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539 Posts
Discussion Starter #1
No Spoilers
For somewhere between $5 - $10 bucks you can buy a junk food diner at a fast food place – or you can own one of the finest westerns ever made.

Director: Sergio Leone
Stars: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale.

Produced in 1968

Can a spaghetti western be art?
In the 60's film critics were less than kind to the spaghetti western and at the time it seemed Italian film and the American West was a match not many could digest.

Italian Film = Western Film
Italian film makers invented Neorealism soon after World War II. Forced to ply their art with only what they had the Neorealists shot wide outdoor scenes on location – it’s easy to see where director’s like Leone got their fascination with Monument valley and other recurring landmarks. The Neorealist’s filmed non-actors playing their real life roles of the poverty stricken struggling to survive in an economy destroyed by war and defeat. Themes that would later apply to director’s capturing the American Post Civil War. Sergio Leone and other Italian directors brought these ethics to movies that took place in America and the hero wasn’t always a squeaky clean or wore a white cowboy hat.

Dario Argento

Another important film-maker made his debut in Once Upon a Time in the West. He was a young film critic turned screenwriter (then writer/director) named Dario Argento. He’s credited as screenwriter on this film. Argento went on to direct late 70s and 80s slasher flicks that elevated the form to high art. Films like Suspiria made Argento into a cult favorite and influenced every Hollywood slasher flick you’ve ever seen in the 80s. Here in Once Upon a Time in the West you can see how Argento must have learned parts of his trade from Leone. Colorful sets, sweeping landscapes and contemplative stares are loved features of both film makers.

Once Upon a Time in the West

The movie has a complex but tightly woven plot set around a railroad, money and revenge. This is Leone’s first big budget film but it still features many of his trademark attentions to the subtle, immersive details. Panoramic landscapes, sweat beading on an unshaven face, a squeaky windmill and whistling wind all share the spotlight of Leone's skilled direction. The musical score puts on a powerful performance intermittently rising like an unforgettable character in the movie. Expect to find yourself enjoying the music while marveling at the desert landscapes in the film. Leone loves to pan across Monument Valley perhaps as an ode to John Ford.
In the 1960s after some commercial success with Westerns staring Clint Eastwood, Paramount gave Leone a budget to make a real Hollywood-style movie. He was to produce a blockbuster film but Paramount was disappointed in the lukewarm reception it received at the time of its release. That’s probably only because it was ahead of it’s time. Paramount decided to cut 25 minutes from the original version to increase the pace. But editing didn’t help it achieve commercial success. Today that missing 25 minutes have been perfectly restored for this well produced DVD release long considered Leone's masterpiece.

Transcending Dialogue with Film
Consider the first half hour of the movie. Only about five words are spoken and these words are just a background to the events unfolding. The scene is complete with Leone's trademark close ups on eyes that convey explicit intentions.

Three long coated desperado's arrive at a rail station (they include stars Woody Strode and Jack Elam). They scare the **** out of the station's lone operator and then wait. We wait as they wait in the hot afternoon. One of the men is annoyed by a fly before catching it in the barrel of his pistol. Another is momentarily driven to the brink of violence by a leaky roof. You can feel the tension before the train they’re waiting for arrives. The three men examine passengers when the train arrives but the passenger they're waiting for doesn't show. The long coated desperado's prepare to depart. Then we hear it. The ghostly music of a harmonica projected across 5.1 channels providing haunting ambience. The noisy train seems encumbered by its own machinery and rumbles away exposing Charles Bronson standing on dusty boards at the edge of the station, holding the harmonica to his mouth.
"Did you bring a horse for me?" The Harmonica (Bronson) asks the three.

"We're one horse short." One of three men smirks. Pause, Harmonica examines his situation.

"No, you brought two too many." Bronson replies.

This is classic cinema!

For Once Upon a Time in the West Leone twists every western stereotype. Henry Fonda with his kindly bright blue eyes is not his usual hero or nice guy. Instead he's a cold hearted killer. No spoilers here - but there is a particularly bold scene for Fonda. I can only imagine the horror felt by Fonda fans of conventional Westerns at watching it. But I’m not giving anything away you’ll have to see the movie. It’s probably part of the reason this wasn’t a commercially successful film by Paramount’s standards in 1968.

Another character is an antagonist who persistently shows up in the film but turns out to be a hero. Those we think may be heroic might be yet turn into antagonists. Even the film’s damsel-in-distress turns out to be a strong character with shrewd business sense and a cunning master of her own circumstance.

The digital remastering of this classic is an incredible job well done. It’s visually pristine, free of fade and artifacts. The 5.1 soundtrack is discreet with no aggressive or distracting use of the surrounds. It maintains the classic aura of the film. The added channels add ambience where it should and gives shootouts another dimension. The musical score sounds as good as if you popped in your favorite CD. The ghostly harmonica resonating through the surrounds is a nice touch but maybe the only aspect of the soundtrack bordering on overdone.

This two disc set also has a wealth of extra features. One that stands out is the director’s featurette where noted directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox all get a chance to tell how Leone and this film influenced their own careers. The supplemental DVD is packed with information about the historic Civil War era and the history behind the railway and other topics touched upon in the film.
The best thing about the DVD release of Once Upon a Time in the West that for less than the cost of a modest diner at a fast food joint you can own one of the best westerns ever made.
DVD features

Available subtitles: English
Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital2.0 Mono), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Theatrical trailer(s)
Commentary track with contributions from directors John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, film historian (& Leone biographer) Sir Chirstopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, and comments from cast and crew members
3 new making-of documentaries:
"An Opera of Violence"
"The Wages of Sin"
"Something To Do With Death"
"Railroad: Revolutionizing the West" featurette
Location & production galleries
Cast profiles
Widescreen anamorphic format
Number of discs: 2

Moderator Emeritus
606 Posts
Whoa, that's a serious review Wade! I saw this movie for the first time a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. But I didn't wax quite so analytical...

Senior Shackster
792 Posts
I thought it was the best of the Leone Spaghetti Westerns. Perhaps part of it's appeal is Leone's
bizarre storytelling technique of making epic, nuanced films about nothing. It's a simple revenge
story exagerated in an outrageous and stylish manner. For an international film shot silently and
dubbed into various languages, it has the funniest dialogue of all of his Western pictures. There's
plenty of campy lines like Fonda's comment about shooting the whole family, "People scare easier
when they're dyin'". It's also the first film the director made that gave an important role to a woman.

The negative was never actually cut for the 1969 release. Only the 35mm Technicolor prints were
physically trimmed. And they weren't trimmed consistently. Some prints contained scenes that others
didn't and a few uncut prints played some theaters. So the movie didn't really have to be restored.
They just mastered it from the uncut duplicate negative sent here from Italy. It was probably mint since the negative was only used for making a set of three matrices (printing plates) for the dye transfer Technicolor prints and pan/scan version for television. Thus it only went through a printer four times and I doubt
they needed to do a digiital clean up to remove the wear the way they have to with Eastmancolor movies when hundreds of prints were struck off the master. The new 5.1 mix does
enhance the soundtrack. Those sound effects are way over the top which is part of the fun and the anacronistic electronic guitar music one of his trademarks.
I will say that watching the picture will exhaust you since the director really
lets his movies drag out but that is also one of his trademarks. He tends to put
audiences through the wringer waiting for the climatic showdown.

It's true it wasn't a success here on it's first release. I guess audiences didn't accept the stone faced
and unsympathetic Bronson as Eastwood's replacement as the 'man with no name'. I thought he gave
an interesting portrayal and you have to give Bronson credit for hanging in there. He labored in both
major and minor roles for decades before becoming a star in his middle age in "Death Wish" in 1972.
His weather worn face made him appropriate for Leone's extreme close ups.

It's also interesting to note that the director made good use of the sub-standard Techniscope format.
The image is razor sharp and fine grain due to the extensive lighting and/or bright exteriors which is
unusual for the format. Look at how grainy and murky "American Grafitti" is in comparison. This almost
looks like it was photographed in Panavision.

The process was basically an economical way of getting a widescreen image. A standard 'flat' 1.33
image is four sprockets high. In Techniscope, that frame is cut in half and a two sprocket wide image
is filmed, half the size of a full frame image. Basically just a 1.33 image with extreme cropping. From this tiny two sprocket wide image, the lab blows it up with an anamorphic squeeze to standard 2.35 x 1 Panavision/CinemaScope proportions. Since it's basically a 16mm wide image being blown up to 35mm CinemaScope you would think it would look pretty awful but the fully exposed negative and dye transfer Technicolor dyes helped fill in the grain so in the case of the Leone films, they looked fine.

The other reason he used this process instead of Panavision or CinemaScope lenses is because they would've been difficult to impossible to focus on those extreme close ups without distortion. For Techniscope, he just used standard 35mm lenses for flat films but just exposed half the frame. As a result, he could focus very tight with them.

If I were to recommend Leone to someone who hasn't seen any before I would start with this one and
then go to the Eastwood trio. This was probably his masterpiece although "The Good, the Bad and
the Ugly" is a close second. I didn't like any of his later pictures which lacked his unique style used on the four Westerns.

539 Posts
Discussion Starter #4
Hey Ayreonaut, thank you for the compliment. I love movies!

Richard, you sure know a lot about the technical aspects of film. Perhaps we should collaborate on film reviews sometime. You cover the notes on how the film was put together - I didn't know almost any of that stuff. Even though I might have seen some of the fact flow by in one of the supplemental disk's man documentaries it never really stuck.

I like Bronson. Apparently Leone purposely didn't want Eastwood in this one because it was to be a complete departure.

Do you remember if it was actually shot in North America or was it shot in Italy or Spain? I know there are sweeping views of Monument Valley but a lot of that can be taken from stock. Although given how good it all looks and that Paramount provided Leone with a budget I wouldn't be surprised if he shot it himself even if a majority of the film was shot in Europe.

Also... his trademark 'dirty' looking roughians in his westerns is particularly interesting to me. If you put yourself back into the mindset of someone in the 1960s watching a western it must have been pretty shocking. This was a classic Neorealist technique, because Italian cinema had been shooting sequences outdoors and shooting real people, poverty stricken peasants. It was natural to Leone to try and capture the desperation of a 'civil war' era USA.

Although ... and I'm no historian ... I believe at least some of Leone's scenes involving cavalry movement through continental US during the Civil War was inaccurate. Probably not much of a surprise there and I don't mean to nitpick. I don't know if it was Once Upon a Time or Good the Bad and the Ugly but in one movie I saw a scene where a battle weary cavalry division of bluecoats rides into town. The trouble is this town looked to be in Arizona or some other southwestern desert area. Was this ever possible? I though most of the battles of the Civil War took place in the east. I don't see much of the southwest being of any strategic advantage to either North or South during the war.

Senior Shackster
792 Posts

You can email me privately regarding footnotes on your reviews. My email is: [email protected]
If you check out my other posts, you can get my background or log onto www.imdb.com which lists
the features I directed and www.mcfarlandpub.com for my movie books. I'm also a film collector so
I've gone through numerous prints of these titles and thus know what they did regarding distribution
of them. "OUTW" was interesting in that no two prints seemed to be the same. Each copy I inspected
had different scenes removed. They did make
a new 35mm low fade scope print (not Technicolor) for The Film Forum back in the eighties which looked
pretty good so I guess that was another pass of the US negative I forgot to mention. The image was mint without wear.

While Leone might have been influenced by the Italian neo-realist movement, I would not classify him
as part of it. His background was working on sword and sandal epics and he even made one called
"Colossus of Rhodes" which is not bad as these things go but doesn't contain any of his style.
I believe most of "OUTW" was shot in Spain like all of his productions using American and Italian
actors for the leads and Spanish extras for the bit parts. He did do some sequences in Monument Valley
as a homage to Ford. Leone went out of his way to find the ugliest and rattiest looking people for his movies which was another departure from Hollywood
Westerns where everyone seemed too 'clean' for the era. Before the 20th Century, hygene
was pretty awful with most people washing irregulary and the majority of the population filthy, wearing the same worn clothes all the time. Leone depicted this in his films compared to so many US films where
cowboys were clean shaven and appeared to be wearing new outfits from Western Costume.
On the other hand, the locations he used didn't look like the American West nor did the ethnic extras which was part of their surrealism. All of the ingrediants from the foreign looking locations and extras, bad dubbing, exagerrated sound effects and electronic guitar made them seem other worldly which is what I find so fascinating.
In terms of Eastwood, he wanted to branch out on his own and not get typecast as the man
with no name so he turned down Leone's offer to make another picture. It was a smart move on his part. Following "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", he tried some unusal roles in "The Beguiled", "Play Misty for Me", "Dirty Harry" and "Every Which Way But Loose". Now he's one of our top directors at age 76. Not bad for a guy who started as a supporting character in a TV B Western ("Rawhide"). In fact
appearing in cheap foreign films was usually a sign that an actor's Hollywood career was over (i.e. Edmund Purdom). Eastwood was one the rare lucky ones who became a star from these productions and was able to manage his career for decades to come. Others like Steve Reeves just fizzled out
and retired.

Beginning in 1965/1966, Hollywood movies started using blood squibs for bullet impacts.
Squibs are condoms filled with kyro syrup and food coloring that are wired to explode
blowing a small hole in the costume and squirting out the stage blood. (I've used them
in some of my pictures). You need a licensed pyrotechnican to rig them so the actor doesn't get hurt.

"Major Dundee" and "The Sand Pebbles" were among the first titles to feature them but
irregularly. Sometimes there was a squib and other times there wasn't which was disorienting. "Bonnie and Clyde"
was the first movie to use them consistently for every bullet hit with the climax in slow motion.
Pekinpah used this technique throughout "The Wild Bunch". Curiously, Leone did not utilize
them and although his films were very violent and sadistic, they aren't that bloody. People still fell after
getting shot, often within the same frame as the person firing, but without any bullet
impact. Quite a difference between "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "The Wild Bunch"
released the same year. I guess that's another element that makes Leone Westerns seem strange today.

539 Posts
Discussion Starter #6
Thanks for that Richard, I definitely have some reading to do and I appreciate your offer. You'll hear from me as I really quite interested in film history and techniques.

I never meant to imply that Leone could have been a 'neorealist' himself, he's probably way too young. Aren't these movements in art usually something that comes up in retrospect anyway?

I've always been a big fan of Spag Westerns, especially the ones Eastwood did. I loved the surreal effects of the music too, the screaming in the theme music from GBU is incredible. Close-ups of Lee Van Cleefe's eyes. I swore Leone must have done a lot of acid or something back then.

I'm 40 years old, so I watched these movies as a kid. Their theatrical release is definitely before my time. I'm from the generation that grew up watching Star Wars - over and over and over and over.

Suspiria - Argento and his series of films are another unsung genre I absolutely love. His use of colors and tonal balance in each frame is quite amazing. That you're watching a murder / gross out scenes is almost irrelevant. People have to remind me that Suspiria is a horror. Inevitably I introduce that film to friends Halloween, it's a kind of tradition.

26 Posts
Hank fonda as a stone killer.Claudia Cardinale as the prostitute with the heart of steel. Jason Robards with his gun in the toe of his boot just having a ball. Bronson with his hooded eyes and harmonica sitting somewhere in the shadows.And Monument Valley. What more could you ask for? This is Sergio Loene's masterpiece. A brazen,off kilter,operatic triumph that fills you up like a good pasta dinner! Viva Italia!

26 Posts
I forgot to mention Ennio Morricone's brilliant film score. One of many. PS. Check out Yo-Yo Ma's interpitation of Morricone" music with the master himself arranging and conducting.

Senior Shackster
792 Posts

A bit before my time too since I was an adolescent when they were first released although I did
see "A Fisftul of Dollars" at a drive-in re-issue circa 1972. It looked pretty good up on the
screen tower which again illustrates the superior cinematography withstanding that level of magnification.
I saw "Once Upon a Time in the West" in it's ABC network premiere which was uncut except for
some removal of the swearing. I didn't even know the film was cut in 1969 until I started watching
it in revival theater screenings while I was at NYU in the late seventies and discovered each print
seemed to be different. I didn't see the complete version projected until the Film Forum showing in the eighties.
Curiously, even the 165 minute version is listed as a cut version on the US print leaders so I'm wondering
if the Italian version is even longer. I saw "A Fistful of Dollars" in it's ABC premiere which contained a new prologue added to it by the network. They added a prologue to "The Pit and the Pendulum" too.
Strange how the TV stations were making up their own versions of movies back then. NBC added new
scenes to "Three into Two Won't Go" as well.

I agree that all film movements tend to have long term influences although in the case of neo-realism,
it was more economical than an intentional style. The Italian film industry was in ruins after World War II so directors were shooting with natural lighting on location or on the streets because they didn't have the money to do anything else. Critics labeled it 'neo-realism'. Later, MGM re-built Cinecitta (for their own productions) and Italian directors began shooting on sets in that studio including De Sica, who abandoned the earlier style.

2,234 Posts
"A Fistful of Dollars" in it's ABC premiere which contained a new prologue added to it by the network. They added a prologue to "The Pit and the Pendulum" too.
Strange how the TV stations were making up their own versions of movies back then. NBC added new
scenes to "Three into Two Won't Go" as well.
:eek:fftopic2: Well slightly ;)
When On Her Magesties Secret Service was aired on TV they completely recut it and moved major segments around to get to the action quicker. I hate it when they mess with a movie like that.

Senior Shackster
792 Posts
Technically, they could do what they wanted to since that was how broadcast deals were structured at the time. Once a network (or syndicated station) purchased the rights to air a movie, they could re-cut it, alter it, add scenes, censor it and so forth to accomodate broadcast standards or clients they
sold the commercial spots too. Television back then was first and foremost to sell commercials. Movies
were shown solely for that purpose and they didn't want anything in them that might offend the sponsor. Some directors complained like Otto Preminger but no studio was going to turn down the money they paid. On occasion the original director was consulted for the television version. Mike
Nichols helped re-edit "The Graduate" for CBS. Pekinpah was asked to help re-edit "The Wild Bunch"
by the same network but turned them down making some off color comment about not helping someone
cut his balls off. By the late sixties, broadcast rights were one of the major sources of income to
be derived from a film so some studios kept that in mind during production. In some cases, they shot alternate scenes or dialogue for these purposes.
For example, "Saturday Night Fever" had both an R rated version and a toned down version for television although the PG version was also released theatrically. Sometimes networks added out-takes to expand the running time of a feature (and sell more commercial spots) which is why the broadcast version of "The Towering Inferno" had extra scenes on TV. It wasn't until the advent of cable television in the mid-seventies that stations began
to show movies intact. Companies like HBO were selling the movie itself to viewers, not
the commericals. Later, videodisc formats started showing films in the original aspect ratio beginning
with the CED SelectaVision release of "Amadeus" (not the laserdisc release of "Manhattan" as is generally
assumed). Then came DVD with it's anamorphic enhancement to improve the image further and digital
restoration to removes the wear, tear and dust from old negatives. Now most audiences are very picky
about seeing the director's cut of a movie in the correct ratio. Decades ago this certainly wasn't the case. If you wanted to see a movie intact you had to go to a revival theater in one of the major cities
or rent it from one of the 16mm companies. Or, become a film collector although that was quite an expensive hobby with top titles like a 16mm print of "Singin' in the Rain" going for thousands of dollars.

I guess if you look at it objectively, the concept of 'director's cut' is pretty new. Even the term
'auteur' came out of the late sixties. Before that, most directors operated on a 'work for hire' basis. While
some might have clout based on past successes, they were still just working for a fee and/or piece of the action. The people who put up the money (usually a studio) owned the negative and could do whatever they wanted with it including re-cutting it for different markets. Today's top
directors usually have clauses in their contracts to prevent that or at least make their cut available for
home video.

Leone probably had little, if any, say over the US versions of his films. Most were cut for theatrical release and then re-cut for television. Since "Once Upon a Time in the West" wasn't performing well in theaters, Paramount decided to trim it to get in more screenings per day and try to squeeze extra revenue out of it that way. Fortunately, they've all been restored for DVD where running time isn't an issue. We should all be thankful for the DVD market which has really changed the way films are marketed
and enabled directors to retain some artistic integrity.
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