As expansive and iconic as its title suggests, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West certainly seemed to be written in John Ford’s blood, from the vast wide-angle visions of Monument Valley that Leone and DP Tonino Delli Colli luxuriated in to the railroad-based, future-of-America economic landscape that serves as a backdrop to a number of bandit-versus-bandit power plays. Henry Fonda, with that methodical, stately stroll of his and those killer blue eyes barely visible from under the rim of his hat, can be seen and heard throughout the film, sending a shiver of great nostalgia up one’s spine; ripened and tanned by years of desert sunlight, Ford’s Wyatt Earl is back in the saddle again. But that particular pace and posture that Fonda had become known for, matched with the devious glint in those baby blues, now took on a far more sinister tone, as we are introduced to his character, the gleefully sadistic Frank, as he leads the slaughtering of an Irish land owner, McBain (Frank Wolff), and his family. As Fonda approaches McBain’s youngest child, just before blowing him away, the hero of so many American westerns seems reminiscent of nothing so much as the Prince of Darkness.
Indeed, Leone’s massive invocation of the West was as much indebted to directors like Ford, Anthony Mann, and Howard Hawks, as well as such milestones as the original 3:10 to Yuma and Nicholas Ray’s sublime Johnny Guitar, as the director himself was an agent of epic subversion in the genre that had influenced him and had paid his bills for a sizable chunk of his career. Fonda’s startling, malevolent turn as the ruthless enforcer for a railroad baron stricken with tuberculosis (Gabriele Ferzetti) was just the tip of the iceberg, as it turned out: Leone’s goal was essentially, like Tarantino’s with Inglorious Basterds, to form a lacerating critique of the orderliness, selective factuality, and moral cleanliness of genre filmmaking, and from this, the director summoned a western of tremendous power and wild ambition. As the train carrying Charles Bronson’s elusive, solemn gunslinger, nicknamed Harmonica, comes to a halt at a rickety station in the film’s glorious opening salvo, it’s indeed just a train, but it’s also the foreboding phantom of America’s industrialization and “progress,” and the Technicolor resurrection of the train the Lumiere brothers filmed pulling into La Ciotat.
Dreamt up by the director along with future iconoclasts Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, before being scripted by Leone and Sergio Donati, Once Upon a Time in the West plays out, as the title infers, as a dream image of the cruel Old West, and as such the encroachment of the railroad figures in prominently. Frank’s murder of McBain and his kin would have seemed to put an end to any squabbles over the worth of his land, named Sweetwater, allowing a clear path for Frank’s boss to buy the land, build a small town and make a mint once the railroad inevitably used the land as a station stop. What neither Frank nor his employer could have anticipated is McBain’s marriage to a kind-hearted prostitute, Jill (the fiery Claudia Cardinale), on a trip to New Orleans and her opportune arrival in Sweetwater to claim her place in the McBain family. Instead, she finds herself at the center of a battle of wills and talent between Frank and Harmonica, complicated by a fearsome bandit who befriends Harmonica named Cheyenne, played with incredible charm and just the right notes of menace by the great Jason Robards.
The casting of the young Bronson, a poster boy for the rising tide of war-film spectacles in the 1960s, against the timeless image of the cowboy Fonda wasn’t the only instance wherein Leone visualized his allegory. The opening sequence involves Bronson gunning down the likes of Jack Elam and Ford favorite Woody Strode, in roles that replaced Leone’s original idea of having Bronson kill off the eponymous trio of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The casting is the most visible but hardly the most visual totem of Leone’s deadpan subversion, as the advent of color now allowed Leone to call attention to realistic detail. The station in the opening sequence is not the tidy little ticket office that one might remember from a revisionist western such as Bad Day at Black Rock, but a deconstructed shack made of warped planks, dilapidated doorways, and a decaying roof, with a rusted ticker tapping away in the corner. The sight of early construction here isn’t a pretty one, as one can even see the grand imperfection in the construction of McBain’s Sweetwater mansion, calling special attention to the fancy, regal interior design of the railroad baron’s train.
The inclusion of such magnificent visual detail is strongly felt, but the remarkable absences that the film deals in are felt just as strongly, chief among them being the lack of a system of structured law enforcement. The lawmen that Leone had watched roam and rule the West are nowhere to be found in Once Upon a Time in the West, replaced by corruptible guns for hire, vengeance-starved outlaws, and gallows-bound bandits. It is further perversion of the generally uncomplicated moral struggles that Ford had championed, allowing for no clear side to root for, especially since the motives of many of these men are left private until the end and are sometimes left a complete mystery, as in the case of Cheyenne. And then of course there’s Cardinale, the mother and the whore wrapped into a sultry whole and sent out to accomplish nothing less than the building of the new West while the men go off and shoot each other for the dubious cause of “honor.”
It’s to Leone’s credit that such a huge, carefully plotted story isn’t what’s remembered about Once Upon a Time in the West, which is nothing if not the ultimate culmination of the filmmaker’s genre work. What’s remembered is the blue, uncaring sky cast above a dry, ruthless wasteland of a desert with winds kicking up miniscule storms of red dirt, dust, and debris; the way Bronson moves that harmonica across his parched lips; Ms. Cardinale’s near-ritualistic humiliation at the hands of the cackling, diabolical Frank. The western suddenly became something beyond its incalculable mythology here and mutated into a rapidly evolving and fluctuating state of grim existence, where Ennio Morricone’s typically excellent score holds even sonic weight with the swirling hum of gusting winds in an otherwise silent, barren landscape. Leone was always a crafter of sounds as well as images, and he isn’t above his more fantastical moments, such as when the sound of crashing waves and singing seagulls accompanies the railroad baron’s obsession with a painting of the ocean, where he hopes to retire to. As it turns out, the railroad baron ends up gasping for air next to a murky, brown puddle of water after Cheyenne’s unseen siege of his beloved train. One can’t help but connect this to the near-universal negative reception Once Upon a Time in the West received from American critics, perhaps scared that the Europeans had reappropriated an intrinsically American genre and had turned a bright-blue painting of an idealist haven into a muddy pool of filth and disease.
Paramount put some real elbow grease into this release and the glorious 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is proof enough of their hard work. The level of clarity and detail legitimately changes how one takes in Sergio Leone's masterpiece—its warped wood planks at the railroad, the red dirt caking up the wardrobe, and the creases, scars, and stubble that cover the sweat-drenched faces of the actors. The colors come out beautifully, especially yellows and browns, and black levels are near perfect. Though there's no softness in the image, there are some minor, negligible pops and other noises, but these instances are barely noticeable in the face of all the immense good that's been done with the image, and with the audio as well. Look no further than the opening scene to see how careful the audio has been handled here, balancing scarce dialogue with a ballad of windmill creeks, water-drop thuds, black-fly buzzes, and floorboard groans. Then Morricone's score roars up and the mix rightfully bows to the master, but overall, balance here is dynamite, with a very clean mix of the dialogue which was the chief problem with my worn-down VHS copy of the film. Here, Paramount shows that they can put just as much care into their catalogue as they do with their new releases.
The cobbled-together commentary, featuring such diverse participants as filmmaker John Carpenter, star Claudia Cardinale, and film scholar Sir Christopher Frayling, among others, turns out to be the gem here, despite the fact that there's an inherent lack of flow to the way it's put together. A lot of information is pored over, along with some highly fascinating takes on the film's magnificent opening sequence, Leone's style, and the use of settings. The three featurettes included here cover similar ground, but they all manage to offer enough fresh opinions and new voices on critical scenes and facets of the production to avoid the feeling of redundancy. A short featurette on the history of trains in film is interesting, if a bit amateur-looking, as is a short featurette looking at the shooting locations then and now. Overall, this is a very nice compliment to the work that has been done on the film itself. Also included: a theatrical trailer and a production stills gallery.
Sergio Leone's titanic saga of vengeance and progress doubles as a stunning reassessment of John Ford's west and makes for one of Paramount's best releases thus far this year.