I first saw Leone's western swan song back when AMC stood for American Movie Classics and not Another Mediocre Channel. Before Paramount's highly anticipated DVD in 2003, the network debuted a new restoration carried out by Lowry Digital of the 165 minute version. By then I grew up on Leone's prior Dollars trilogy, but never particularity warmed to the genre. Once Upon a Time in the West helped in my reevaluation and appreciation of the western; spaghetti or otherwise.
There's been annals written about Leone, his westerns, and this meditation of a transitioning Old West facing steam-powered change. It's tough to state anything that hasn't already been said other than this is an exceptional film regardless of genre. It doesn't matter even if you hate westerns, you need to make a note to see this one.
Once Upon... is iconoclastic toward lighthearted trends Leone himself helped mold with Eastwood's European trips. In this bleak departure, everything is set back to an "idealized realism" seen in the work of Leone's idol, John Ford, to which the Italian filmmaker directly borrows elements from (among others) for this picture. For this, like with Tarantino's features, those critical question the "purity" of the expansive western Leone always wanted to make. I say who cares when the result is so magnificent irrespective of whether one believes it's a stylized rip of classic American westerns or a loving, epic homage to them. I'm siding with the latter considering Leone's professed love of both the real and cinematic Old West. If you haven't already, see Once Upon a Time in the West as soon as possible...or revisit it once more.
And that's exactly what I did last night with Paramount's still warm-off-the-press Blu-ray release. Before I get to my thoughts on video quality, let me preface this by saying I've seen Once Upon... more times than I care to admit. Upon hearing of Paramount's initial DVD, I ordered their French disc since it came out several months before the North American release (the film was a monolithic smash hit in France). Then the stateside 2-DVD Collector's Edition, the old Paramount widescreen LaserDisc, the longer CVC Italian language-only disc from Italy, and most recently the single-disc re-issue. I'd like to think I have a little more perspective on what the film generally looks like than someone fresh to it.
The 1080p, MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 2.35:1 Techniscope transfer is a bit controversial on A/V forums. There's been talk about the picture quality not being all that it could be, possibly from the age of the restoration, but honestly the more I watch the better it looks. Paramount's DVD had considerable edge enhancement which created artificial line halos around objects giving the false impression of detail.
Thankfully, this tinkering is completely absent along with any signs of moderate to heavy noise reduction (unlike MGM's embarrassing The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Blu-ray). That doesn't rule out what looks like some mild low pass filtering that was probably done before the master was transferred to Blu-ray. As a result, grain takes on a slightly clumpy appearance that doesn't seem to hamper detail. That said, shots that were always soft; like Cardinale's close-ups after the duel, are still soft. Fleeting signs of damage are in the usual spots. Added detail from the bump to high definition is always obvious and contributes noticeably to a better sense of depth. Colors seemed to have been normalized and lack the slight yellow appearance of the prior DVD. Harmonica's climatic flashback has a subtle and unexplainable greenish tint. Overall, Once Upon... has never looked better on home video and it's questionable how superior a newer telecine of the restoration would be. Although it remains to be seen what the Italians do with their eventual Blu-ray edition...
Again, unlike MGM's G,B,&U, the lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 retains the original foley sound effects from every footstep to pistol blast. Despite being a upmix, the sound remains front-heavy and surprisingly dynamic for a late '60s soundtrack. The included "restored" English mono sounds muffled by comparison. All of the supplements of the Collector's Edition DVD have been ported over.
Finally, what's this about "restored" and "theatrical" versions being included? Well, it's unfortunately a bust. The Blu-ray has seamless branching, so the 165 minute theatrical version is the "base" and if selected, the added minute of new footage of the restored version is added back in. So in reality, both versions are restored. The problem is the new stuff only equals roughly 22 seconds.
The restored version carries a 17 second text intro informing of who's responsible for this presentation. That only leaves an additional 22 seconds of actual footage. The only addition I can spot is a few seconds when the train pulls up in the beginning, Elam scans the length a little longer as Al Mulock taps his holster before Elam signals the three to start converging together (Frayling's DVD commentary goes silent during this). This snippet was previously only seen on the Italian DVD and I have no idea why it's included on this Blu-ray when that DVD has eleven minutes of new footage and some differing musical ques (detailed here by yours truly) compared to any Paramount release. This shouldn't be the reason to grab this Blu, the A/V presentation is definitely the main course and well worth the $15 price range...