Without doubt ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ has been my favorite film. I would state against the director Sergio Leone never got his due for his passion on his kind of cinema and in a way may be the most underrated cinema genius of them all. Here, in his most astonishing achievement, he deals with complex themes like the development of urban America while a balancing a central character more troubled and ambiguous than any we see on the screen today.
Once Upon a Time in America is a 1984 US-Italian epic crime drama film co-written and directed by Sergio Leone and starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. It chronicles the lives of Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence in New York City’s world of organized crime. The film explores themes of childhood friendships, love, lust, greed, betrayal, loss, broken relationships, and the rise of mobsters in American society.
Leone adapted the story from the novel The Hoods, written by Harry Grey, while filming ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. The film went through casting changes and production issues before filming began in 1982.
The character is as complex as Willard from ‘Apocalypse Now’ but without the benefit of an audience friendly narrative. Leone would surely have scoffed at the notion. Leone’s art was the art of symbolism and visual narrative. In those long searing characteristic Leone close ups Noodles’ character are expressed and for some it just seems distant and frustrating, but for those who are prepared to look beyond, DeNiro’s is opening scene is brilliant in any form of cinema…..
Over the course of decades we see him grow and evolve into a tarnished and self-pitying man, forever doomed by his inability to transcend his environment. The shockingly violent rape scene is the climax of his character. Faced with the desertion of the woman he has loved with desperate passion his entire life, he can express his feelings in no other way than to violate her in the deepest way possible. It is vey disturbing and brutal. The possible exception can be’ Raging Bull’ (Another 80’s jewel), besides no Hollywood film has ever had the nerve or the stomach to portray the arc of such a self-loathing, often unlikeable, ultimately doomed. The performance is so subtle, I doubt not many of the other actor could have pulled off such a complicated and understanding depiction, especially in the absence of any insightful dialogue.
But now let’s return to Leone- there can be doubt that he is the star of this film. Cross cutting between decades and eras, between dream and reality, he creates a strikingly vivid epic that never takes the easy out. He deals with childhood -particularly adolescence- memory, dreams, time and of course the greatest of Leone themes, America. No other European director has shown such an insight and an understanding- indeed such a fascination- with the land of freedom… With foreign eyes he had interpreted through.
The film is presented in non-chronological order. While this plot states the film from the 1920s to the 1960s, the film is largely told through flashbacks from the 1960s.This a film subverted in its clichés. No American gangster film with the possible exception of The Godfather Part 1 & 2 is as brilliant as Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. A film, ten years in the making, it was destined never to have its director’s cut released in American cinemas. So against a bleak urban and industrial landscape we see criminality rise parallel to 20th Century urban America. The children we see rolling drunks progress to controlling unions and toppling gangland powers. Only Max manages to rise still higher, to the pedestals of corporate/political power and corruption. Or does he?
The theory that the film is a pipedream distorts our concepts of reality in the way Brian Singer’s The ‘Usual Suspects’ does. Indeed for a period of the film Max constitutes a sort of keiser soze’ figure. There’s that wonderfully surreal visual moment, where he’s revealed through the red stain glass window. The soundest interpretation seems to be that the most ambiguous smile since the Mona Lisa signifies Noodles summing up the past and exploring a possible future. It’s this dreamlike atmosphere that distances Leone’s masterwork from any other gangster film. You should watch that sublimely orchestrated scene in the hospital where the four protagonists switch the baby tags and ask yourself if that would look out of place in the Godfather. For despite the similarities and the many comparisons the film bears only a superficial likeness to Coppola’s wonderful saga. “Once Upon a Time in America” is a subtle melt of moods. It is both melancholy and exuberant and from its darkness the set design and look of the film actually bears much more similarity to the bright modern gangster depictions like The Untouchables than it does to the Godfather. This shouldn’t be surprising. Leone’s films had a huge influence of the 90’s.
The Dollars Trilogy had a massive effect on pop culture and the universal perception of ‘cool’, and so technically the film dazzles, not a moment anywhere else. Leone, never one to shy from extravagant crane shots and massive crowds scenes paints his canvas with panache. The script is occasionally flawed but also has moments of depth, poignancy and humor. Leone’s Italian sensibilities even come through in his love for obscure comedy. The performances are all, despite being inexplicably underrated by many to this day, all around excellent; deep and complex. Special mention must go to Jennifer Connelly though as the young Debra. She almost belittles Elizabeth McGovern who portrays the character as an adult. Visually and musically its picture perfect. Just watch that scene where we see Fat Moe through the windows of his restaurant, receiving Noodles’ phone call, in the first 60’s sequence of the story. The camera tracks. There is no dialogue- Only music. But there is drama and intensity to it and a technical extravagance in the climax, as the camera drops down to an unseen phone booth and to a close up of DeNiro on the phone. This is the embodiment of visual storytelling, which is one of the reasons why Leone deserves mention with the likes of Hitchcock and Kubrick. These two directors also spent much of their careers dealing with genre conventions yet have excelled those conventions to critical acclaim.
Thank God then for Christopher Frayling who has almost single handedly made Leone respectable. What more is there to say…? There are so many tangents to go down when talking about this film; it’s hard to know where to begin and when to stop. With an almost four hour running time and an ending as convoluted and open to speculation as Donnie Darko, this film will continue to divide audiences for years to come. It is Leone’s final mark on cinema, scored magnificently as always by Ennio Morricone, and it is a true piece of art.
Once upon a time in America’ took a decade planning this movie into real, which is a long one and the making of OUTA’ is still a very long indeed, almost in that hiatus was not able to make another movie……. Sergio Leone’s dream run from Bicycle thieves’ as an assistant director to directing OUTA’ was an outstanding journey……..Martin Scorsese’s didn’t direct the greatest film of the 1980’s. Sergio Leone did.
- Directed by Sergio Leone
- Produced by Arnon Milchan
- Screenplay by Franco Arcalli; Leonardo Benvenuti; Piero De Bernardi; Franco Ferrini; Ernesto Gastaldi; Stuart M. Kaminsky; Enrico Medioli and Sergio Leone
- Based on “The Hoods” by Harry Grey
- Casting: Robert De Niro; James Woods; Elizabeth McGovern; Joe Pesci; Burt Young; Tuesday Weld and Treat Williams
- Music by Ennio Morricone
- Cinematography Tonino Delli Colli
- Editing by Nino Baragli
- Studios: The Ladd Company; Embassy International & PSO Enterprises
- Distributed by Warner Bros.
- Release dates: May 23, 1984 (Cannes); June 1, 1984 (USA)
- Running time of 229 minutes (European release); 139 minutes (US release) & 246 minutes (2012 Blu-ray release)
- Country: Italy & United States
- Language: English