Director: Sergio Leone
Paramount Home Video

Wrapping up an impressive directorial career in the western genre, Sergio Leone focused this last effort on the early days of the railroad, which gave way eventually to the end of the so-called Wild West. Clocking in at nearly three hours, one might expect something more along the lines of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY from the director, but we get something much more in tune with his later mob epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. This film is a slow and methodical masterpiece that lets the in-your-face action of the DOLLARS trilogy go by the wayside, opting instead to flesh out its characters and build suspense with directorial technique. DOLLARS fans should not worry too much, though. The action does come, and when it does, it is unforgettable.

At times difficult to follow, the events come together at more than one point in the film to reward the patient viewer. Henry Fonda heads a terrific cast as the villainous Frank, an attractive, blue-eyed killer, who does things by the gun in clearing competition from the playing field for a ruthless crippled railroad baron. Fonda’s performance is uncharacteristic of the screen legend and perhaps the best role of his long and illustrious career. However, the late Charles Bronson is the most commanding presence, playing a silent, mysterious gunman with a thing for harmonicas that will not be completely understood until the final moments of the film. What we do know is that he has Frank in his sights, and it’s not enough just to see him dead. No, he wants to be the triggerman and will stop at nothing to earn that privilege.

The film opens with Bronson gunning down three of Frank’s stooges at a train station in what is perhaps one of the most unnerving showdowns in the history of the genre. Leone’s ability to create apprehension in his viewers is never more apparent than in this ten-minute introduction that contains only two short lines of dialogue. The pattern of prolonged anticipation continues throughout, always punctuated by short bursts of violence that will forever be engrained in your memory. To give an idea as to just how much the film relies on the unsaid, the script only contains a little over thirty pages of dialogue. At two hours and forty-five minutes, Leone’s direction obviously does most of the talking.

Though Bronson’s and Fonda’s performances and Leone’s techniques do so much to make this film the incredible work that it is,ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is helped along greatly by Claudia Cardinale and the late Jason Robards. Cardinale plays a terrific and unusually strong woman in a period and genre when such characters were rarely if ever seen. Robards steals nearly every scene he is in as the half-breed Indian, who is wrongly accused for the slaughter of Cardinale’s family, which was really perpetrated by Frank and his thugs. Bronson and Robards have great screen chemistry and are the perfect duo to take on Frank’s men.

Technically, there has never been a better time to introduce or reacquaint one’s self with this film as Paramount has done a terrific job on the audio and video presentations. Music is always important to Leone’s films, and Ennio Morricone’s four primary numbers – each relating to the film’s four main characters – sound superb pouring out of this Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation (with DD 2.0 mono tracks in French and English also available). The film’s important sounds also come through nicely, such as gunshots, windmills and train whistles, that all factor in heavily to the experience. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation has restored the film to its original ratio and there are no signs of grain and very little edge enhancement for the discriminating DVD junkie to complain about. Finally, extras are respectably done with a feature-length audio commentary (including discussion from popular Leone-influenced filmmakers of today, film historians and surviving cast and crew members), three excellent making-of documentaries, a “Railroad: Revolutionizing the West” featurette, location and production galleries, cast profiles, the original theatrical trailer, and an easter egg on disc two that displays a modern trailer for the film (very Tarantino-esque). (Aric Mitchell)