"How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can't even trust his own pants."
--Henry Fonda, "Once Upon a Time in the West"
After Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone's success with the Spaghetti Westerns "A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More," and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," he wanted to do a few big-budget films in the United States, but not necessarily another Western. However, he had done so well in the Western genre, it's what the studios involved insisted upon, and, thus, in 1968 we got "Once Upon a Time in the West." Leone had done his previous films with relatively small-name stars (he did make a major star of TV actor Clint Eastwood, who would go on to become a megastar a few years later), and for the new film he sought out bigger names like Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. He also wanted Eastwood, Robert Ryan, and James Coburn in the new film, but they were either uninterested or unavailable.
In any case, Leone had a dream team of writers contributing to the script: himself, Italian horror director Dario Argento ("Deep Red," "Suspiria," "Tenebre," "Phenomena"), and Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Conformist," "Last Tango in Paris," "1900," "The Last Emperor"). Moreover, Leone assembled a supporting cast that included Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn, and Lionel Stander; he again got composer Ennio Morricone to do the musical score; and he filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona, Utah, Spain, and Italy. Nevertheless, despite all the film had going for it, it didn't fare well in the U.S., possibly to do with the editing the lengthy film saw (distributors cut the movie's original 175-minute running time to 165 minutes for international viewing and even to 137 and 140 minutes in some parts of the world) or possibly to do with the film's extreme length itself; who knows. The present Blu-ray disc provides a 166-minute "restored" version and a 165-minute theatrical version. Don't ask.
Like Leone's other films, this one moves at a slow, quiet, lyrical pace, some scenes more graceful than others, the director's high melodramatic style occasionally bordering on parody. Almost as important as the direction is Morricone's background music, which is for me actually the best thing about the movie as it alternates spare, melancholy moods with sweeping, inspirational ones. While it's true the musical track sometimes appears on the edge of veering off into "Scarborough Fair," for the most part it underscores Leone's lingering silences nicely. Indeed, it is the silent or near-silent moments that make the film as powerful as it sometimes is.
Leone obviously borrowed a little something from every Western he'd ever watched, including the opening scene at the train station from "High Noon," with echos of John Ford and Howard Hawks in practically every shot thereafter. Interestingly, too, although Leone filmed much of the picture in America with American actors, he filmed even more of it in Spain using a large European cast, and most of the movie appears as though he later dubbed everything in English.
The movie tells the story of nothing less than the winning of the West and the coming of the railroad, with money, land, strong-willed men, and an equally strong-minded woman in on the equation. It's an ambitious project, with Leone conjuring up every iconic image he can muster, including plenty of shots of those natural architectural giants in Monument Valley. We practically wait for John Wayne to ride by.
The film stars four characters in interrelating roles. The first person we meet is Frank (Henry Fonda), whose appearance in the story Leone meant to shock us. Fonda, playing against the good-guy type he portrayed in almost every film of his career, here plays the meanest, most low-down, nasty varmint in the history of mean, low-down, nasty varmints. He gets the narrative started by gunning down an entire family in cold blood, shooting Brett McBain, a former widower newly married, and his three children, the last one a child, point-blank.
The second major character is Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), the beautiful woman from New Orleans who has come to meet her new husband and family out West in Sweetwater, Arizona, only to find them dead when she arrives. Needless to say, she vows revenge. Or at least get a little monetary retribution.
The third character is Cheyenne (Jason Robards), an escaped prisoner and full-time tough guy wrongly accused of the murder of the McBain family. He's the odd man out in the story, not quite important enough for the lead but in any number of scenes, nevertheless.
And the fourth major character is Harmonica (Charles Bronson), the movie's incarnation of Eastwood's "Man with No Name," a mysterious, flinty-eyed stranger, cool and calculating. "Instead of talking, he plays," says Cheyenne. "He not only plays, he can shoot, too." Bronson is good, but he's no Eastwood.
How long is the film? It takes Leone the first hour just to introduce us to his characters and set up the plot. From there it may be a long haul for some viewers and a total delight for others. The fact is, if you cut every long, lingering glare by half, you'd probably have a film only twenty minutes long; yet it's those long, lingering shots that remain indelibly in memory.
In "Once Upon a Time in the West" Leone tells a mythic tale in mythic proportions, with bigger-than-life, mythic characters. If it all gets maybe a little too reverential at times, just think back on Jack Elam's travails with a pesky housefly early on, and you maybe wonder just how serious Leone intended you to take it.
Heroes, villains, desperados, ladies of the evening, and the inevitable shoot-outs: You'll find them all in what a lot of fans consider Leone's best film. For me, it's at least one of his better offerings.
A preface tells us that the Film Foundation and the Rome Film Festival in association with Sergio Leone Productions and Paramount Pictures made possible the restored version of the movie. I thank them. The video engineers, using MPEG-4/AVC encoding and a dual-layer BD50, reproduce the restoration in all its 2.35:1-ratio glory. We find wonderful detail and definition in the close-ups and more than adequate clarity in medium and long shots. Colors, of which browns, yellows, and blacks dominate, look vibrant. And the cinematography is often stunning. A thin, light, natural print grain is visible throughout, especially in outdoor footage, although it is never objectionable and gives the image a realistically film-like presence.
You can listen to the English track either in a restored monaural in Dolby Digital or a remixed 5.1 in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. I listened in 5.1, which provides a very clean, very clear midrange, a deep bass, extended highs, and a strong dynamic punch. What you won't find, however, is much activity in the surrounds, nor even a very wide front-channel stereo spread. Nevertheless, Morricone's background music often takes on a pleasant ambient bloom, and there's no denying that those big locomotives sound impressive in multichannel.
The disc comes fully loaded with extras. The first is the fact that the disc includes both the restored and theatrical versions of the film in high def. Next, we get an audio commentary with contributions from directors John Carpenter, John Milius, and Alex Cox, film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, co-star Claudia Cardinale, and other filmmakers. After that, there are four featurettes that combine to produce a lengthy documentary on the making of the film, featuring various of the people involved in the commentary (Ms. Cardinale still looking as lovely as ever): "An Opera of Violence," about twenty-eight minutes; "The Wages of Sin," about nineteen minutes; "Something to Do with Death," about eighteen minutes; and "Railroad: Revolutionizing the West," about six minutes. "Locations Then and Now" is a four-minute segment comparing locations in the movie with how they appear today; and a production gallery provides about five minutes of black-and-white still shots from the film.
The extras conclude with a healthy thirty-three scene selections; bookmarks; a widescreen theatrical trailer in high definition; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in a flimsy Eco-case, further enclosed in a cardboard slipcover.
After watching "Once Upon a Time in the West" again after an absence of many years, I'm fully prepared to say, unequivocally, that it is either the greatest and most-profound Western ever made or the longest and most boring. Yeah, it's that kind of film. Parts of it are brilliant, unforgettable; parts of it meander hopelessly and indulge in what can seem like violence for violence's sake. It's that kind of film.