Once Upon a Time in the West: Paramount Presents (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: May 06, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Once Upon a Time in the West: Paramount Presents (4K UHD Review)


Sergio Leone

Release Date(s)

1968 (May 14, 2024)


Euro International Films/Rafran Cinematografica/Finanzia San Marco/Paramount Pictures (Paramount Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: B
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: A-

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




When you live in a place that embodies vastness, you quickly begin to appreciate the value and impact of opposition—the individual in an expansive landscape for example, the yin and yang of land and sky, the stark contrast of the close and intimate versus the remote and distant. It’s no wonder then that Hollywood filmmakers have long been drawn to these sorts of places, especially when telling stories of human conflict, whether rooted in the internal landscape of the mind and heart or the interpersonal divides of civilization itself—right and wrong, good and evil. And given the real history of the American West, details both admirable and terrible, it should be no surprise that the Old West in particular has been a popular milieu for cinematic exploration, with the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, John Sturges, Delmer Daves, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Mann, and many others making invaluable contributions.

But place and history are often never more interesting than when they’re explored from the perspective of an outsider. And no foreign-born filmmaker has made a greater or more impactful contribution to the Western genre than the Italian director Sergio Leone. In the mid-to-late 1960s, Leone directed a series of films set in the Old West but shot in southern Italy and/or Spain, often with American actors familiar to fans of Hollywood Westerns. His “Man with No Name” or “Dollars” trilogy starring Clint Eastwood (with Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach)—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)—has become iconic, and the less appreciated Duck, You Sucker! (1971, aka A Fistful of Dynamite) starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger is certainly worthy as well. But of all the films in Leone’s corpus, there may be none greater or more accomplished than the epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

While Leone was originally reluctant to make more Westerns after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the success of his “Dollars” trilogy essentially meant that’s all Hollywood wanted from him. Luckily, a generous budget offer from Paramount Pictures and the chance to work with Henry Fonda—who he’d originally had in mind for Eastwood’s role in A Fistful of Dollars—proved irresistible. The project was also a chance for Leone to collaborate with a pair of younger men who were friends and who became accomplished filmmakers in their own right, Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento. With the help of screenwriter Sergio Donati, the trio conceived a tale that would include references for (or draw inspiration from) dozens of their favorite American Westerns, including—but in no way limited to—Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), Ford’s The Searchers (1956), George Stevens’ Shane (1952), and Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960).

The film’s story, which is deceptively simple, tracks the unlikely alliance that forms between a mysterious harmonica-playing drifter (Charles Bronson) and an outlaw named Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who discover that they have common enemy in the form of the ruthless gunman Frank (Henry Fonda). Caught in the crosshairs of all three men is a New Orleans prostitute named Jill (Claudia Cardinale), who arrives by train in the Old West town of Flagstone only to find that her new husband and his children have been murdered on the Sweetwater ranch that was to be her new home. One of the many delights of Once Upon a Time in the West is the slow yet deliberate pace with which the film gradually reveals the mystery of why this happened, who is actually behind it, and how all of these characters’ lives are intertwined.

But what really makes this film memorable is the way Leone’s choices in direction—and particularly his collaboration with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in America, Life Is Beautiful)—play with that notion of contrasts, elevating their inherent drama, both visually and thematically, to truly operatic levels. And he does this unapologetically, with such gusto and flare that the viewer simply can’t avoid being drawn in by it. The film’s opening sequence—in which a trio of gunmen sent by Frank (and played by genre regulars Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock) lie in wait to ambush Harmonica when he arrives on the scene by train—is fifteen minutes of “pure cinema” virtuosity that somehow makes use of every single inch of the 2.39 widescreen frame. What’s more, Leone’s against-the-grain use of Fonda in a despicably villainous role is inspired, as is the magnificent symphony of staging, sound design, and camera movement that’s employed to reveal him. Combined with one the great Ennio Morricone’s finest and most somber and melancholic scores, the result is a cinematic experience so splendid that it feels almost an understatement to call it a masterpiece.

Once Upon a Time on the West was shot by Delli Colli on 35 mm photochemical film using Arriflex 35 II C Techniscope cameras with spherical lenses in the 2-perf Techniscope process introduced by Technicolor Italia in the early 1960s. Now, it must be noted that Techniscope captures its widescreen image using half the vertical film area as regular 4-perf 35 mm photography, and the film is exhibited at 2.35:1 theatrically. At the same time, Techniscope release prints were made using a dye-transfer process that tended to soften the grain and fine detail a bit (something that’s important to keep in mind as you continue reading this review). This long-awaited new 4K Ultra HD release features the end product of a 2018 restoration effort by Paramount’s remastering team, working with L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation. The disc includes the 165-minute extended Restored Version of the film, sourced from the original Techniscope camera negative. Per the studio press release, it’s been graded for high dynamic range (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are available) in such a way as to honor “the 2007 Film Foundation photochemical restoration overseen by legendary director Martin Scorsese by matching its build and color palette.”

All right—now that those details are out of the way, let me just say that analyzing this 4K UHD image has been a serious challenge and for a few different reasons. First of all, I love Once Upon a Time in the West. This is the film that pushed me toward my chosen career, that convinced me once and for all to study cinema back in the late 1980s, and that led me to founding The Digital Bits in 1997 and everything that’s followed as a result. This film is personal to me.

Second, while I’ve seen this film projected on 35 mm film several times over the years—indeed, I was the actual projectionist for my first viewing—the experience of seeing a release print can never compare to looking at the original negative. And as very few people have eidetic memory, the idea that anyone can remember exactly how a film looked years later is absurd, regardless of what some may claim.

So third, the best version of this film that we can use for comparison is Paramount’s original 2011 Blu-ray, which was sourced from the 2007 Film Foundation restoration. And that disc—beloved though it is to fans (including me)—had its issues. There was sharpening in evidence, as well as haloing on high-contrast edges, highlights were often blown out, and the shadows were occasionally crushed. But it certainly looked like photochemical film, with medium-to-strong but organic grain. (Again, grain enlarged by the Techniscope process from what’s actually on the negative.) The resulting Blu-ray presentation looked gritty, but you always felt that you were seeing every bit of the image detail.

This new 4K presentation is decidedly not gritty. It’s very clean—in fact, cleaner than I’ve ever seen this film looking before. And that alone is a bit jarring. My initial and immediate impression was that a little too much grain reduction had been employed, and that a bit of fine image detail had been removed in the process. And after repeated viewings and direct comparison with the 2011 Blu-ray, I still believe this to be the case. The previous Blu-ray reveals more subtle texture detail, and this is readily apparent in the many different fabric, wood, and metal surfaces visible in the film’s opening sequence, as Frank’s three gunmen await the arrival of Harmonica at Cattle Corner. Take a look in particular at the side of the water tower, and at the shots of Snaky (Elam) sitting on the train station bench—look at the wood grain in the backrest planks that’s visible (to the right of his face) on the 2011 Blu-ray but that’s more indistinct on the 4K UHD. The 4K image isn’t just less noisy (which is an improvement), it’s visibly softer looking (which isn’t).

[Editor’s Note: Per the update below, I no longer believe that grain reduction is the issue here, so much as excessive video compression. This is has impacted not only the fine photochemical grain structure visible in the image, but the fine detail as well.]

The 4K color grade is more saturated and nuanced in HDR compared to the 2011 Blu-ray, as you’d expect, with highlights that are more naturally bold and shadows that have a little more depth, though they still look crushed occasionally. But the overall palette is now much warmer looking as well. It’s possible that the 4K image is more accurate to the 2007 restoration, and that the 2011 Blu-ray was graded incorrectly—I have no way of knowing. Either way, I find the HDR grade pleasing. But what I’m seeing here on this new 4K UHD that I really don’t like is a strange swirling/smearing texture throughout the image. It’s especially visible in the sky and in landscape backgrounds in wide exterior shots. What it looks like to me is very light organic photochemical grain that’s been reduced to indistinct digital artifacting by way too much video compression.

And that brings me to my fourth point—and to the only other basis we have for comparison here—which is the fact that Paramount has compressed this film, which is nearly three hours in length, onto a dual-layered 66GB disc. That results in an average video data rate of about 46 Mbps and a file size of 53.4GB. Meanwhile, on all of their own Sergio Leone 4K Ultra HD releases (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Kino Lorber Studio Classics has taken advantage of triple-layered 100GB discs. The result of that choice amounts to video data rates that are much higher (at 80, 85, and 60 Mbps respectively). What’s more, the 4K Digital version of this film now available for download on Kaleidescape has a file size of 86.8 GB!

So by choosing to use a 66GB disc instead of 100GB, Paramount Home Entertainment probably saved themselves some money in replication costs. But they certainly compromised the image quality, and unnecessarily so. Now I haven’t watched the Kaleidescape version yet to compare the two 4K presentations, and at this point I’m almost reluctant to do so for fear that it’ll prove too irritating. But my suspicion is that the K-Scape presentation features very light and organic grain that actually looks like grain, along with slightly better fine image detail and greater dimensionality. You simply can’t take a 4K image file and compress it by 30% and expect no harm to be done to the image. I mean, come on. What’s the point of restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling if you’re just going to squeeze it onto a postcard?

The frustrating thing is that this 4K image is still good looking on the whole—certainly very watchable once you get used to it—and it offers much to recommend it over the previous Blu-ray. But I would love to see what Paramount’s raw 4K scan looked like prior to the noise reduction. And I would really love to see what this image looks like encoded for a 100GB disc, instead of 66GB. I suspect the differences would be revealing.

[UPDATE: I’ve now compared the 4K disc to the Kaleidescape presentation. The larger file size and higher video data rate on the K-Scape download definitely makes the difference between the film’s grain structure looking natural and organic instead of like vague digital compression artifacting as it appears on the disc. Fine detail appears just a tad more refined and overall dimensionality is improved as well. Bottom line: I really wish this film had been released on a 100GB disc. If I were to grade the Kaleidescape video image, I’d give it an A- compared to the 4K UHD’s B grade on disc.]

Audio-wise, Paramount’s new 4K release appears to feature the same sonic offerings as the 2011 Blu-ray, including the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix and a 2.0 mono Dolby Digital mix that preserves the film’s original theatrical audio experience. The 5.1 soundfield is nicely wide, subtle and atmospheric in quiet scenes to render the squeak of a windmill and or the whispering wind, yet muscular during moments of explosive gunplay. Morricone’s beloved score sounds fantastic at all times. And the 2.0 mix is pleasing in its clarity and fidelity to the vintage experience. So I can’t claim to have any significant complaints here, except that—again—KLSC’s Leone 4Ks include their original 2.0 mono mixes in lossless DTS-HD MA format as opposed to lossy Dolby Digital. It’s a nitpick to be sure, but again it’s the kind of thing that KLSC actually pays attention to and that 4K fans and cinephiles really appreciate. And it’s been overlooked by Paramount. Additional audio options on the 4K disc include 2.0 mono mixes in German, Spanish, French, and Japanese, with subtitles available in English, English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, German, Spanish, French, and Japanese.

Paramount’s Ultra HD release is a 2-disc set released under their Paramount Presents label, including the remastered film in 4K on UHD and also 1080p HD on Blu-ray. This is definitely a new Blu-ray, sourced from the new remaster, so you may wish to keep your original Blu-ray as well. (More on that in a minute.) There are no extras on the 4K disc, but the Blu-ray includes the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary by Jay Jennings and Tom Betts (of The Spaghetti Westerns Podcast)
  • Audio Commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall (with John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, Claudia Cardinale, and Bernardo Bertolucci), hosted by Lancelot Narayan
  • A Look Back with Leonard Maltin (HD – 5:32)
  • An Opera of Violence (SD – 28:50)
  • The Wages of Sin (SD – 19:38)
  • Something to Do with Death (SD – 18:20)
  • Railroad: Revolutionizing the West (SD – 6:22)
  • Locations Then & Now (SD – 4:30)
  • Production Gallery (SD – 5:18)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:54)

The commentary with Jennings and Betts is new for this release and quite entertaining, as is the short video retrospective by Leonard Maltin, though the latter is cursory at best. The highlight of these features is the terrific legacy commentary assembled and hosted by our old friend Lancelot Narayan. It begins with Frayling, author of the biography Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (2000) and the more recent coffee table tome Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece (2019), who offers anecdotes about the making of the film, interesting historical information, and comments on the many intentional references to classic Westerns in this film. The other participants appear at selected moments to make their own contributions, each recorded separately. The result could easily sound disjointed, but is instead a fascinating listening experience. These people know Leone and this film well, and their love of both is obvious. Note that subtitles for both commentaries are available in all of the languages included with the film itself.

A trio of legacy documentaries carries over here from the original 2003 DVD release as well, featuring many of the same participants. An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin, and Something to Do with Death are basically three parts of a whole, which in total runs for a little over an hour. Combining interview clips with historical photos and footage, we learn about Leone’s origins as a filmmaker, the conception of Once Upon a Time in the West from his love (and disdain) of Hollywood Westerns, its development and casting, the actual production, the eventual reaction to the film, and its place in cinema history. There are fascinating moments with Bertolucci talking about the unlikely way he became involved in the writing of the film, and Leone admirers Carpenter, Milius, and Cox discuss their appreciation for it as well. Cardinale reminisces about her time on the production, as do actor Gabriele Ferzetti and Delli Colli. There’s even an amusing moment of archival footage featuring Fonda talking about having been cast as a villain, and trying to figure out how to approach the role. It’s all great stuff for fans of OUATITW and well worth your time.

The Railroad: Revolutionizing the West is a strange piece of work, but no less interesting. The short features film clips and historical photos in a window in the upper right portion of the frame, with the narrator-spoken text at the bottom. It cuts away to interview clips occasionally, featuring the participants talking about how the subject relates to the film. Also included is the film’s original theatrical trailer in HD, as well as video galleries of location photos (seen then and now) and production photos set to music from the film. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray no longer includes the Theatrical Version of this film, as did the 2011 disc—it’s just the longer Restored Version. So again, you may wish to keep that original disc.

A Digital code is also included in the packaging, but unfortunately it only redeems on Vudu (now called Fandango at Home). The lack of AppleTV/iTunes redemption is frustrating, as is the lack of Movies Anywhere compatibility. The packaging also includes a lovely cardboard slipcover that opens into a reproduction of the original poster art.

The wait for Once Upon a Time in the West on disc in 4K has been long, and though the result is somewhat disappointing, it certainly can’t be called bad. The truth is that if you don’t directly compare the new 4K presentation to the 2011 Blu-ray—and you aren’t already familiar with that previous disc—you’ll likely find the UHD quite pleasing. And indeed, the more I watch it, the more watchable it becomes. The 4K image here does offer some improvements, but the unnecessary over-compression keeps it from truly shining. Personally, I’d love to see Paramount go back to the raw negative scan, dial their grain reduction back a little, swap out the Dolby Digital for lossless mono, and re-encode this image for a 100GB disc. (Or license it to Kino Lorber Studio Classics, who I’m sure would be very happy to do it for them.) Ultimately, I don’t actually think the grain reduction is really the issue here, given the nature of Techniscope and the dye-transfer process used for making prints back in the day. This film should really just have been given the extra room it needed to allow for maximum video data rates. If this was a 100GB disc, I think it would be pretty close to a home run. And this film deserves a home run.

In any case, Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West was, is, and remains a true classic—one of the all-time great and most pleasurable movie viewing experiences any cinephile can have. Whether you choose to view it via this new 4K UHD or stick with the previous Blu-ray, it is absolutely not to be missed.

- Bill Hunt

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