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Sergio Leone's epic film chronicles the lives and loves of a quintet of Jewish mobsters from New York. Beginning with their boyhood in the 1920's, the Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence into the world of organized crime. The film explores themes of childhood friendships, love, loss, greed, violence, the passage of time, broken relationships, and the appearance of mobsters in American society.
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Epic is an over-used word in today’s world of films but the word could’ve been created for this gangster masterpiece and the final directed film by the great Sergio Leone. Once Upon A Time In America covers the best aspects of any story – friendship, love, honour, betrayal and revenge over four decades from early 1900s to late 1960’s – encompassing these traits in just under four hours of film-making that once it grips you feels more like 10minutes as you don’t want it to end.
Sergio Leone spent twenty years developing the film, it was by all accounts his ‘baby’ the film he’d always wanted to direct. Based very loosely on the novel ‘The Hoods’ by Harry Grey, Leone started original pre-production in the early seventies with names like Dustin Hoffman, Gerard Depardieu, Richard Dreyfus and even the late James Cagney all on board at various stages throughout the seventies only for the film to be continually placed in limbo hiatus. Finally in 1981 the project was greenlit with Robert De Niro and James Woods cast in the leads. It was decided they would also play the characters as older men in the 1960’s rather than as originally planned having 3different sets of actors for each section – Youth – Adult – Old. The film was shot between June 14, 1982 and April 22, 1983. But once completed the film controversy immediately followed – despite a 15 minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, women’s groups condemned the film for the supposed ‘accepted rape scene’ and attacked De Niro and Leone at press conferences. The studio became worried about how to market and release a four hour film and so re-edited Leone’s 20year vision into a two hour butchered version film, placing the narrative in a normal order of yearly events that lost all dramatic impact and made little to no sense
The film is an editors dream – cutting back and forth between the four decades of early ‘20s, ‘30s & late ‘60s, using visual motifs, sounds and metaphors of the narrative as the tool for the audience to link everything together. It begins in 1933 where a stoned Noodles (De Niro) sits in opium den hearing a telephone ringing in his ears remembering a phone call that would change his life forever and his betrayal of his seemingly three dead friends – Max (Woods), Cockeye and Patsy. Hunted by a corrupt police force Noodles takes a key to a station locker that he believes holds all the money the gang had made and as the last surviving member he would now have claim but the suitcase is gone. Forced to live on the run Noodles takes a one way ticket out of town never to return… So begins are editing masterpiece transferring us between each three key segments – them as children, as adults & as old men – and the story and true betrayal begins to reveal itself. As children Noodles at first leads the gang but they are nothing more than local thieves, his true obsession is Deborah the untouchable beautiful girl who he can never be good enough to have (played at first by a young Jennifer Connelly and later by Elizabeth McGovern) but there is an underlying truth and love between them that only childhood can hold. It is the entering of the young Max that changes the dynamics for Noodles, immediately they become like brothers and he moves away from Deborah and his chance of redemption. Together with Cockeye and Patsy they move from street thieves to working for the local Mob, agreeing to place a percentage of all the money they make on every job in a suitcase in a station locker and only together or when only one is left will they take the money out. But it is after this decision that tragedy strikes, they are attacked by the now out of work local villain and Noodles has no choice but to stab him but in his grief and anger as the youngster member of their gang dies, he slashes out at all before him including two police officers and ends up in jail. On his release Noodles (now played by De Niro) is met by Max (Woods) and is shown how the gang have now risen through the ranks to owning their own speakeasy (run by childhood friend Moe – Deborah’s brother) and are both bootleggers and hitmen for the mob, making serious money in the gangster world. But as this rise continues Noodles remains obsessed by Deborah, now an actress & dancer, and in his mind still the innocent beautiful girl of his childhood. Max becomes jealous of their relationship often mocking him, but Noodles lust for her becomes too much and on being rejected by her he rapes her. This is the beginning of the end for Noodles, he becomes lost in opium dens, self pity and regret, letting Max take larger control of the partnership which leads to his crazy idea to rob America’s largest bank. To save his friends from certain death by doing this, Noodles betrays them and leaks there last bootlegging run after prohibition is revoked with a phone call to the police, believing they’ll all be locked up for a few years but will still be alive and together when they get
The meaning of the film is long debated, one critic put it to Leone that the final shot of Noodles in the opium den, a return to the first shot of the film, means that everything from that moment onwards time-wise (1933) is in fact an opium dream and Noodles justifying in his mind the betrayal of his friends and creating a betrayal of himself ultimately, to give himself a sense of justification. Leone replied that it was an interesting theory, that he both accepts it and denies it! Its easy to see how this meaning/reading of the film can be concluded too but for most critics, including myself, its too much of a jump to expect Noodles to vividly be able to dream exactly how the 1960’s would look from everything to cars, bars, to TV. The film is I believe the story of a man’s (Noodles) lost life, regret and guilt, but how he learns to except his fate in life and who he actually is.
The young cast are superb and never put a gesture or line wrong, Scot Tiler (Noodles) and Jennifer Connelly (Deborah) really stand out. It always amazes me how often with this style of epic film covering various decades it’s usually the unknown younger cast members/character versions of the main characters that steal the hearts of the audience. As adults De Niro (Noodles) is as ever within this genre excellent, extremely understated almost to the point of acting purely with facial gestures and subtle, sad like movements, you can see Noodles dying inside after his rape of his beloved Deborah. Woods as Max is brilliantly over the top but restrains it so it perfects the character rather than become pantomime, going from calmness to complete manic insanity in a single frame, a real knowing almost slimness of Max and his love for Noodles and their friendship. Woods has often stated it is his favourite and best role, I would find it hard to disagree with one of the best character actors of the last thirty years. They are ably supported by a young William Forysthe as Cockeye, Tuesday Weld as Max’s gangsters moll, and Elizabeth McGovern as the older Deborah – though it has to be said as good an actress she is and her performance of the role is very good, visually we lose the almost untouchable beauty of the young Deborah (Jennifer Connelly). Though McGovern is an attractive actress she is more quirky looking, whilst Connelly as the younger version makes her look the unattainable lust of Noodles and its her vision we picture when he speaks of his dreams of her in jail. It’s a shame the older Jennifer Connelly of now couldn’t have played the role! Not taking anything away from McGovern’s performance but I for one didn’t see her visually as this almost Venus De Milo of the stars.
The directing as you come to expect from Sergio Leone is superb; visually striking camera shots ranging from his auteur style close-ups to upside down shots, wide landscapes, each shot seemingly pauses to add to the sense of time and loss which he wishes to convey. From beauty to brutality in scenes, it’s the true work of a master finally being allowed to make his personal ‘opus’- a visual and editing master class of direction. The soundtrack is by his long-term collaborator Enno Morricone, and is seen as his best work - haunting music, typified by sad pianos, flutes, violins sweeping to something epic and then scaling down to the sense of lost time and regret all within each song. It typifies strongly not only the poverty stricken era but also the drunken joy of the speakeasies, and the guilt, love, friendship and ebbing away of time for the characters. ‘Deborah’s theme’ is both beautiful and traumatic to listen to once you’ve seen the film as you listen to it as in essence as Noodles – admiring her beauty but knowing later of his horrific act of violence on her, his one crime is loving her too much and the music seems to encapsulate this throughout.
As Ronnie’s sneering ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans, John Getz portrays a decidedly subtler kind of metamorphosis. He starts out as an unlikeable jerk so utterly convinced of his own wit and sexual magnetism that he can’t understand why Ronnie rejects him. Not only that, as Seth’s condition gets more and more desperate, Stathis is the one urging Ronnie to leave her lover to his fate. But as the film builds to its final showdown, Stathis emerges as a truly courageous figure. He puts his life on the line to protect Ronnie, and his determination to save her is unexpectedly touching.
Apart from our three leads, there are some memorable bit parts. George Chuvalo plays a tough-talking bruiser who unwisely goes up against Seth in an arm-wrestling match. As Chuvalo’s grimy arm-candy, Joy Boushel manages to convey sex appeal while still somehow looking nearly as diseased as Seth himself. Also, keep an eye out for David Cronenberg himself during a particularly cringe-inducing scene, paying tribute to his admitted fascination with gynecology.
It is also important to mention the gorgeous musical score of Howard Shore, who also lent his talent to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Instead of a simple score full of “stings” to emphasize the shocks, Shore’s treatment of The Fly is unashamedly operatic. When the strings aren’t sweeping grandly, they’re shuddering in apprehension of the horror to come. In fact, Shore recently completed an opera based on The Fly, and given his work in the film version, that idea doesn’t sound quite as far-fetched as one might think.
Reviews of the film in its true 4hour release have mostly been extremely positive, it is often ranked in the best films of all time and always in the top 10 of the best gangster films. On Rotten Tomatoes it holds an aggregate score of 91%.
For me personally, Once Upon A Time In America is so much more than just a gangster film, it is a film about time, loss, friendship and love. I remember first seeing the film on Channel 4 during a De Niro season in 1993 and was so taken aback by its epic story that I had to track it down on video the next day and own it for keeps! It was like nothing I had ever seen before, it broke my heart and made me feel content simultaneously. The greatest film ever made – a big statement to make but one I will always argue for. The saddest thing about the film is that Leone died broken hearted that his film was originally released cut to shreds by the studio and critically panned, his intended version was never shown/available world-wide until shortly after his death. I hope that if he’s up above watching – then a smile like Noodles at the end of the film of contentment came across his face as the masterpiece he spent twenty years trying to make was finally revealed to a critically acclaimed and awe-inspired audience.