A modern classic that's grown in steadily stature since its 1968 debut, Once Upon a Time In the West (coded by Leone fans as OUATITW) is a Western like no other. It's been described as sagebrush Kabuki, as Grand Opera and by detractors as Sergio Leone telling a 40-minute story in 160 minutes.
Few Spaghetti Westerns are outstanding movies, and few besides those of Sergio Leone approach anyone's idea of Art. After the Dollars trilogy, Il Maestro shifted from comedic cynicism to a serious posture that would be pretentious if not held aloft by all the magic that cinema can offer -- wonderful faces, beautiful cinematography, rapturous music. Once Upon a Time In the West is like a valentine to the American Western made by an outsider who couldn't speak English. If you're a Leone convert, you've perhaps seen it too many times already. For those who haven't seen it, it will either be a frustrating exercise in slow cinema, or an opportunity to experience a revelation.
Paramount's long awaited Blu-ray repeats the extras from the 2003 special edition. It's billed as "meticulously restored", with both the theatrical version seen since 1984 and a new cut with a few seconds of additional footage.
Both versions illustrate a grand story with similarities to Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar. Ex- New Orleans prostitute Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in Flagstone, Arizona to announce her secret marriage to Brett McBain (Frank Wolff), a landholder with water in the path of the oncoming railroad. But hired killer Frank (Henry Fonda) has already killed the entire McBain family, to secure the property for railroad tycoon Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti). Jill's survival throws a wrench in the works for Morton when the notorious outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and a mysterious, nameless gunman known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) intercede on her behalf. The opposite sides spar and maneuver in preparation for an epic showdown all know is inevitable.
OUATITW departs from the half-joking rakishness and nonchalant violence of Sergio Leone's first three Clint Eastwood pictures. Eastwood strolled through his pictures like a bulletproof bill collector, wiping out everyone he met with a wry sense of humor provided by screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni. This time we get a serious saga told with a delicacy one would expect in a Visconti film. Leone infuses the proceedings with his visual acumen and stretches to achieve different effects. The picture centers on a woman, and the gun-downs are more mythic and ritualized than ever before. There's a touch of Alain Resnais self-consciousness -- the cowboys and gunmen walk and move as if they were in a dream. Is this a Zen Western?
Henry Fonda is the most abstract of the exalted gunslingers. He'd just previously played a villain in the minor Firecreek but nothing prepared fans for the sight of Fonda's blue eyes and crooked sneer in this picture. His villain Frank is as as black hearted as they come. Frank moves carefully, calculating everything he says and does. He's tall, dark, sunburned and magnificent whether riding a horse or just holstering his gun. In the film's central flashback, Fonda is made to look not only younger but more feral, like Gian-Maria Volonté in the first two Dollars films. He's another animal entirely than the calm, almost angelic Henry of Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath.
Cast against type, Jason Robards is supposed to be Mexican in the script but comes off as an Irish bandit-philosopher. He's easily the most talkative of the bunch, but much of his speechifying doesn't seem to be addressed exactly to the person he's talking to - they're dream words as well.
As the patented Leone Man With No Name type, Charles Bronson would seem an expressionless brick -- until his green-eyed gaze soaks in. His dry, squinting face looks like an unfinished clay sculpture, a Golem in a cowboy hat. Relatively short in height, Bronson nonetheless convinces as tougher than the rest of the cast put together. His Harmonica is the least talkative character in the Leone canon -- he'll stare for thirty seconds before returning a three-syllable answer.
Modern movies afraid of losing their audience will fill every moment with action and empty 'activity'. With this film Leone began staging his action in terms of drawn-out, ritualized set pieces. Just the act of handing a person a gun, and that person placing the gun on a table, becomes a careful 30-second event that's less stage business and more like motions rehearsed since the beginning of time. The style emphasizes constant close-ups of faces and eyes that tell stories of their own. It's a different kind of storytelling.
A full twelve minutes is afforded an amusing title sequence that exists for its own sake, a static observance of gunslingers waiting in 'High Noon' mode for Bronson to arrive at Cattle Corner. Leone cast recognizable American stars Woody Strode and Jack Elam to get gunned down, and for bad luck gave them a third henchman, Al Mulock, the fool that Eli Wallach blasts from his bathtub in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (GBU). Noted Italian stars Paolo Stoppa and Gabrielle Ferzetti are on hand, with Ferzetti playing a powerful man who grows physically weaker as he gets richer.
Some critics think that Leone's storytelling style sufffered a breakdown with OUATITW. GBU already ran so long that its continuity suffered in shorter versions; even at full length, OUATITW displays gaping story holes that can frustrate a simple desire to 'read' the plot. Leone will let his actors stare at one another for what seem minutes at a time, but can't be bothered to clarify major character relationships. How exactly Henry Fonda ends up in bed with Claudia Cardinale is more than a bit muffled. Is it an all-out rape, or what? Not only that, but the scene at the cave dwelling, and the one where Bronson and Robards begin building the Sweetwater station appear to be radically out of sequence.
We're looking at a style that can be economical one moment but opaque the next, as a great deal of relevant action happens off screen. Jason Robards is constantly being caught and rescued, but we see almost none of it. Ellipsis is a good thing, as when Henry Fonda discovers the remains of a couple dozen gunmen scattered around Morton's idle train. Are we supposed to divine that Cheyenne's men had a battle with Morton's gunfighters? Was everyone killed or mortally shot, down to the last man? That Cheyenne escaped from his train ride to Yuma, organized an attack, had a big battle, and rode away to the McBain homestead seriously wounded? That's a lot of content to be skipped over. We can't escape the feeling that more story detail was intended but the film just got too darn long.
Robards clocks in good character time but he's been shortchanged for action scenes. I'm not sure he ever shoots a gun except in the train-roof gag. What's most sorely missed is the confrontation with Morton that would lead up to the battle between the two outlaw bands. The actual battle isn't necessary -- the reveal of Fonda discovering the aftermath is excellent in itself -- but Robards is robbed of a standoff all his own, for us to see how he measures up to the other, more stoic gunfighter heroes. The odd effect of this elision is that at the end when Cheyenne prepares to draw his gun, not knowing whether Frank or Harmonica will come through the door, we've forgotten that he's a fancy pistolero and not just a talker.
OUATITW works best in the present tense, in sequences conceived to make men move in the landscape like gods in a ritualized pageant. The pace is set by Ennio Morricone's glorious score, which cues movements and moods with sweep and majesty. After the frantic climactic cutting of GBU the showdown here might as well be something out of a Noh play. Bronson and especially Fonda move and face-off in slow motion, striking poses that look like they belong in an Italian fashion magazine. Here is Western cool that has more to do with Milanese design than the real West.
The final showdown is one of the purest in film. With Fonda no longer on the Morton payroll, he's reduced once again to the level of an honest samurai-like gunfighter. He and Bronson meet as equals, following through on a pact carved in stone.
The music is organized into leitmotifs, and one legit complaint is that each theme is repeated at least two times too many. It's easy to understand why Paramount (Bob Evans, I guess) lopped off the ending scene of Cheyenne's surprise revelation -- it's slow-paced, seems an extra climax that wasn't needed, and starts with the meandering Cheyenne theme starting up for what must be the tenth time. John Carpenter is trying to de-intellectualize when he describes the tone of the film as Opera, but he ends up elevating the film. It is like Opera in that the music drives the visuals more than anything written on paper. Leone's direction is musically inspired, and in this dreamlike situation that's not a bad thing. For Morricone fans, it's like dying and going to heaven.
Savant saw OUATITW when it was brand new on a double bill with The Green Slime, which indicates how much respect it got from distributors. I can't claim to have been one of the enlightened few that appreciated it on first sight. Even cut by 20 minutes, it seemed uncontrollably slow and confusing, especially the flashbacks. Most fans now agree that OUATITW has the best-engineered, most compelling flashbacks of any Leone film. These began with a tale told by a musical watch in For a Few Dollars More, and the one here is threaded beautifully into the narrative. It wordlessly explains a huge chunk of the story and makes the final gunfight one of the most unforgettable in Western history.
Somewhere about 1984, a restored print surfaced and was showcased in L.A. at places like the Nuart and the Vista Theater, but Savant was in a periodic unemployed state and missed it. I didn't really catch up with it until home video, and a Paramount laser disc of exceptional quality.
Once Upon a Time In the West's epic approach to pulp fiction has had a lot of influence. 1970s Japanese samurai films (especially the Sword of Vengeance series) seem touched by Leone, even though Leone's architecturally stoic standoffs were originally inspired by Kurosawa. At Cannon Films we groaned when Albert Pyun ripped off entire scenes and dialogue for his abominable Cyborg. Real exploitation cognoscenti may know better, but I saw a lot of the stoic ritualization of OUATITW in Kill Bill, too. It has the same kind of pulpy seriousness. The tongue's been in the cheek so long, all has returned to the straight and level.
The relaxing of censorship that occurred between OUATITW and Duck You Sucker didn't help Leone's commercial palatability. About the roughest thing that happens here is Cheyenne's patting of Claudia Cardinale's behind. Leone apparently decided he was free to get nasty after this, for Duck, You Sucker! is a string of relative crudities. (It was later interpreted as the second installment of another trilogy - and titled in France Once Upon a Time ... The Revolution). Ants are urinated on in the first shot, as if commenting on the beginning of The Wild Bunch. Leone's next and last film Once Upon a Time in America is a mass of directorial excess that alienates more people than it impresses.
Paramount's Blu-ray of Once Upon a Time In the West is quite an improvement on the 2003 DVD. Beyond the obvious HD upgrade, which gives us a much more detailed image overall, owners of the previous release will remember that a less than adequate bit rate compromised the image here and there. Here we have a good recreation of the power of old Technicolor prints that made every deep red-brown face into a fascinating map of wrinkles, perspiration and grime. Henry Fonda never looked this... severe. Leone seems to have chosen a set of makeup colors that provide a maximum contrast with Fonda's sparkling blue eyes. He's the most beautiful devil of a villain ever put on film.
Other reviewers have noted a slightly reddish cast to the film's color than we're accustomed to seeing. I'd have to agree.
The disc promises a viewing choice between a restored and a theatrical version. The restored version adds, according to Paramount's figures, less than a minute to the running time. That's hardly enough to set the hearts of Leone fans a-thumping, considering that we keep hearing about European versions several minutes longer. I watched long sections of the new transfer -- which is very pleasing -- but could not locate specific differences. I still wonder why Leone & Co. would spend so much money on this enormous show, and yet stick with the half-frame Techniscope format. Perhaps Tonino Della Colli hated anamorphic lenses, or the choice of Techniscope meant that Paramount couldn't meddle with the crew, which would all come from Rome. I'm sure that a Leone book might have a better answer for this mystery. The quality of image registered on this smaller format is amazing.
The extras are a straight port of the basically good features from 2003. Sir Christopher Frayling is joined by several other contributors for the commentary. Frayling spends far too much time with a play-by-play rundown of what we're seeing on screen, going over details we can see for ourselves. By contrast, Alex Cox's comments on the film's cut scenes and oddball continuity had me at rapt attention.
Frayling is much better in the lengthy 3-part documentary, where he can expound his theories with more of a focus. He offers an economical sketch of Leone's life and the environment of the Italian film industry that nurtured the Spaghetti Westerns. The docu also has great interviews with actors Gabrielle Ferzetti and Claudia Cardinale, who were the film's only surviving stars in 2003. Each offers pleasant reminiscences, as do cameraman Tonino Delli Colli and writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci (who comes off as both likeable and brilliant). Directors John Carpenter, Alex Cox and John Milius are also on hand to champion the cause of Leone's reputation. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Carpenter is not afraid to call things as he sees them. Milius appears to be rehearsing for a role as Ernest Hemingway, actually lighting and smoking a cigar during the interview in the interest of projecting a manly image.
Beyond the docus, the general appeal drops off somewhat. A featurette on the role of the railroad in the West is clumsy and only partially relevant. A gallery of location comparison stills is rather interesting. The original trailer (calling the film Once Upon a Time ... In the West) has been retransferred in HD and is a beaut. All these extras and an edited sequence of production stills are accompanied by big helpings of the Morricone score.
The extras look better than they did on the DVD, where they had to be converted from PAL originals to NTSC. The jump from PAL to Blu-ray isn't as severe. The 5.1 remix is very pleasing; Morricone fans will flip. There are also alternate tracks with the original English mono (a thoughtful touch for purists) and a French mono. Subtitles are present for English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Finally, the cover art for this new Blu-ray manages to put together an attractive collage of star images -- something that's been eluding OUATITW disc marketers for years.
Once Upon a Time In the West has gone from near-total critical rejection in America to a high roost among western favorites. I remember (to my shame) taking a meeting with a Films Incorporated rep. on Hollywood Blvd. around 1975 ... he was with an associate who was promoting Films Inc.'s then-new 16mm non-theatrical cut of a "longer" OUATITW. They were unfortunately talking to the wrong fellow, as I was no longer booking films for UCLA screenings, and I did not have good memories of the Leone film. It was later in the 1980s when I finally caught the whole picture, flat and pan-scanned, on TBS cable... and was knocked out. Yes, I was a (shame!) Leone latecomer. Well, anyone who claims to have caught every wave in film culture is a liar!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Once Upon a Time in the West rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.