It took 13 years for Sergio Leone to get this, his last film, onto the big screen. For the most part the time away served him well, as this superlative exercise in gangster cinema, dramatically heightened to the max with the same dreamy romantic sensabilities of his Spaghetti Westerns, comes close to being the final word in prohibition-era crime films.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984) dir. Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Treat Williams
By Alan Bacchus
The long 229-minute version is available on Blu-ray, and since virtually everyone believes this to be the true version of the film, I doubt we’ll ever see that 139-minute theatrical version ever again. The length does justice to the grandiose emotionally dense character study.
Leone and his team of seven writers tell the story of two best friends, David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (De Niro) and Max 'Max' Bercovicz (Woods)and the evolution of their friendship through their life of crime in 1920s New York City. Leone elegantly moves us through multiple time frames without confusing the audience or giving that ‘flashback’ feel. The opening lengthy sequence in 1933 shows us the extended movements of Noodles after the apparent murder of three of his boyhood friends. The scene carries on for 30 minutes, a set piece so dazzling, it almost seems out of place in the context of the expansive nature of the rest of the story. We don’t really know why Noodles is on the run or why he’s aloof and melancholy as opposed to angry and vengeful after such a horrific act of violence. Ennio Morricone’s swooning romantic score tells us there’s a deeper level of emotion going on, something which Leone’s flashforwards and flashbacks tease us with.
After the opening the film settles down into a more traditional narrative, starting with Noodles and his gang as kids in the '20s moving from petty crime into organized crime in step with flashes to Noodles as an aged adult in the late '60s returning to New York on a mysterious agenda, retracing the steps of his youth.
From the golden brown cinematography to the rich and textured production design of the era to the thematic and narrative connections to the action in the present, the influence of The Godfather Part II is felt through this 1920s storyline. Leone has the same delicate touch as Coppola in these scenes. Leone’s detail in the exterior street scenes is magnificent, teaming with people in every corner of his frames and as far as the camera can see. Leone never attempts to cheat his scenes, instead playing almost all of his action in widescreen grandeur.
Leone's big and small moments have equal weight in all his pictures, and it's never more important here. Just note how little dialogue there is in the film, in particular the opening 30 minutes, a beautiful choreography of camera and actors. Leone's use of all elements of cinema: editing, camerawork and sound design is sublime and masterful. The drone of the telephone ring used in the opening sequence is a surreal use of digitec sound but draws our attention to the significance of a key decision Noodles will make later in the picture. Same with Leone’s attention to the locker key or the charred body in the street – all details set up to be paid off later.
This is the Leone method, peppered into all of his previous films. The incessant drone of that telephone ring recalls Leone’s multiple references to Charles Bronson’s harmonica in Once Upon a Time in America or Lee Van Cleef’’s musical pocket watch in For a Few Dollars More.
A couple of wonky moments fail the film. The performance of some of the children as well as the casting of Elizabeth McGovern as Noodle’s object of desire, Deborah, never works. In fact, I could never see why McGovern got so much work back in those days. I could never take her babyface look seriously in high drama such as this.
But the scene I’ve never been able to reconcile with the rest of the picture is Noodles' rape of Deborah. It comes just before the intermission after the moment Deborah tells Noodles she’s leaving for L.A. to pursue an acting career. Noodles rapes her multiple times in the back of a car. Rape is something most of us don’t desire to see in a film, let alone the veracity with which Leone orchestrates the scene. Deborah’s pleas for Noodles to stop only encourage him to rape her even more aggressively. I understand the purpose of the scene, to create a source of regret for Noodles, destroying the only thing he ever loved, and to find a strong enough story beat that would split the pair before their reunion at the end of the film, but this comes at the expense of any kind of sympathy for the character Leone establishes up this point. Save for an earlier rape during the diamond robbery scene, Noodles was an honourable gangster with convictions and loyalty to his friends. After Deborah's rape, Noodles is never truly taken to task for his despicable actions.
This kind of scene would fit into Leone’s stylized and misogynistic Spaghetti Western genre, but in this more romantic and authentic world he creates for Once Upon a Time in America, the scene is a major crutch for the film.
And so it takes some mental smoothing to get over this scene and some of the wooden acting to appreciate Leone’s swan song as a dreamy, indulgent and grandiose genre film, which it is.