Forgotten DVD Classics: Once Upon a Time in the West
For the price of the average overnight rental of a new release, you can own one of finest Westerns ever put to film on DVD.
Directed By: Sergio Leone
Starring: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale.
Can a spaghetti Western be art?
In the late 60's critics were unkind to Westerns in general, especially the new breed of so-called Spaghetti Westerns. At first glance it seems Italian film and the American West makes a strange match.
Once Upon a Time in the West has a complex but tightly woven plot with typical Western elements like a railroad, money and revenge. This is Leone's first ever big budget film and his trademark attention to the subtle but immersive details is artfully indulged. Panoramic landscapes, sweat beading on an unshaven face, a squeaky windmill and whistling wind all share the spotlight of Leone's skilled direction. The musical score puts on a powerful performance intermittently rising like an unforgettable character in the movie. Leone loves to pan across
For Once Upon a Time in the West (and part of the reason for the film's lack of commercial success) Leone twists every Western stereotype. Henry Fonda with his kindly bright blue eyes is not his usual hero or nice guy. Instead he's a cold hearted killer. No spoilers here - but there is a particularly bold scene for Henry Fonda. I can only imagine the horror felt by Fonda fans of conventional Westerns at watching it. But I'm not giving anything away - you'll have to see the movie.
Transcending Dialogue with Film
In the 1960s after some commercial success with Westerns staring Clint Eastwood,
Consider the first half hour of the movie. Only about five words are spoken and these words are just a background to the events unfolding. Consider this scene:
Three desperados arrive at a rail station (they include Woody Strode and Jack Elam). They intimidate the station's lone operator and they begin a long wait. We wait as they wait in the hot afternoon. One of the men is annoyed by a fly before catching it in the barrel of his pistol. Another is momentarily driven to the brink of violence by a leaky roof. You can feel the tension before the train they're waiting for arrives. The three men examine passengers when the train arrives but the passenger they're waiting for doesn't show. The long coated desperado's prepare to depart. Then we hear it. The ghostly music of a harmonica projected across 5.1 channels providing haunting ambience. The noisy train seems encumbered by its machinery and rumbles away exposing Charles Bronson standing on dusty boards at the edge of the station, holding the harmonica to his mouth.
"Did you bring a horse for me?" The Harmonica (Bronson) asks the three.
"We're one horse short." One of three men smirks. Pause, Harmonica examines his situation.
"No, you brought two too many," Bronson replies.
This is classic cinema!
The digital remastering of this classic is an incredible job well done. It's visually pristine, free of fade and artifacts. The 5.1 soundtrack is discreet with no aggressive or distracting use of the surrounds and maintains the classic aura of the film. The added channels add ambience where it should and gives shootouts another dimension. The musical score sounds as good as if you popped in your favorite CD. The ghostly harmonica resonates nicely but it may be the only aspect of the soundtrack bordering on overdone.
This two-disc set also has a wealth of extra features. A director's featurette has noted directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox telling the viewer how Leone and this film influenced their own careers. The supplemental DVD is packed with information about the historic Civil War era and the history behind the railway and other topics touched upon in the film.
The best thing about the DVD release of Once Upon a Time in the West is that for less than the cost of a modest diner at a fast-food joint you can own one of the best Westerns ever made.
Available subtitles: English
Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Commentary track with contributions from directors John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, film historian (& Leone biographer) Sir Chirstopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, and comments from cast and crew members
3 new making-of documentaries:
"An Opera of Violence"
"The Wages of Sin"
"Something To Do With Death"
"Railroad: Revolutionizing the West" featurette
Location & production galleries
Widescreen anamorphic format
Number of discs: 2