Once Upon a Time in the West: Paramount Presents (Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray)

A mysterious stranger with a harmonica joins forces with a notorious desperado to protect a beautiful widow from a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.

May 7, 2024 8 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton and Christopher Bligh

Plot: What’s it about?

A few years ago on a weekend of a hot June summer, I was working the entire day of an Irish Fair, so far the only year in the few years that it has been run that both days of it were sunny. As I had come back from working, I had noticed the widescreen debut of a western classic coming onto one of the classic movie channels. From the moment it started with its long title sequence, it was a true channel locker. It hooked me in a way that was hypnotic and I just couldn’t describe what grabbed me but I wanted to know at each moment what happens next and for 2 hours and 45 minutes, it was a welcome end to a hard working day. That movie was Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” and it’s story and its characters spun quite a tale.

Once upon a time, there were three men (Woody Strode, Jack Elam, Al Mulock) waiting impatiently at a railroad station until a mysterious stranger with no name, whose only identification is the instrument he plays around his neck, appears as the railroad passes. They represent a man named Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s sinister methods are being applied at the other side of town and while these sinister acts are being pinned on a scruffy gunfighter named Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a young lady (Claudia Cardinale) arrives in town slowly but surely discovering her late husband’s plans for the future with Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank hot on her trail for their own reasons and thus continues our journey into the Sergio Leone western that hangs, hooks, twists and goes the distance from start to finish and they all lived happily or unhappily depending on your point of view.

I admit there are two kinds of long length casually paced movies. There are the ones that the viewer ponders when the movie is going to end and there are the ones that go on and give you a curiosity of what’s going to happen next and this film is certainly a case of the latter. The less-is-more dialogue choice is a great one as the ensemble get some of the best introductions to their characters, accompanied by a haunting but memorable score by Ennio Morricone. In short, “Once Upon a Time in the West” leaves you with a great mark visually and never lets go from one scene to the next. It’s great to see a movie, especially a Sergio Leone western minus Clint Eastwood, that still holds up so well after so many years.

Video: How does it look?

Paramount did a fine job a few years back with their standard Blu-ray of this movie. Now that we’ve got it on 4K, I was expecting big things. Thankfully the 2.35:1 HEVC 4K image doesn’t disappoint. Leone gives us the whole package with this film with the wide, gorgeous landscapes coupled with the close ups of the actors in some scenes. Detail is amazing, just consider looking at an aging Henry Fonda and the wrinkles in his forehead contrasted with the grey in his hair. Contrast and black levels work well together, giving a very smooth, film like look to the entire movie. There’s a bit of grain in some scenes, but considering the age of the film, it’s one of the better looking transfers I’ve seen.

Audio: How does it sound?

We get the same DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack that was released with the film’s last incarnation on Blu-ray. It sounds fairly good. Ennio Morricone’s score is at the heart of the film here and though a bit on the harsh end at times, it does resonate throughout the channels. Separation is clear, the whistles of the train, the drops of water on the hat and the like. They all sound good. Granted, the movie is over forty years old now so there’s only so much that can be done with the audio.

Supplements: What are the extras?

  • Commentary by the Hosts of the Spaghetti Western Podcast – The title pretty much says it all. This is one of two new features on the disc and let’s just say these guys know their stuff. It wasn’t personally for me, but then again I think I was overwhelmed.
  • A Look Back with Leonard Maltin — Maltin, as he does for many of the Paramount Presents titles, offers up some nice comments about the film, its history and so forth. It’s a welcome addition.
  • Audio Commentary — This features contributions from directors John Carpenter, John Milius & Alex Cox. They’re joined by They’re joined (via splicing) by film historians Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall and cast and crew.
  • An Opera of Violence — Lancelot Narayan serves as this segment’s “moderator” of sorts and he’s joined by several of the above feature’s members as they talk about the film, its place in movie history and so on.
  • The Wages of Sin — This is essentially a continuation of the above feature with the same participants effectively discussing more of the same.
  • Something To Do With Death — In the rinse/repeat category…we’ve got this. I have no idea why these weren’t just lumped together into one feature instead of three. Maybe more bullet points is better?
  • Railroad: Revolutionising the West — If you’ve ever wanted a crash course in the early history of the American railroad (and, let’s face it…who hasn’t?) this one is for you.
  • Locations Then & Now (Gallery) — Pretty self-explanatory. We see some “modern day” locations as compared to when they were when the film was shot.
  • Production Gallery   
  • Theatrical Trailer 

The Bottom Line

There’s no denying that this is perhaps the greatest Western movie – ever. There’s also a good argument that it might be one of the greatest films ever. Regardless of your personal feelings, Paramount’s new 4K version of Sergio Leone’s classic has never looked better. The addition of some new supplements only sweetens the deal.

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