melodrama and a film geek’s cornucopia of in-jokes and movie references. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that French theorist Jean Baudrillard called Leone cinema’s first postmodern director.

Like many westerns in the late 1960s, most notably Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Once Upon a Time in the West is about the end of the era associated with the western genre. In this case, it is the railroad that is the primary symbol of the industrial and mechanical advances that would soon render cowboys and their codes of honor obsolete. As the title of the film suggests, Leone’s opus aspires to the heights of both grand storytelling and literal mythmaking. It’s a fable about the violence of progress.

Like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West revolves primarily around three men who fit into different western stereotypes (the story was concocted by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Leone, all men who were well-versed in the western genre and would go on to vastly different cinematic careers). The strong, silent hero is a man known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) because he keeps the instrument tied around his neck and his presence is often signaled not by the immediate sight of him, but by his harmonica’s forlorn call (the tune of which is courtesy of Ennio Morricone, who scored all of Leone’s spaghetti westerns). The wily, rambunctious bandit is Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who at first appears to be a bad man, but eventually wins us over with his charisma and wit. And, of course, the true bad guy is the aforementioned Frank, played with sadistic glee by Fonda in what is truly one of the greatest instances of casting against type. His role is so shockingly memorable not because it’s simply “Henry Fonda being a villain,” but because, as Alfred Hitchcock did with James Stewart in Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), Leone unearths a dark mirror image of Fonda’s morally upright persona; the good we associate with his previous roles intermingles with Frank’s unmitigated badness, making him a disturbingly complex villain.

However, unlike Leone’s other westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West also features a central and complex female character: Jill (Claudia Cardinale), the woman who travels from New Orleans to marry McBain only to find him and the rest of his family massacred by Frank and his henchmen (the fact that we later find out Frank wasn’t supposed to kill anyone makes him seem all the more ruthless). Jill is not your typical western female, as she does not fall squarely into the “whore” or “Madonna” category. Rather, she bridges the character types; as a former prostitute, she is an unabashedly sexual character, but her sexuality is not used against her. Rather, it is one of her strengths, something that helps her survive in a harsh world.

For reasons that are not made clear until midway through the film, a railroad baron named Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) is determined to see Jill dead, and he uses Frank as his mercenary. Meanwhile, Harmonica is determined to see Frank dead, but only by his own hand because he has a score to settle (the reason for this score is deliciously drawn out in fragmented flashbacks that don’t come together until he and Frank are squaring off for their third-act duel in the sun). Cheyenne is caught up in the middle of it all, and eventually he and Harmonica become unlikely allies.

Narrative aside, Once Upon a Time in the West’s chief strength is its impressive visual scope. Leone was a master of intercutting vistas of the human visage with widescreen vistas of the western landscape (usually shot in Spain or Italy, although several key scenes in this film were shot in Utah’s Monument Valley, home of eight John Ford westerns). It has been said many times that Leone treated the human face like a landscape, as no one was better as utilizing the ’Scope frame to turn a hardened stare into a moment of pure myth. Leone underscores his mythical impulses with the distention of time, which is most clearly articulated in the film’s opening sequence, where three killers await the arrival of a train. Unlike today’s frenetic action directors who feel that their films are lagging if there isn’t an edit every two seconds, Leone was content to linger on his images, allowing them to derive power and depth from that concerted focus. It adds a level of intrigue and grandiosity that befits his larger-than-life narratives and brilliant upturning of western clichés. He gets away with reworking cherished genre staples because he’s never parodic or insulting. Rather, he finds new depths in previously two-dimensional characters and situations, imbuing the old with an exhilarating sense of infinite possibilities

Once Upon a Time in the West Paramount Presents 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital Copy

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • German Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, German, French, Spanish, Japanese
  • Audio commentary by the hosts of the Spaghetti Westerns Podcast
  • Audio commentary by directors John Carpenter, John Milius, and Alex Cox, film historians Sir Christopher Frayling & Dr. Sheldon Hall, -coscreenwriter Bernardo Bertolucci, and actress Claudia Cardinale
  • “A Look Back With Leonard Maltin” featurette
  • “An Opera of Violence” featurette
  • “The Wages of Sin” featurette
  • “Something To Do With Death” featurette
  • “Railroad: Revolutionizing the West” featurette
  • “Locations Then & Now” gallery
  • Production gallery
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateMay 14, 2024

    It has been almost exactly 13 years since Paramount released Once Upon a Time in the West on Blu-ray, which followed its original DVD back in 2003 in its 165-minute international version. Apparently, there was a 171-minute version that originally premiered in Italy, but the scenes that were cut from it have been lost. This new 4K UHD set features the 165-minute cut that was originally restored by the Film Foundation in 2007 that added back about 39 seconds of footage, although I confess that I was unable to determine where that new footage appears (searches of several prominent forums suggested that those seconds were slight extensions on a few scenes and some corrected music cues). The image on the new 4K release has been transferred from the original Techniscope 35mm camera negative that was restored in 2018 by Paramount, L’Immagine Ritrovata, and The Film Foundation. It has been graded for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are available).

    So, how does it look? Well, overall it looks extremely good, especially in terms of color and contrast, both of which are notably improved with the HDR grading. The image has always been inherently compromised by the fact that Leone shot the film in the 2-perf 35mm Techniscope format, which creates a widescreen image by dividing a traditional 35mm film frame in half, creating two wider frames out of one squarish frame, but losing 50% of the resolution in the process. This format tends to exaggerate the presence of grain, especially when printed for theatrical presentation. Astute viewers will notice that the image on the 4K disc looks quite a bit smoother than the 2011 Blu-ray, which was decidedly gritty in its appearance. The assumed culprit is, of course, the dreaded DNR (digital noise reduction), which Paramount has been blamed for overusing in the past. However, I have read numerous sources that have attributed the smoother image not to DNR, but rather to compression issues, pointing out the fact that the 165-minute film has been compressed onto a 66GB dual-layer disc, rather than a 100GB triple-layer disc, which could have made a substantial difference. Of course, there will be some dissent. Film restorationist Robert Harris feels that the transfer is a resounding success and notes that the softer appearance brings it more in line with the original dye-transfer theatrical prints, which were not notably grainy. However you see it, there is still some nice texture in evidence and strong detail, particularly in those gritty close-ups, where you can make out every crease and wrinkle and blackhead. The warm, slightly desaturated color palette is perfectly represented, and any damage in the form of nicks, scratches, or dirt is virtually nonexistent. As with the Blu-ray, the original monaural soundtrack is included on the disc for purists, although the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround remix sounds excellent and is my track of choice. Ennio Morricone’s memorable musical score is nicely spaced out and given additional depth, and the surround speakers create good ambiance with echoes and the sounds of wind and dust blowing.

    There are two new supplements included here: First, there is an audio commentary by Jay Jennings and Tom Betts, the hosts of The Spaghetti Westerns Podcast, who, as you might imagine, rightly revere this film and have a lot to say about it. The second is a short “Leonard Maltin Presents” featurette in which the notable film critic and historian gives a snapshot of the film’s significance. Otherwise, all of the supplements are making repeat appearances from the previous two releases. There is an audio commentary that features film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Sheldon Hall, co-screenwriter Bernardo Bertolucci, actress Claudia Cardinale, and directors John Carpenter, John Milius, and Alex Cox. Despite the marquee name value of the participants, this commentary is something of a mixed bag, although it is definitely worth spending time with. Some of the commentary is screen-specific, while other parts are not (such as when Bertolucci tells of how he came to be one of the co-writers with Dario Argento and Leone). (It should be noted that neither of the commentaries is included on the 4K disc, so to listen to them you have to watch the Blu-ray; I imagine this was done to preserve bitrate for the film itself.) The three making-of documentaries—An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin, and Something to Do With Death—are actually three parts a single documentary that runs more than an hour in length. It features interview footage with everyone included in the commentary track, along with archival footage of interviews with Leone and Henry Fonda. “Railroad: Revolutionizing the West” is a 7-minute featurette that is both a quickie history lesson on the development of the railroad and a study of how it figures into the film. The “Locations Then & Now” slideshow gallery contain dozens of stills from the film and corresponding images of the locations as they appeared in 2003, while the production stills gallery is a five-minute automated slideshow of black-and-white production and behind-the-scenes stills, including seven images of Harmonica being beaten in a scene that was cut from the international version (the footage has been long lost). Also included is the original theatrical trailer.

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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