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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST ($20) is unquestionably director Sergio Leone’s masterpiece; a film that not only defines the "spaghetti western" sub-genre, but also redefines and reinvigorates the entire western genre as a whole. This movie is a big sweeping epic, yet its plot is so completely minimalistic that can be boiled down to just a few key words- greed, murder, revenge and redemption. While at first glance, the plot of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST may seem a bit thin, the film has a level of emotional complexity that emanates from its fascinating characters, all of whom are richly defined, despite the fact that dialogue is sometimes a very sparse commodity in this two and a half hour movie. Additionally, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is certainly one the most visually striking westerns ever made- a film that is not only tremendously beautiful to look at, but also a movie that is wholly dependent upon its visual component as its primary storytelling device.

In ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST Charles Bronson portrays another "man with no name" referred to only as Harmonica because of the musical instrument that he wears around his neck that he continues to play throughout the course of the film. Harmonica has some unfinished business of a personal nature with a hired gun known as Frank (Henry Fonda), who is currently in the employ of Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a seriously ill railroad baron. Upon meeting Frank, we learn that he is a sadistic, cold-blooded killer, who wipes out an entire the entire McBain family; just as the patriarch’s new bride Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is scheduled to arrive at the isolated family home. Then after murdering the McBain clan, Frank and his men leave behind evidence to implicate a recently escaped outlaw named Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Other than to say that all of these characters are on a collision course with each other and the railroad, the remaining details of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST are best discovered as the story plays out. The cast of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST also includes Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, Frank Wolff and Lionel Stander.

Paramount Home Entertainment has made ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST available on DVD in a 2.35:1 wide screen presentation that has been enhanced for playback on 16:9 displays. Right up front I have say that Paramount has done a phenomenal job with their presentation of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Utilizing the one hundred sixty five minute European version of the film, Paramount has meticulously cleaned up the film elements to create a virtually pristine presentation on DVD. The image on the DVD is incredibly sharp and well defined, with the film’s numerous extreme close-ups showing every line, crease and visible pore in the actors’ faces.

Colors are strongly rendered, with the dusty earthed tones of the film’s landscape dominating the color scheme. Flesh tones tend to be somewhat exaggerated, as though many of the characters had been out baking in the hot western sun for a good long time. All of the hues are rendered with excellent stability and no signs of noise or smearing. Blacks are dead on the money and whites are clean. Contrast is very good, while shadow detail is respectable enough, considering that ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST a thirty-year-old Techniscope production. A grain structure is noticeable in various places throughout the presentation, but is never excessive. Digital compression artifacts are usually well concealed.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST comes with a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack, as well as a restored version of the original monaural track. The 5.1 channel track remains fairly faithful to the film’s original monaural sound design, while adding an expansive quality by spreading out Ennio Morricone’s superb score and adding an ambient quality to the outlying channels of the sound field. There isn’t much overt directionality in the track, which would make it seem artificially processed, but there is just enough to make the sound field seem enveloping. The fidelity of Morricone’s music is good for its age and production limitations, plus it sounds quite good with moderate amounts of amplification. All of the post-synched dialogue is clean, clear and completely understandable. The restored monaural track is also clean sounding, but a bit flat in comparison to the 5.1 channel version. A French language track is also included on the DVD, as are English subtitles.

Full motion video, animation and sound enhance the interactive menus, which provide access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as the excellent supplemental materials that have been spread across both discs of this set. Disc one features a wonderful and highly informative running audio commentary that features Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, movie historian Dr. Sheldon Hall, directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox, actress Claudia Cardinale plus additional comments from various members of the cast and crew.

Disc two offers of the supplemental programs, which starts with a three-part documentary that runs well over an hour. An Opera Of Violence, The Wages Of Sin and Something To Do With Death each look at a different aspect of the production through new interviews with various participants of the audio commentar. Other interviewees in the documentary include storywriter Bernardo Bertolucci, actor Gabriele Ferzetti and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, in addition to Henry Fonda and Sergio Leone, who appear via vintage interviews. The Railroad: Revolutionizing The West is a brief, but informative featurette that examines the impact of the railroad on the American west. Also included is a Location Gallery that looks at the film’s locations at the time of the production and now, a Production Gallery of stills, Cast Profiles and a theatrical trailer.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is indeed a masterpiece of the western genre and one of the most significant DVD releases of the year. Paramount has done a truly superb job with the film’s presentation- producing a virtually flawless image and totally solid re-mastering of the vintage soundtrack. With the wonderful supplemental features ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is truly a must own DVD. Absolutely recommended.



Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


DVD reviews are Copyright © 2003 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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