The fact that the film begins with the arrival of a train is significant in its foreshadowing of the importance of the great ‘iron horse’ in the film’s narrative. The arrival of the train and the general spread of the railway across America sets in motion key threads of the plot and also provides a wonderful wider backdrop to the more intimate emotional stories.
Also arriving by train is Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) who is en route to the area of Sweetwater, near the town of Flagstone, to meet her new husband and begin a new life. Railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) and ruthless killer Frank (Henry Fonda) destroy Jill’s dreams though with the slaughter of her new husband Brett (Frank Wolff) and his children. The film rests on a land battle for the land left to Jill by Brett and the various players who become entangled in this provide the drama that helps make the narrative so compelling.
Leone’s films have often rested on excellent casting rather than stunning performances and Once Upon a Time in the West continues in this tradition with these various players being exceptionally well cast. Casting choices are wonderfully apt with characters feeling all the more iconic thanks, to some degree, to their status as stars. Henry Fonda in particular is noteworthy for the way in which his casting subverted the accepted idea of what kind of character Fonda played, making his character seem all the more sinister.
Claudia Cardinale is also excellent and has never looked more beautiful, which means a lot for an actress directed by both Fellini and Visconti, and whilst the role of Jill McBain could be dismissed as a simple hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, Jill is far more nuanced and layered a character than that description suggests. Like much of Once Upon a Time in the West, the film uses common tropes and archetypes of the Western expertly, often building on them and adding further depth. Her character is in many ways the protagonist of the film, a female protagonist being something of a rarity in Westerns, and Cardinale carries the weight of this well. With Cardinale’s subtle performance, Leone’s spot on direction and the beautiful cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, a shot of Cardinale simply looking into a mirror becomes infused with emotion and depth. This layered characterisation and complexity evident in all the key roles in Once Upon a Time in the West is highly effective and perhaps all the more rewarding due to its delivery under the mask of an archetypical approach to characterisation .
The story in Once Upon a Time in the West was originally conceived by Leone with the help of fellow Italian masters Dario Argento and Benardo Bertolucci and the three were heavily influenced by American Westerns that had gone before. The influence of these films is more obvious in some places than others but the overall effect is one of making the film feel very much like an indebted achievement but one that is no less impressive because of this. Leone clearly loved the western, he supposedly knew Monument Valley like the back of his hand purely through all the westerns he’d seen, and this intense passion is all on the screen.
The HD transfer included on this new Blu-ray here is absolutely gorgeous and great care has clearly been taken in ensuring the film is presented in the best possible way. There are very few imperfections in the print, minor imperfections in the periphery of the image, and few signs of over enthusiastic noise reduction. A layer of grain is evident throughout with a definite consistency to the picture quality. Colours are defined and beautifully represented and there is none of the overly intense saturation present in previous releases. The Disc includes both a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD track and a mono track. Both are excellent and despite the mono being more faithful to the original release, the new 5.1 mix is excellent and well worth considering.
The special features included on the Blu-ray are as follows –
Commentary featuring directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox, film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall plus cast and crew – The commentary is a compilation that switches between recordings of these various experts. It’s a technique that is not often particularly successful (it was more popular in the days of laserdisc commentaries) but it’s done incredibly well here and it’s nice to hear a variety of voices on a commentary of this length. The decision to include film historians, filmmakers plus those involved in the film itself is also very wise as it results in different and unique insights.
An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin, & Something to Do with Death – Listed as three separate features, these are essentially three segments of an hour long documentary. This documentary features contributions that overlap with the commentary but there is enough additional material to make it worth checking out.
Railroad: Revolutionising the West – A somewhat educational supplement designed to compliment the film with some facts about the all important railroad in The West. Interesting but brief.
Locations Then & Now – A selection of shots from the film with corresponding shots of the same locations now (or at least when this was made). Limited appeal perhaps but it’s hard not to begin planning a holiday after sitting through all teh stunning shots.
Theatrical Trailer (in HD)
Once Upon a Time in the West is available to buy or rent on Blu-ray from the 5th of September.