May 10, 2024

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (4K): Leone's Greatest...for Now

1968 / 166 min
Review by Mr. Paws😸

I’m always torn over which is Sergio Leone’s greatest western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West. The former is his most iconic…exciting, funny and arguably the most groundbreaking revisionist western ever made. Conversely, the latter features the director at his most epic, artistic and cinematic…sweeping in scope and featuring his most complex characters.  

More often than not, I’m convinced whichever one I’m watching at the time is the greatest, and since I’m currently revisiting 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West in 4K, guess what…

Even today, there’s so much to love about this film…the masterfully slow-burning opening sequence, Ennio Morricone’s evocative & haunting score, the panoramic cinematography, the beautiful Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson at his most engaging and, of course, one of the most memorable villains in movie history, played by a guy we’d least expect.

To me, the best moment in this film is when it’s slowly revealed that the man who just gunned down an entire family in cold blood - smiling gently at one of the kids just before pulling the trigger on him - is none other than perennial good guy Henry Fonda. What a shock it must have been for audiences to see that for the first time, and even today, it’s a disturbingly effective scene. Most importantly, Fonda nails it. 

In the film, former prostitute Jill McBain (Cardinale) arrives in Flagstaff to join her new husband, only to find he and his children have all been massacred by sadistic killer Frank (Fonda), hired by a railroad tycoon to scare the McBains off their land. While a local thug named Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is wrongly accused of the murders, an enigmatic, harmonica-tooting stranger (Charles Bronson) shows up, taking a special interest in Frank's doings, as well as the newly widowed Jill's plight.

Chuck catches a ladybug.

But the plot is really secondary to the aesthetic and the complexities of his four main characters (something of a first in a Leone western). With the exception of Frank's character, we are seldom sure of their true natures. Is it greed that motivates them, or something else? While the film often indulges Leone's operatic excesses (in a good way), Once Upon a Time in the West is probably his most intimate and character-driven movie, in addition to being simply great to look at. 

The performances he gets out of his cast are all outstanding. Again, Fonda's a revelation, while Robards has all the best dialogue. Upon seeing this film again, though, I am stricken by how effective Bronson is as Harmonica. Chuck's never been renowned for his dramatic range, but his style, expressions and demeanor suit this ambiguous character perfectly. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

With Once Upon a Time in the West, director Sergio Leone does with the western genre what only a few others have...raise it to a level of high art. He pays homage to virtually every western that ever mattered while consistently confounding the viewer's expectations. 

Is it the director’s best? Right now, it is (at least until I revisit The Good, the Bad and the Ugly again), and certainly a worthy addition to the ongoing Paramount Presents series (#44, for those of you keeping score). Another long-overdue 4K release, the picture quality is quite good, with only occasional segments that appear a bit questionable (a few background or wide angle shots here and there), while the DTS-HD Master Audio track (for both the 4K & Blu-ray discs) sounds excellent.  A 2.0 mono track is also included.

As for the bonus material…in addition to some substantial older features (outlined below), this one includes a new audio commentary, a brief appreciation by critic Leonard Maltin and a nifty slipcover that opens to reveal the original American one-sheet. Overall, this is a decent upgrade from previous Blu-ray and DVD releases. 



FILMMAKER FOCUS - A brief appreciation by Leonard Maltin.

2 AUDIO COMMENTARIES - 1) By the host of the Spaghetti Western podcast (NEW); 2) Featuring directors John Carpenter, John Milius & Alex Cox, historians Christopher Frayling & Dr. Sheldon Hall, various cast & crew.

FEATURETTES - An Opera of Violence; The Wages of Sin; Something to Do with Death; Railroad - Revolutionizing the West.

LOCATIONS THEN & NOW - Photo Gallery


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