Once Upon a Time in America was filmed almost exactly thirty years ago, and, as discussed, has had a fairly troubled release history – not just in terms of butchering the original cut, but actually in the fact that the home format video presentations have never quite managed to do this epic classic justice. On Region Free US Blu-ray, we get a 1080p High Definition video rendition, in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of widescreen 1.78:1, which bests everything we have seen before and remains a noteworthy, though certainly not perfect, remastering of the movie. Detail is generally very good, from the dirt on the old window that 60s era De Niro peers through to the close-up shot of his face as he passes the time at an opium den. This isn’t a clean film – it’s one of those ‘dirty’ gangster movies (which often feel much more authentic, in my opinion) made in a similar style to the first two Godfather movies – and so you shouldn’t expect it to be pristine like a modern Hollywood Blockbuster, but even taking these stylistic choices into account it’s not a perfect rendition. For starters the grain levels do fluctuate, the longer 30s sequences definitely having more ‘haze’ to them; and softness does impinge upon some shots. The rain in one particular scene feels quite tangibly real, and there’s great depth to the longer shots, whether the broader expanse of the opium den or the perfectly captures bustling period streets of Depression-era New York. The colour scheme is well-represented, with solid blacks for the most part, and fairly decent skin tones – even if the reds can get a tiny bit strong (lips, in particular, have that pinkish red-lipstick look to them). There have been some criticisms of this rendition, whether it be that they crammed too long a movie onto one Blu-ray disc to be able to maintain consistent quality (which I think is a valid observation, even if the end results speak for themselves and negate it) or that some shots seem distinctly out of focus. With regards to the focus issue, even the Commentary notes Leone’s preference for longer OR close-up shots, and the difficulties he encountered with middle-distance set-ups – so I genuinely think that this criticism should not be levelled at the Blu-ray rendition, but at the original source film. This is a great presentation for the movie – not exceptional or demo-quality in any way – but far, far better than any previous home video incarnation, and a real pleasure to watch.
Once Upon a Time in America comes accompanied with a DTS-HD Master Audio track which, whilst quite quiet and reserved, is a loving representation of the original stylistic score choices. This was never intended to be a loud, bombastic affair – in fact large portions of the movie go by with no dialogue and very little score – but the sound elements involved are, at all times, presented in a refined way with strong fidelity. Dialogue, whether softly spoken, or screams of assault, comes across clearly and coherently, largely dominating the frontal array wherever appropriate. In fact almost everything noteworthy comes from the frontal array, the rears getting some very soft background work, but never anything that stands out. From the persistent ringing of the phone, through to the whistling or pipe-played main tune, through to the bustling New York streets, this is a lovely, warm aural accompaniment, held together by Morricone’s tremendous score, which is so seamlessly integrated into the proceedings. Sure, modern moviegoers will wonder where all the bombs and bangs are, and why they don’t have any bass to shake things up, but this is probably just how Leone would have wanted you to watch his masterpiece.
Although the extras seem really thin on the ground for this release you have to remember two things: firstly, it’s a four-hour movie on only one Blu-ray as it is, and there’s only so much room to fit stuff in; and secondly, the Audio Commentary is excellent, well worth a slew of EPK Featurettes. The only shame is that you have to wonder whether a second disc may have allowed them to include the entire Documentary on Sergio Leone, rather than just a 20-minute excerpt from it.
First up we get a full-length Commentary from Film Critic and Film Historian Richard Schickel who clearly knows his stuff. He talks throughout the entire movie, and continues well into the end credits too – this guy has plenty to say. Whilst the majority of it is scene-specific, discussing the complexities of some of the bustling street shots, the locations Leone used to recreate period New York, and the backgrounds of each and every minor character/supporting actor, his offerings are not only informative but also very interesting, relating it all back to Leone’s original ideas and giving it the respect that it deserves as a classic gangster film, only without over-hyping the praise. His theories on Leone’s intentions behind the opium drug dream 60s element are explained in great detail, with examples for evidence, but it’s nice that he only puts them across as theories (which I happen to still disagree with), and he relates Leone to fellow Director Sam Peckinpah on many occasion, not only in relation to his tendency to offer sporadic burst of extreme violence, but also in his treatment of women. There are also some lovely anecdotes – like how Leone was famous for directing his actors by acting out the scenes himself (apparently this used to have Eastwood in stitches on some of the ‘Dollars’ movies) – and I couldn’t have thought of a more fitting accompaniment for this epic.
Here we get a 20-minute excerpt from the Documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone, which chronicled the making of the movie. I suppose we can’t complain too much that we only get a segment included here, as it is quite a hefty offering that boasts the usual bank of interview snippets and behind the scenes shots (often archival footage), and it is probably far better than any of the usual EPK productions that adorn recent movies. But I’d have loved the complete Documentary to be included. Still, worth watching.
Almost three decades after its original release Once Upon a Time in America remains a perfect classic, one of the best (for some, arguably the best) gangster movies ever made, an epic crime saga that spans half a Century, and traverses some of the most eventful periods in American history. A 15 year labour of love for Director Sergio Leone, the film went disregarded on its butchered abbreviated first release, and it was not until some time later that this true classic was appreciated in all its original 229 minute glory. With a perfect period portrayal of Depression and then Prohibition-era American, expert cinematography, powerhouse central performances (highlighted by one of the most wide-ranging of master actor Robert De Niro’s Golden Era roles) and brought together with a majestic operatic quality thanks to composer Ennio Morricone’s breathtaking score, this final film by Leone stands out as his piece de resistance. Playing boldly with time, utilising some daringly ambiguous characterisation, and so perfectly capturing the desperate search for ‘the American Dream’, Once Upon a Time in America is a defining gangster epic and an all-time classic.
Debuting on US Region Free Blu-ray, the thirty-year-old movie looks and sounds remarkably good, and comes complete with a comprehensive and thoughtful film expert’s commentary and a short documentary, and unequivocally warrants a place in every movie-lover’s collection. Whatever your gangster preference – from The Godfather to Goodfellas – the sometimes poignant, often tragic and always mesmerising Once Upon a Time in America stands tall with the absolute best of the best and endures as more than just a gangster story: it’s a tale of friendship, time, memories, love and hate. And it comes highly recommended.
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