After having completed arguably his most famous work – the so-called ‘Spaghetti Western Trilogy’ of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, andThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Italian Director Sergio Leone went on to work on the first movie of what would be later regarded as his next trilogy: Once Upon a Time in the West. Another classic Western, it was originally intended to be Leone’s last entry into that genre, as he had planned to move on to a completely new trilogy set in America. It all started in the 60s, when Leone read the novel, The Hoods, written by Harry Grey (a pseudonym for real-life gangster-turned-informant Harry Goldberg). The book purported to be an autobiographical tale about a young Jewish hoodlum growing up on the streets of New York, and his later success as a Prohibition-era gangster; and it went on to become arguably the most personally important project in Sergio Leone’s life, one which he would work on for the best part of two decades, and which would go on to be his last film as a Director.
Once upon a time there was Prohibition. And then came the gangsters. And then all hell broke loose.
“Noodles” is wanted by the Italian mob, who are killing their way through all of his old contacts in order to get to him. Eventually he disappears, not to return for some 30 years, lured back to New York by an ominous ‘invitation’ and thus forced to reflect upon his past – both as a young hoodlum growing up on the poverty-stricken streets, forming a gang that would later become his life-long friends; and then as an adult, at the height of Prohibition-era alcohol-running, with his group now a band of successful, professional gangsters. He remembers his friends, his enemies, and the love of his life, and contemplates the choices that he made that left him alone – finding some unpleasant truths in his twilight-era voyage and realising that there are some secrets from his past which, if uncovered, would rock the very foundation of his entire adult life.
Once Upon a Time in America was butchered on release. The Director originally had in excess of 8 hours of film footage to cut, and edited it down into a complete production that ran at 6 hours and was designed to be released as two parts. The producers then forced him to return a single movie, and he reduced it further, to a still epic near-4 hour final version – the version that we see now. But back in the 80s the movie was released in the US in a horribly abridged Studio-cut variation, not only trimmed to nearly half its length (!!) but also re-edited to run chronologically, ripping out the heart and soul from the Director’s original vision. This version flopped at the Box Office, was universally panned by film critics, and often cited as one of the worst movies of 1984. Ironically, when the film was finally released in its original longer cut (which was favoured Internationally), it received critical acclaim and has gone one to be, quite rightly, regarded as one of the best gangster movies of all time.
Whether you reflect upon the narrative as an intricate flashback-upon-flashback character study, juxtaposing events across three disparate eras (Depression, Prohibition and then the vastly different 60s) to tell a very personal tale of life on the streets of New York, arguably the US location most representative of ‘the American Dream’; or you take many of the events as being little more than a lucid, opium-induced, dream of what might have been – a fantasy for the most part, founded upon the tragedies of the past, and their eventual resolutions in some kind of alternative future, Once Upon a Time in America is a very lyrical, often poetic opera-esque epic which paints a beautiful portrait of these colourful characters during the most dramatic points in their lives. The Director perfectly captures the different eras, using images inspired by paintings from the various time-periods and tying them all together using arguably the best score ever rendered for a movie. In fact, aside from the US butchering of the original cut, the other great travesty associated with the movie was, indeed, the technical disqualification of Ennio Morricone’s score from Oscar contention. It is – in my opinion – one of the greatest composer’s greatest compositions, possibly the most important element of the entire production, almost a character in and of itself (and seamlessly integrated as one too, often being played by the very people in the movie itself: whether one of the gang whistling on pipes, the solemn automated rendition at the mausoleum, or the band at the restaurant). You could watch the movie with your eyes shut – just the dialogue and the score – and Morricone’s haunting, thematic offering would guide you through every single scene, painting its own picture of the tragedy behind these characters and the events that befall them. But one shouldn’t forget Leone’s visuals – the grandest that he ever captured – as well as his masterful direction of, what he regarded as, his best cast ever.
In the early 80s, Robert De Niro was at the absolute peak of his career, riding the wave of a tour-de-force run of movies including Mean Streets, Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull, which he finally won an Oscar for. Oddly, I don’t regard his performance as the lead character, Noodles – around whom all of the movie’s events revolve – as one of my personal favourite: I prefer Heat De Niro, Deer Hunter De Niro or Raging Bull De Niro by far. But there is no doubt in my mind that this is one of his best ever performances, the method acting master perfectly capturing the essence of his character in not one but two completely different ages: as a twenty-something gangster on the way up; and as a hitting-sixty shadow of his former self, revisiting the past to uncover the truth behind the mystery he’s in. It really is remarkably. Sure, De Niro was no stranger to that kind of dual role – just two years back from when filming began on this project he had portrayed both sides of the Jake ‘Raging Bull’ La Motta ego: the perfectly honed fighting machine, and the overweight drunk aged counterpart – but here the tale is of such an epic nature that it is genuinely as if you are watching a different actor in the older role (and not just physically – again Raging Bull has the edge here, using prosthetics and weight-gain to vary his appearance – but in terms of actual character portrayal).
The subtlety in his commanding performance brings to the fore all of the key elements from his character’s journey: the loyalty towards his friends, the morality of his ‘code of the streets’, and the criminal tendencies borne from his upbringing and always in conflict with his ultimate desire – to transcend his social class. His is the most tragic character, never more evident from his painful ‘romance’ with the love of his life (Elizabeth McGovern), which itself draws inspiration from everything from Martin Eden, by Jack London (the book that Noodles reads as a child in one of the scenes) to The Great Gatsby to Shakespeare’s own equivalent tragedy Anthony and Cleopatra. All tell the tale of a man who wants to attain a higher social class in order to woo the, often unattainable, girl of his dreams, and this central theme is infused into the character of Noodles, and brought to life with both authentic ambiguity and pained, contemplative reflection by De Niro.
James Woods also gets a fairly prominent role as Noodles’ best friend, Max, the more dangerous side to the gang’s criminality. It was an early part for Woods, who, at the time, hoped that it would be his breakthrough performance in Hollywood, and was almost as heartbroken as Leone when the US butchered the film, and left both of them somewhat under-regarded until some years later. And I think that Woods does put in one of the best performances of his career – only hinting at the raging short fuse that would go on to define many of the characters/caricatures from his later movies, and instead developing a perfectly scheming corporate psychopath in Max, who has a much grander vision than his street-hoodlum childhood friend Noodles, and will do whatever it takes to see it through to fruition.
There are numerous other character players who pop up throughout the movie, but you have to seriously take into account the editing process that Leone went through when cutting down his original 8 hours of footage to the final 229-minute version, as it is very apparent that, not only are some scenes abruptly ended with no later resolution (the Frisbee?) but some of the fairly big names involved really only get tiny parts in the final cut. I call this the ‘Terrence Malick’ effect (after said director’s magnum opus Thin Red Line, where he often trimmed famous actors’ previously big roles down to fairly insignificant cameos) and Leone wielded it quite brutally for Once Upon a Time in America. Long-term De Niro and Scorsese collaborator Joe Pesci (Casino), for example, originally auditioned for the role of ‘Max’, and was told he could choose any other part – so you have to wonder why he now pops up for just one scene (one and a half if you include a dialogue-less shot where he appears by an elevator) as an Italian mob boss. Similarly, whilst William Forsythe and James Hayden do well to bring their childhood counterparts to life as adults, they are pretty forgettable. Treat Williams gets a slightly bigger cameo as a Unionist, but suffers the worst when it comes to being cosmetically aged for the purposes of the different eras – you can see the line on his false forehead as if this was some bad makeup from the 60s-era Mission Impossible TV series; and Danny Aiello goes marginally over the top as the flamboyant new police chief, who has a run-in with the boys.
All in all, the supporting actresses fair better than the supporting actors, even if their on-screen treatment is like something out of Sam Peckinpah's most fervent dreams (think: Straw Dogs). Let’s see, there’s one teenage nymphomaniac-turned-brothel madam; one masochistic woman who likes to get assaulted, preferably by at least one guy; and also one genuinely heartbreaking scene of rape. Tuesday Weld, Darlanne Fluegel and Elizabeth McGovern all do well in their respective parts, even if it’s Weld’s sexual predator who stands out. McGovern does well in quite a demanding role, but it’s difficult to like her – she’s just too cold and manipulative, and basically not a very nice person – despite the fact that the actress succeeds plays it perfectly.
And Sergio Leone is quite adventurous really when it comes to the characterisation, because there are no obvious heroes or villains in the mix – his very ambiguous depiction of the characters’ morality makes the voyage through their lives all the more authentic. They may believe in trust, loyalty, and honour, but they are also prone to rage, violence, and even acts of betrayal – and, of course, they are essentially criminals at heart. You will struggle to find a character that you fully like, but you’ll still probably find it easy to associate with elements from many of them.
As stated, Once Upon a Time in America went totally underappreciated on its North American release, and it’s something of an irony that an Italian filmmaker, who really did not have all that much personal experience of America, crafted such a fantastic, authentic tale about ‘the American dream’, and that, for years, his finished film was only really applauded in International territories. His superior directorial work (some of his most accomplished filmmaking), coupled with the excellent central performances, beautiful period cinematography and set design (it was shot in Pairs, Venice, Montreal, Rome and Florida, as well as, of course, New York), and a truly amazing score, should have guaranteed this as an instant classic. But sometimes it takes a while for the general public to cotton on, and for Studios to loosen their destructive grasp over the art created by Directors. Now, with perfect hindsight, movie-lovers worldwide can fully appreciate this classic in all its glory. And sure, a part of me will always wonder what Leone’s original 6-hour cut would have been like – basically a Once Upon a Time in America Part I and Part II – but, still, gangster epics really don’t get any better than this, a timeless classic that transcends the genre and takes in a beautiful, poetic tale of a band of life-long childhood friends on the streets of New York, as they encounter love, loss, betrayal, revenge, greed and hate. A truly stunning masterpiece.
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