Once Upon A Time In The West
Fans of Sergio Leone’s monolithic 1969 western have been waiting forever for a proper release of the film on DVD, having suffered years with an inferior pan-and-scan VHS set, and the gruesomely faded and mutilated prints that haunt the rep cinema circuit. It was worth the wait.
Leone’s masterpiece, made after his incredibly successful “Man With No Name” trilogy starring Clint Eastwood (Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), was poorly received at its premiere, and butchered for its American release. As a result, no one can ever recall seeing the same version of the film twice, comparing notes on which scenes were missing, or triumphantly reporting a whole new sequence.
This two-disc set finally lays all that to rest, with a marvelous digital remaster of the film. A second disc contains three worshipful documentaries on Leone and the making of the film, which reveals that this two-and-a-half hour film contains only fifteen pages of scripted dialogue, with a hero (Charles Bronson) who makes Eastwood’s laconic gunman seem like a carnival barker.
Bronson plays Harmonica, a phantom whose purpose in life is focused on a showdown with Frank, a mercenary gunslinger in the employ of a ruthless railroad baron. The railroad is converging on the lonely desert home of Claudia Cardinale, a New Orleans whore turned into a widow when Frank slaughters her new husband and his family. Jason Robards plays Cheyenne, the romantic outlaw who Frank frames for the murders.
Everything in the film is meant to converge on Harmonica’s duel with Frank, played by Henry Fonda as the embodiment of pure evil. Leone’s film was misunderstood by critics and his studio mostly because suspense – Will Frank kill Harmonica? – is displaced by fate, turning the simple machinery of dramatic tension into an almost religious feeling of awe.
Fans of the film will tell you that there are at least three reasons to see Once Upon A Time In The West. It has the most gripping opening sequence ever shot, the greatest soundtrack ever recorded (Ennio Morricone’s stinging, soaring score), and the most lyrical death scene (Robards’ quiet collapse into the dust of Monument Valley).
The James Bond Collection Vol. 2
The James Bond Collection Vol. 3
These two box sets complete the “special edition” release of all of the Bond films so far, all twenty 007 action spectaculars packaged with commentary tracks, and at least two documentaries on the production or history of the series on each disc.
Volume two is the slightly better deal, seven films in all, including three Connery vehicles (From Russia With Love, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever). Volume Three contains the two-disc special edition release of Die Another Day, the latest Bond, the underrated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (with one-time Bond George Lazenby), and the last Roger Moore Bond, A View To A Kill, which features Christopher Walken’s outrageous turn as a giggling villain.
Real 007 fans will shamefacedly admit that, whatever their opinion of Lazenby, Moore, Timothy Dalton or Pierce Brosnan as Bond, it’s hard to walk away from the series, even thirty years after Connery’s last official turn in the role. Which is why the box sets are, for real fans, the only way to collect the series.
Jacques Perrin’s spectacular documentary on bird migration featured cameras literally soaring at the head of flocks as they flew over oceans and deserts, along the Seine in Paris and up the Hudson River by Manhattan’s towers. Anyone who saw the film in the theatres – still the best way to see it – knew that the DVD would feature an incredible explanation of just how those shots were done.
Winged Migration arrives with a “making of” as remarkable as anticipated, which opens with the revelation that birds were actually raised from the egg to imprint on the camera operators who would follow them around the world in ultralight planes and balloons. It’s one of the few production featurettes that really says something fascinating about the film it accompanies.
They Drive By Night
Warner’s careful reissue of its priceless archives continues with four Humphrey Bogart films, two of which (High Sierra, To Have And Have Not) are recognized as classics, and another pair long considered curiosities.
Bogart practically disappears halfway through They Drive By Night, a story about independent truckers that starts off with Warner’s trademark bracing 30s social realism, a hard-bitten “regular Joe against the system” tone that subsides with a murder and a trial to a too-tidy ending.
Dark Passage is much stranger, a film noir about an escaped murderer trying to clear his name, where you don’t even see Bogart’s face for 45 minutes, as the camera follows his point of view until the bandages come off after plastic surgery. Lauren Bacall plays the love interest, while an amazing cast of character actors either help or threaten Bogart in the service of a plot that’s best described as “fate gone mad”.
Santa Clause 2
Tim Allen reprises his role as a divorced loser who finds fulfillment as Santa Claus, with a sequel predicated on some hallowed elf law that Santa needs a wife. His marital target is snagged far too early for much suspense, and the biggest laughs go to an animatronic reindeer. Stick with the original Miracle on 34th Street if you’re desperate for a Santa story this year.