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'Once Upon a Time' again

The negative of Sergio Leone's grand western was damaged. A new restored print will show at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

June 18, 2008|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Sergio Leone's 1968 masterwork, “Once Upon a Time in the West,” was showing the ravages of time. The negative that Paramount Pictures had been using over the years to strike prints was getting old and frayed, and the color was shifting.

But thanks to a new restoration, the seminal western is now crisp and vibrant. The new print will have its West Coast premiere Friday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Film historians and critics look upon the film as a true masterpiece. "It's so original," says Rick Jewell, a professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. "It's this kind of melange of different elements and styles, and yet it coheres. It holds together and has this very unique vision, which is Leone's vision. It's just an exhilarating movie. If you love cinema, this is one of those films that transports you to another realm."

Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," which is two hours and 45 minutes, stars Henry Fonda in a rare villain role, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson and Claudia Cardinale in a violent, revenge-filled tale set against the expansion of the West with the construction of the railroad.

"This is his ultimate kind of statement about America and the West and the history of the country -- a country that he both loves and despises," Jewell says. "To get all of that into a film is very difficult, to put it mildly. But somehow he does it."

Leone, Jewell says, offers a Marxist rewriting of U.S. history with the film. "He knows it's a fable. That's why he called it 'Once Upon a Time in the West.' Yet it is a fable of how the West might have evolved if it had evolved along Marxist lines instead of capitalistic lines."

The director was also trying to subvert western movie mythology by taking actors like Fonda, "who had generally been a hero in westerns up to this point, and turn him into this incredibly coldblooded villain who will even shoot a little boy. Bronson, in his early days anyway, was cast often as a thug and a bad guy. Now he becomes the hero. Leone is trying to pull the rug out from under us in very different and interesting ways," Jewell says.

"Once Upon a Time's" unique opening -- a 10-minute sequence in which three men wait for a train -- has sparse dialogue and little action but is sheer poetry to watch, praised by novelist Graham Greene for its "almost balletic quality."

After making his three "spaghetti westerns" with Clint Eastwood -- "A Fistful of Dollars," "A Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- Leone had thought he was finished with the genre. But then he met up-and-coming directors Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento at a screening of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The trio got together and worked out a story outline, which was expanded upon by Sergio Donati. Mickey Knox then penned the English-language version.

The film was not a hit in the U.S. when released here in 1969, which prompted Paramount to edit about 20 minutes out in hopes of attracting audiences. The cuts are now restored.

But the cuts "were ludicrously awful," says Barry Allen, Paramount's executive director of film preservation and archival resources. "They had pulled out stuff, and the music didn't carry all the way through. I couldn't figure the thing out. It was very disappointing but still very powerful and very beautiful."

"People just didn't get it," Jewell adds. "It was really beyond their comprehension. I think they so expected the kind of western Leone had given them with the three Clint Eastwood movies, and they didn't get that. Eastwood wasn't in it, and they were kind of mystified by it."


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