Once Upon a Time in the West 4K UHD Review: Weird West

In Once Upon a Time in the West (1969; dir. Sergio Leone), a just-widowed beauty, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale); a mysterious, taciturn drifter, Harmonica (a riveting Charles Bronson); and a smart-mouthed bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), collide in and around the small desert town of Flagstone. A disabled railroad magnate, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), and his vicious attack dog, Frank (an against-type, bone-chilling Henry Fonda), have designs on Jill’s land.

There will be bloodshed.

West is a dark, sun-kissed fairy tale. A clever riff on older Westerns (Leone co-wrote the story with directors Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci), it’s Leone’s warped, epic dream of the ultimate Western movie. And it’s slow. Boy, does it take its time. (The long opening sequence, a tone-setter for the film, is a small jewel.) All of Leone’s pet moves are here: the juxtaposition of tight close-ups with striking wide shots; the prolonged pregnant pause—breathless, extended preludes to moments of violence that end in the blink of an eye. West also boasts one of Ennio Morricone’s gnarliest, most affecting scores.

Buy Once Upon a Time in the West 4K UHD

When he made West, Leone—an Italian under Japanese influence who’d made stylish, bold use of a great American form—was hot. His Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood (including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) had cleaned up at the box office. Paramount Pictures offered Leone a bigger budget than he’d yet had. He took that ride (and members of his Italian crew), and shot parts of the film in Monument Valley, Utah. The result? A grand thesis on the American movie Western; an Art Western. But the studio butchered it. The movie tanked.

Years later, folks restored the movie to something as close to Leone’s intentions as we are likely to get. Is it my favorite Leone? Let’s just say it’s grown on me. Here, he strokes his pet obsessions—death, buffoonery, time, violence, uneasy alliances. West has a somber feel. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with its wicked humor and surreal absurdity, is my favorite.

Still, I often return to Once Upon a Time in the West. It keeps revealing itself to me in ways none of the maestro’s other films do.

The new Paramount 4K UHD set has two discs. One is the 4K version of the movie. The other disc is a Blu-ray with the film and various special features. Want a feast of (previously released) audio commentary? You got it. Directors John Carpenter, John Milius, and Alex Cox step up to the mic, as do historian Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall, along with members of the cast and crew. New to this release is commentary by the hosts of the Spaghetti Western Podcast. Besides five other previously released features (including a production gallery and the theatrical trailer), there’s a new ‘look back’ feature with film critic Leonard Maltin. Overall, the high quality of the 4K didn’t blow me away (I’m spoiled, and I own a more recent Blu-ray that looks and sounds [nearly] up to par). But this is a nifty limited edition set. I’m glad to have it.

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Jack Cormack

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