Blu-ray Review: Once Upon a Time in the West - An Artful, Intense and Thrilling Epic

Is the Blu-Ray edition of this classic Sergio Leone Western worth a few dollars more?

Released two years after his iconic, Italian-made "Dollars trilogy" - which launched the career of TV actor Clint Eastwood and created the "Spaghetti Western" sub-genre - 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West is arguably director Sergio Leone's crowning achievement. The inspired casting of blue-eyed American great Henry Fonda as a cruel villain is matched by the spectacle of Charles Bronson as the mysterious "Harmonica" and Jason Robards as the likeable gun-slinging outlaw, whilst Ennio Morricone's score - and an ingenious diegetic sound-scape - upstages everyone in a near three-hour epic with less than 15 pages of dialogue. In many ways Leone was the original Quentin Tarantino: a dedicated cinephile who made films which consciously referenced those that inspired him. In Once Upon a Time in the West there are clear allusions to the work of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray, among others. Yet far from being a derivative hack, Leone brought his own, oft-imitated style to the Western. He contrasted extreme close-ups with expansive wide-shots, cut his films with music in mind (the score for this one was composed prior to filming) and popularised a dirty, sweaty, rough-edged aesthetic in which the great icons of the American West were subverted - and critiqued - even as they were celebrated. Here all the classic themes of the genre are in play. In Claudia Cardinale's Jill is a character who embodies both the Madonna and the whore: a caring mother-figure and a former prostitute - and the emotional centre of this story. Another well-worn trope employed is that of the rail-road, the expansion of which brings wealth and corruption, forever destroying the idyll of simple frontier life. This aspect is personified by Gabriele Ferzetti's Mr. Morton - a businessman confined to a decadent train carriage with his physical deformity serving as a metaphor for an internal weakness of character. The three male stars, previously mentioned, clearly embody other established Western archetypes: the black-hatted villain, the wise-cracking rouge and the hero with no name. Though each is morally ambiguous in their own way, with no clear heroes. Some make the distinction between art and entertainment, but this is one of those films you'd have to work very hard to discredit as a genuine example of both. The sound and production design are intoxicating, the screenplay - developed by Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci in conjunction with Leone and Sergio Donati (translated into English by blacklisted Mickey Knox) - is full of memorable one-liners and the photography is breathtaking. And for something that often feels more akin to modern European slow cinema, with long takes and intense periods of inaction, the film also has its share of satisfying action, the best of which surpasses even the Dollar films in terms of choreography and visceral brutality.


Happily this is one classic movie with features to match its status. Paramount have been kind enough to include not only the standard original trailer and production stills gallery, but also a short look at the film's historical context (Railroad: Revolutionising the West, which is about 6 minutes long), a photographic look at the film's locations as they are today (running at around 4 minutes) and a considerable feature-length documentary. Divided into three segments on the disc (An Opera of Violence (28 mins), Wages of Sin (19 mins) and Something to do With Death (18 mins)), this fascinating insight consists of to-camera interviews with film historians, Leone cast and crew, and contributions from fellow directors: Alex Cox, John Carpenter, Bernardo Bertolucci and John Milius. These look at the life and career of Sergio Leone before paying close attention to all things Once Upon a Time in the West: from set design, to music, to writing and casting. These aren't fawning puff-pieces, but close, critical readings of the film from serious experts. This tone is carried over - and indeed amplified - on the feature's outstanding commentary track. All the above contributors feature, though the best bits belong to film historians Sheldon Hall and Sir Christopher Frayling who give really detailed analysis of key scenes, pointing out all the film references (to the likes of Nigh Noon, The Searchers and Johnny Guitar) and letting us in on interesting bits of trivia (the timber used on construction of many of the sets was boosted from the set of Orson Welles recently finished Chimes at Midnight, also shot in Almeria). For fans of Leone, the Western or, indeed, cinema, this Blu-ray package is indispensable. Once Upon a Time in the West is available now on Blu-Ray.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.