Once Upon a Time in America (17-Feb-1984)|
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Franco Arcalli; Leonardo Benvenuti; Piero De Bernardi; Franco Ferrini; Stuart Kaminsky; Sergio Leone; Enrico Medioli
From novel: The Hoods by Harry Grey
Keywords: Crime, New York
Two versions of this film exist, a short, 135 minute version, and a restored, 227 minute version. The latter is far preferable.
Review by anonymous (posted on 13-Jun-2006)
Without doubt my
favouite film. One I would steak against the greatest of the all. Leone
may be the most underated cinema genius of them all. Here, in his most
astonishing achievment, he deals with comlex themes like the
development of urban America while a balancing a central character more
troubled and ambiguos than any we see on the screen today. That it may
be Robert DeNero's most underated performance is as tragic as Noodles
inability to break away from the the stink of the ghetto. Its a
performance underplayed to the last and courageous in it's refusal to
give us a simple way in. The character is as comlex as Willard from
Abocalypse Now but without the benifit of an audience friendly
narrative. Leone would surely have scoffed at the notion. Leone's art
was the art of sybolism and visual narrative. In those long searing
characteristic Leone close ups Noodles's character is expressed. For
some it just seems distant and frustrating but for those who are
prepared to look beyond, DeNiro is opening the charaters heart to us.
Over the course of decades we see him grow and evolve into a tarnished
and self pitying man, forever doomed by his inability to transend his
enviroment. 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
disturbing. It is brutal. With the possible exception of Raging Bull
(Another 80's jewel) no hollywood film has ever had the nerve or the
stomach to portray the arc of such a self loathing, often unlikeable,
ultimately doomed, somehow pitiful charcter. And it's a performance so
subtle that it's been called bad by countless people. A travesty. No
other actor could have pulled off such a comlpicated and understanding
depiction, especially in the absense of any insightful dialogue. But
now let's return to Leone. For 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 adolesence- memory, dreams,
time and of course the gretest 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 interpretted it through it's film culture and subverted
it's cliches. No American gangster film with the possible exception of
The Godfather Part 2 is as complex and brilliant as Leone's Once Upon a
Time in America. A film, ten years in the making, it was destined never
to have it's director's cut released in American cinemas. So against a
bleak urban and industrial landscape we see criminality rise parallel
to 20th Centuary uraban America. The children we see rolling drunks
progress to controling unions and toppling gangland powers. Only Max
manages to rise still higher, to the pedestels of coorperate/political
power and coruption. 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 Kieser Sose figure. There's that wonderfully
surreal visual moment, where he's revealed through the red stain glass
window. The most sound interpretation seemes to be that the most
ambigious 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. Watch
that sublimely orchistrated 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 simularities and the
many comparisons the film bears only a superficial likeness to
Coppola's wonderful saga. Once Upon a Time in America is a suptle meld
of moods. It is both melancholy and exuberent. Abart from it's darkness
the set design and look of the film actually bears much more simularity
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 affect
on pop culture and the universal percepion of 'cool.' Technically the
film dazzles. Leone, never one to shy from extravegent crane shots and
massive crowds scenes paints his canvas with panache. The script is
occasionaly flawed but also has moments of dept, poignacy and humour.
Leone's Italian sensabilities even come through in his love for obscure
comedy. The performances are all, despite being inexplicably underated
by many to this day, all around excellent; deep and complex. Special
mention must go to Jennifer Connely though as the young Debra. She
almost belittles Elizibith McGovern who portrays the character as an
adult. Visually and musicially it's pitch perfect. Just watch that
scene where we see Fat Moe through the windows of his restraunt,
recieving 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 phonebooth 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 an Kubrick. These two directors also spent much of their
careers dealing with genre conventions yet have transended those
coventions 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
magnificantly as always by Morriconi, and it is a true piece of art.
Though the masses will probably revolt at the remark, Martin Scorceses
didn't direct the greatest film of the 1980's. Sergio Leone did.
Review by Paul Cannon (posted on 25-Feb-2005)
Once Upon a Time in America is my favorite film. It plays like a live-action novel, and at 229 minutes, it would probably be faster to read the book (itís loosely based on The Hoods by Harry Gray).
Sergio Leone uses his classic filming style in which broad landscapes and wide angle scenery shots are juxtaposed against close up shots of characterís faces. Everything is meticulously edited and every shot has something important to say.
The strong point of the film is in its meaning, which is generally overlooked by most critics, who are typically more interested in plot. The plot is convoluted and at times uninteresting, but the message that the film sends is far more important. This movie is ultimately about the individual versus the collective. Using the idea of the "American Dream" as a catalyst, Leone employs themes of friendship, love, crime, and nostalgia to illustrate why individualism is overrated.
Max (James Woods) gradually takes over Noodles' (Robert De Niro) childhood gang. As they grow older, Max acquires more and more of what Noodles once had: his lover, his money, his friends, and, ultimately, his life. Max discovered that he could use his close-knit friends to catapult himself into a better life, while destroying Noodlesí life and getting his other friends killed.
Leone assumes that the American Dream has to do with our focus on the individual. He shows the flaw in our belief that individual happiness doesnít require collective contentment by showing it in an individual case. Whatís interesting about this film is that it takes the perspective of the man who lost everything, unlike most American stories, which tend to illustrate a struggle to success. Noodles is left without money and exiled from his home for 35 years. Max climbs to the heights of power, but is left regretful and unhappy.
In the final scene, Noodles is seen smoking opium and smiling in a drug-induced haze. Through the complex sequence of flashbacks, itís possible that everything in the movie after a certain point was simply a dream of Noodles'. Leone is suggesting that the American Dream itself is nothing more than a opiate dream, never to be fully realized or understood.
Review by anonymous (posted on 16-Feb-2007)
I loved this movie that's why I see it every time it's played on TV. The cast, especially James Woods, the music and just the whole look of the film, is just wonderful. I never get tired of seeing it. I have followed James Woods since he started acting and he has just improved more and more. And, now I can see him on "Shark". I just love him. By the way, I am a 67 year old (young) woman.
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