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11/26/03




Once Upon a Time in the West
Special Collector's Edition - 1968 (2003) - Paramount

review by Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Once Upon a Time in the West: Special Collector's Edition Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/A

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
165 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 79:20 at the start of chapter 14), dual-disc keep case packaging, audio commentary (with film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, filmmakers John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox, actress Claudia Cardinale and additional members of the cast and crew), animated film-themed menus with sound and music, scene selection (33 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & "restored" 2.0 mono) and French (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned


Disc Two - Supplemental Material
An Opera of Violence documentary (29 mins, 16x9), The Wages of Sin documentary (20 mins, 16x9), Something to Do with Death documentary (18 mins, 16x9), Railroad: Revolutionizing the West featurette (6 mins, 16x9), location photo gallery (16x9), production photo gallery (16x9), theatrical trailer (16x9), cast profiles (16x9), Easter egg, animated film-themed menu screens with sound and music, languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned


"People scare better when they're dying..."

There are films that define who we are. There are films that define the careers of the people who made them. And there are films that purely and unabashedly define the genres they rest in. Very few films ever achieve all three of the above. But then again, very few films are as glorious as Once Upon a Time in the West.

We think it's pretty safe to say that both of us fell in love with movies even deeper than we ever were before the minute we saw Once Upon a Time in the West laid out before us on the big, wide, silver screen. Sergio Leone was always a fan favorite filmmaker, but with this work he became a film legend. Leone is man whose whole career became that much cooler simply because he lovingly brought this tale to life.

If you're not familiar with the epic known as Once Upon a Time in the West, we only have one piece of advice for you. Stop your daily routine where it is, go get this DVD and watch it about a hundred times. Then, and only then, you can go back to living your life. It sounds funny to say that, but we're not kidding... this film is that good. Of course, if you're already a fan, we're preaching to the choir. We don't need to say another word - you probably already have your 30 bucks ready to spend.

Once Upon a Time in the West isn't a wholly original film. The story has been told before (most notably in the cult western Johnny Guitar). But it's never been told this well, which is why Once Upon a Time in the West ends up being THE definitive Western. The story, as it is, goes like this: a power hungry railroad baron named Morton wants the land of Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) for his empire. Morton's hired a henchman named Frank (Henry Fonda, as one of cinema's definitive villains) for just this sort of occasion. In comes "Harmonica," a.k.a. The Man with No Name (played by Charles Bronson). Harmonica's got a not so secret agenda for revenge against Frank, and therefore a willingness to help Jill in her plight. He's soon joined by a rough around the edges, but severely competent, gunslinger named Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who's also been wronged by Frank. Together, they work to protect Jill and foil the nefarious plans of Frank and Morton.

Though the plot is hardly original, this film's quality is all about the execution. Extreme close-ups, sweeping camera moves, incredible use of the widescreen image, and the casting of unlikely actors as some of the best characters in any Western ever - these are just a few of the reasons this picture works on so many different levels. Flat out, we love this film so much, that we just want to share our enthusiasm for it with everyone we can. We have no reservations at all in advising each of you reading this review to add this disc to your collection. Hell... with Christmas coming up, buy two copies - one for you and one for your best, movie-loving friend. He or she will thank you for it.

Since Day One here at The Bits, we've been on Paramount's back about releasing Once Upon a Time in the West on DVD. "When is it coming? "Soon." "Okay... when is soon?" "Believe us, we want it out as much as you do." "No, you don't. If you did we'd already have it." "Good point, then let's stick with soon." That's how our conversations with Paramount often played out on the phone, at public functions, and in the halls of studio over the years. Owing to the lengthy restoration process, and the speed of working with the Leone estate, soon didn't quite come soon enough. Thankfully, though, the wait is now over... and we're pleased to say that it was well worth the time it took. This is one hell of a disc.

The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen on this DVD, and how Paramount got the film looking so good we'll never know. Given that this film is more than thirty years old, it could easily suffer from a host of print related problems, but such is not the case here. Contrast is absolutely fantastic, while retaining excellent shadow detail. In fact, detail has a whole is outstanding, which is very important for this film. Leone's direction is such that you're often seeing extreme close-ups of the actors - every wrinkle, blemish and bit of stubble is accentuated, and you'll miss none of it in this transfer. Color is good and accurate, with a definite warm push as was intended for the film, given its desert settings. There's very little digital artifacting visible, only light edge-enhancement and only light to occasionally moderate print grain. This isn't quite reference quality, given the age of the film. That said, Once Upon a Time in the West has quite simply never looked better than it does on this DVD.

While we're talking about the print, you should know that this DVD does feature the 165-minute European version of the film. That means the scene where we're first introduced to the character of Cheyenne at a way-side livery and inn is included, as is a brief scene at the end of the film involving the same character.

Moving on to the audio, you'll find no complaints from us with this disc. The film's soundtrack is presented in two English versions - newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as a a "restored" Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (French 2.0 mono is also included). The 5.1 track features excellent presentation quality, with a big, wide front soundstage, centered and clear dialogue and nicely atmospheric use of the surrounds. You're not going to get extensive panning or directional effects, but they're not really appropriate for this film anyway. We're pleased to say that the 5.1 track still retains the "sound" of the original mono audio, and the film's fantastic score by composer Ennio Morricone is perfectly placed in the mix. The "restored" mono audio, if you chose that option, is also quite good. It's been cleaned up somewhat to remove unwanted noise and other age-related artifacts. Whichever track you go with, you'll be plenty satisfied with the audio experience on this DVD.

Surprisingly, Paramount's really gone the extra mile with the supplements on this special collector's edition. To start with, literally every single thing you'll experience on these two discs is in anamorphic widescreen. That means the trailer, the photo galleries, all the documentaries... everything. Kicking off the extras, Disc One features a very good audio commentary track with film historians (Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall), a trio of directors who admire Leone (including John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox), actress Claudia Cardinale and other select members of the cast and crew. The track begins with Frayling, the author of the biography Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death. It's got a scholarly feel, but is very easy to listen to. He'll give you a ton of anecdotes about the making of Once Upon a Time in the West, and lots of interesting historical information, including comments on the many intentional references to classic Hollywood Westerns in this film. The other participants appear at selected moments to make their own contributions. Each was recorded separately and edited together for this commentary. The result could be distancing or disjointed, but is instead a fascinating listening experience, despite occasional pauses in the track. These people know Leone and this film well, and their love of both is obvious.

That love continues to be apparent on Disc Two, where we're treated to a trio of documentaries featuring many of the same participants. An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin and Something to Do with Death are basically three parts of a whole, which in total runs for a little over an hour. Combining interview clips with historical photos and footage, we learn about Sergio Leone's origins as a filmmaker, the conception of Once Upon a Time in the West arising from his love (and disdain) of Hollywood Westerns, the development of the production (including the casting of American Western film regulars in roles completely opposite to what they'd played previously), the actual filming itself, the ultimate reaction to the film, and its eventual place in cinema history. There are fascinating moments with Bernardo Bertolucci talking about the unlikely way he became involved in the writing of the film (along with fellow writer and filmmaker Dario Argento), and Leone admirers Carpenter, Milius and Cox talking about their reactions of the film. Cardinale reminisces about her experiences on the film, as do actor Gabriele Ferzetti and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. There's even an amusing moment of archival footage featuring Henry Fonda talking about his having been cast in the film as a bad guy, and trying to figure out how to approach the role. It's all great stuff for fans of this film, and well worth your time.

The Railroad: Revolutionizing the West featurette is a strange piece of work, but it's no less interesting for this fact. The short features relevant film clips and historical photos in a window in the upper right portion of the frame, along with the entire narrator-spoken text at the bottom. It cuts away to interview clips occasionally, featuring the participants talking about how the subject relates to the film. Also present on Disc Two is the film's original theatrical trailer in excellent quality, as well as video galleries of location photos (seen then and now) and production photos set to music from the film. A section of cast profiles of the major players in the film rounds out the extras. Again, all of this is anamorphic in its presentation - a very welcome touch.

In crafting his homage to the great Hollywood Westerns, Sergio Leone honored those films while also turning the conventions of the genre on end. At a time when Westerns were considered passe, Leone not only made them cool again, he managed to create what is arguably the best Western ever. Thankfully, Paramount's given the epic first-rate treatment on DVD. This is the studio's best special edition treatment since The Godfather Collection. It's definitely not the most extensive bonus material, but the quality of what you do get is undeniable. This is one of those DVDs we live for here at The Bits. Simply put, Once Upon a Time in the West is not to be missed.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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Easter egg Instructions

On the main menu for Disc Two, highlight the "Documentaries" selection, then navigate "left" with your remote. The film's title will become highlighted in the line above. Press "enter" to view another trailer for the film - a sort of modern-styled, badass "rock" trailer (16x9, DD 2.0). It's definitely worth checking out.
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