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Once Upon a Time in the West(1968)
A recently married woman arrives to her ranch out west to find her husband has been killed by a band of outlaws who want the railroad-valuable land. A brooding, young cowboy steps in to stop them.
For more about Once Upon a Time in the West and the Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray release, see Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on May 26, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, Gabriele Ferzetti, Paolo Stoppa
Director: Sergio Leone
» See full cast & crew
Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray Review
Paramount continues its ascendancy towards the top of Blu-ray's best studios list with this fantastic vintage release.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, May 26, 2011
Pretty soon the widow MacBain won't be a problem no more.
Once Upon a Time In the West demonstrates how precision craftsmanship can elevate a picture from "good" to "legendary." With a sound but not necessarily all that original story and a quartet of fine acting performances up its sleeve, it's not a wonder that this is a quality film, but add to that Director Sergio Leone's (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli's (Life is Beautiful) breathtaking cinematic framing, pacing, and emotional and thematic manipulation through moving imagery, and suddenly that quality picture becomes something else altogether, in essence yielding a masterwork within not only the Western genre but throughout the entire cinematic landscape, the picture proving to be one of admittedly many practically faultless films to be sure but nevertheless one of a relatively small grouping when compared against the entire history of motion pictures. Still, Leone's picture is neither a definition nor a redefinition of the Western; it's neither too naive nor too artistically, thematically, or visually divergent for that to be the case, but what it is one of the genre's most complete pictures. It paints a picture of thematic darkness that's contrasted against the physically harsh sunlight baking faces and smoldering-hot old west terrains alike, featuring characters of which many of whom are pitted one against another but who straddle the line of good and evil rather than fall squarely on one side or the other. In other words, Once Upon a Time in the West isn't the old west romanticized on film; it's instead a long, hard look the realities of frontier life and the consequences of the seemingly sudden transition of place and time from old to new and the drastic consequences thereof on both the land and the men and women who call it home.
Widower Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his children own a seemingly worthless chunk of land dubbed "Sweetwater," but he foresees great profits when it appears the thriving and quickly-expanding westward railroad will have to depend on his land, which he plans to considerably build up into a rail depot and town and live off the influx of wealth it promises to create. He's set to marry a young woman from New Orleans named Jill (Claudia Cardinale, 8 1/2) who is herself making the bulk of her journey by train and traveling by buggy the rest of the way to Sweetwater. Unfortunately, when she arrives, she finds her would-be husband and stepchildren dead, slaughtered by a hired gun named Frank (Henry Fonda, 12 Angry Men) who plants evidence that he hopes will frame another outlaw known as Cheyenne (Jason Robards, Max Dugan Returns) for the killings. At the same time, a mysterious gunslinger known only as "Harmonica" (Charles Bronson, The Dirty Dozen) appears on the scene as an ally of Jills, helping her by joining forces with Cheyenne to ward off Frank's further advances to eliminate her and sieze Sweetwater at the behest of a disabled railroad tycoon named Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti).
As alluded to above, Once Upon a Time in the West owes much of its success to the incredible work of the director and cinematographer. Leone and Delli Colli's work is so faultlessly executed that they routinely transform otherwise terribly mundane and static shots and slow-moving scenes into literal works of art; perhaps no director and cinematographer tandem have ever demonstrated this much raw craftsmanship in a movie. Leone's handiwork is evidenced immediately; he draws out a scene featuring three men awaiting a train for minutes on end, and without dialogue or action that amounts to more than a sway, a glance, or the most subtle of movements, he manages to create the single-most captivating sequence in the movie. Leone's entire film follows suit, playing as a textbook and museum-worthy piece of effective subtleness throughout. Sure, Once Upon a Time in the West is "slow," but this a picture where the relaxed pacing is a plus, allowing the audiences extra time to soak up not only the story and the performances and the unbearably hot sun beating down on the film canvas, but to step back from the story for just a moment and recognize Leone's unique penchant for storytelling and structure and Delli Colli's impeccable lensing. Indeed, Leone builds his film as much through inaction as action; as much is said through stares, glances, and visual juxtapositions as through more traditional forms of storytelling advancements such as dialogue and exaggerated physical movement. Once Upon a Time in the West is a spellbinding treasure that's perhaps the definitive showcase of how cinema as art is more effective than cinema as sheer noise and dumbed-down entertainment.
The amazing craftsmanship aside, Once Upon a Time in the West's secondary attributes are simply too good not to earn near equal praise. Perhaps most readily evident, the film uses sound -- not only music -- to wonderful effect. Background sound effects -- a creaky windmill, the singing and silencing of insects, the low thump-thump-thump cadence of a stationary train -- run the gamut of mood-setters and reinforcers, playing sometimes hauntingly, sometimes menacingly, sometimes forebodingly, sometimes playfully. They represent signs of things coming and going in the literal and figurative senses alike, serving as storytelling elements that are just as critical to the plot as anything else in the film. The cast is superb, too; none of them are as truly critical to the film's success as Leone's work behind the camera, but it would certainly be to the film's detriment without any or all of the quartet of Bronson, Robards, Fonda, and Cardinale, all of whom understand that in this film it's the looks and the way the words are said and the style with which they carry themselves that are more important than the superficial actions and dialogues. As for the story they play out, it's a rather simple one, really, but one made to seem superior by the gathering of the peripheral elements that elevate it to rarely-achieved heights. The story speaks on the juxtaposition of old and new, the settled and unsettled, the known and unknown. It's as deeply-rooted in clashes over money and power and politics as it is the machismo on the ground level where the men maneuver themselves to take part in the highest-stake game of all where it's all-in for all the marbles, one shot, six chances. It's about properly carrying oneself whether in good and evil, where the pull of the trigger is less important than the wheres and whys and hows. Leone reinforces this throughout with his long, drawn-out sequences that are more representative of the intricacies of life and less concerned with the in-the-moment action, which does come but is made all the more purposeful and destructive when framed in this proper context.
Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray, Video Quality
Once Upon a Time in the West's Blu-ray release serves as further proof that it's hard to beat Paramount when the studio gives full effort to a title, new or catalogue. Indeed, Sergio Leone's masterpiece Western looks absolutely superb on Blu-ray, serving as one of the finest-looking pictures of its era yet on the high definition format. The image is sharp without appearing excessively so, enhanced by a natural layer of film grain that positively accentuates the wonderful clarity and definition of Leone's and Delli Colli's sweaty, sun-drenched, rustic Western. Textures of old wooden planks, creases in leather, fine sandy and dusty terrain, and weather-worn and sweaty faces never fail to not only impress, but dazzle at the intricacy with which the transfer yields both general and fine detailing across every frame and at most any distance. Clarity is wonderful, softness is rare, and great natural depth is evident in many scenes. Colors are greatly influenced by the harsh lighting of the hot sun beating down on bronzed faces and earthen terrains; tans, yellows, and browns dominate the palette, but each shade no matter how subtle or (however rarely) bold seems perfectly balanced. Black levels, too, are impeccably inky and never crush out critical details in darker scenes. On the negative side of the ledger, slight wobble is evident, a few very subtle pops and scratches remain in spots, and a hint of blockiness and noise infiltrates a few backgrounds, but such problems range from inconsequential at best to minor at worst and never really detract from the overall Blu-ray experience. No doubt Paramount has hit another home run with Once Upon a Time in the West; this comes pretty close to Blu-ray perfection, and fans couldn't have dreamed of a restoration this gorgeous.
Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Once Upon a Time in the West's DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack is no slouch, either. Purists will be interested in the included original mono presentation, but there's no reason not embrace Paramount's tasteful and authentic-in-feel wider soundtrack. As noted above, sound plays a critical part in Once Upon a Time in the West; minor ambience immediately relocates listeners from the cool dark of the screening room to the sweaty sun-drenched western landscape where slight blowing winds are ever-present but fail to cool the hot and heavy on-screen air. Squeaky windmills, idling trains, buzzing insects, chirping birds, creaking wooden planks, sandy footsteps, and rattly spurs all help to create an authentic Western flair, and the clarity with which each of these enters the soundstage is second-to-none. Of course, music is robust, spacious, and crisp as well, never sounding at all audibly antiquated. Heavier sound effects are equally impressive; shotgun and rifle blasts are tastefully and realistically loud and potent, while the power of a locomotive rumbles with a presence befitting a machine of its size and strength. Imaging is strong and directional effects are few, but listeners will enjoy a few aggressive elements that see sound pass through the listening area, such as a train that pulls into the soundstage from front to back early in the film. Pristine dialogue rounds this superb track into form as another highlight on a disc with no real weak spot of which to speak.
Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Once Upon a Time in the West debuts on Blu-ray with a fine assortment of extra content. Additionally, Paramount's Blu-ray features two samplings of the film: the theatrical version (2:45:24) and the restored version (2:46:01), the latter made possible by the support of The Film Foundation and The Rome Film Festival in association with Sergio Leone Productions and Paramount Pictures.
Once Upon a Time in the West Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Once Upon a Time in the West is a marvelous picture that's a success because of its story and acting, yes, but more so for its raw craftsmanship. Leone is one the definitive Western directors and Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the genre's single greatest pictures, a rare feat where everything comes together and gels into a picture that's not only enjoyable, but wondrous in its pure craftsmanship. It's a film that has to be seen to be truly appreciated, for it's Leone's ability to so perfectly manipulate both the picture and his audiences through specific movements, actions, and in some cases even inactions that make the movie a special experience not only within the Western genre, but throughout the entire cinematic landscape. Paramount's Blu-ray release of the all-time classic film features a most impressive visual restoration that makes the movie look practically brand new. A fantastic lossless soundtrack and plenty of strong extras make this a must-buy release. Very highly recommended.
Once Upon a Time in the West: Other Editions
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