Once Upon A Time In America Review

All we have left are our memories
(Deborah, "Once Upon A Time In America)

Sergio Leone's filmmaking frequently combined brutal realism with sepia-toned romanticism. A vivid awareness of the pain and violence of the present coexists with a poignant yearning for things that lie in the past. We see this in the rage of the avenging Colonel Mortimer in For A Few Dollars More and in the deep humour and sadness of Jason Robards' Cheyenne in Once Upon A Time In The West; the latter being a film which is as haunted by the ghosts of past genre films as the characters are by their own past lives. But we see it most clearly in Leone's final film, a sprawling gangster epic called Once Upon A Time In America. This enormous work is, simultaneously, a powerful crime story, an elegy for American genre cinema and a study of the havoc wreaked by time upon our intentions, our hopes and our dreams. It may be one of the best films ever made, it's certainly one of the most ambitious.

There are some minor plot spoilers in this discussion of the film. If you haven't seen it then you might want to move down to "The Disc" part of the review.

Although the film doesn't use a traditionally chronological narrative form, the basic plot is simple. David "Noodles" Aaronson is a young boy growing up in New York during the first quarter of the 20th century. He and his group of friends are attracted to crime as a natural outlet for their aggression and frustration and they are soon joined by Max Bercovicz. Following some lucky breaks and a brutal revenge of the local teenage gangster who killed one of their number, they become serious contenders in the New York gangland of the late 1920s/early 1930s. But frictions between Noodles and Max culminate in Noodles running away from the city and Max being declared murdered along with the other two gang members. Thirty five years later, Noodles returns to New York following a series of strange events that indicate his hiding place has been discovered, and sets about discovering exactly what happened the night he ran away.

If this were the sum total of the film then there wouldn't be much point in discussing it, especially not since this little story takes up nearly four hours of screen time. Indeed, when the original American distributor cut 80 minutes of the film and told the story chronologically then it was greeted with the sort of critical roasting normally reserved for films starring Steve Guttenburg. When the film was restored to something like the intended version for a European release in late 1984, it was acclaimed as a masterpiece. The reason is simple; this is a film where the tale is not nearly so important as the way it is told. Leone fractures the narrative; it begins on the night of Noodles' escape in 1932/3, jumps forward to 1968, back to the 1910s and so on, until the patchwork of events builds up into a beautifully moving study of time and memory which stands serious comparison with Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time". In breaking up the storyline, Leone packs the film with suggestive cross-cutting, clever transitions and an almost unbearable suspense as we get nearer to finding out exactly what happened to these people to break them apart after so many years of comradeship.

But it's important, before getting too philosophical, to acknowledge that this is a cracking good gangster film. Taking a fairly classic approach to the genre - young punks become young turks and meet their nemesis is characteristically bloody fashion - it's packed with great generic moments. The opening slap of a thug's hand across the creamy white skin of a beautiful girl ushers in three hours and forty minutes of iconic scenes. In the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, the young kids play out their dreams of power and influence, sometimes triumphing but more often falling down in the face of the law or, more often, dangerous older rivals. Culminating in a scene of devastating violence, the boys learn that they have to rely on each other because nothing else will ever be what they expected. Noodles and Max, initially suspicious and hostile of each other, become the best of friends and the moment when, after a horribly vicious beating, Max crawls towards his friend is as intensely poetic and, let's face it, gloriously silly as the ending of Duel In The Sun. When the youngest member of the gang is shot by Bugsy, the teenage mobster who controls the area, Noodles erupts in a frenzy of knife-wielding revenge and eventually kills a cop who is trying to break him away from his victim. These scenes are kinetic little playlets of innocence curdling into experience and Leone's grasp of camera and mise-en-scene is as sure as that of any of the great gangster movie directors of the 1930s. Noodles ends up in prison for the best part of 15 years and emerges older but not even a little wiser. The gang go through robberies, murders and rapes in a sort of self-consuming frenzy for power and money which is counterpointed by the deliberate pace of the direction. Leone doesn't spare our emotions for a moment, offering us a surprising ambivalence in the way the gangsters are portrayed. Like Scorsese in Goodfellas and particularly Casino, Leone shows us the bad deeds of bad men and then asks us to weep for them when they reach their bad ends - and he pulls it off. We are involved in the fate of Noodles and Max because they are believable, shaded and complex men who do stupid things as well as clever ones and seem to lead lives independent of the film.

Interlaced with the intrinsic confidence of the film as a genre piece is the constant echoing of other movies which is going on throughout. In one sense, Leone's movie is a giant homage, not only to gangster films but to cinema in general (something discussed by Richard Schickel on the commentary). Partly, it's because the locations are frequently so tied in to our cinematic collective unconscious - the underneath of the Williamsburg Bridge for example or the skyline of the city - but it's also that there are direct references to scores of films included in the movie. Some of these are self-evident - there's more than one reminder of Howard Hawks' Scarface for example, or the apparent quote from Duel In The Sun - but there are also more subtle ones. Jennifer Connolly's adolescent Deborah coldly standing by the door while Noodles begs to be granted access seems to me to spring directly from William Wyler's The Heiress, the epic scale of the street scenes reminds one of The Godfather Part Two and Bertolucci's Novocento and the impossible grandeur of some of the interiors is very reminiscent of an earlier Bertolucci movie, The Conformist. The themes of male bonding and relationships are classic American movie themes, notably explored by Howard Hawks, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah while the structuring seems to owe something to The Godfather Part Two (surely one of the pivotal American films of the 20th century) and the work of Alain Resnais. The milieu of the 1930s sequences is that of the gangster movies of the thirties, particularly those of Warner Brothers, and the ambivalent anti-heroics are echoes of Edward G.Robinson and James Cagney. Max especially embodies the jabbing "I Want" force of Robinson in Little Caesar and Paul Muni in Scarface. I also find, in the potent recreation of a time which is so remote from our modern lives as to be dreamlike, memories of McCabe And Mrs Miller and - this is a stretch but a personal one - Herzog's Heart of Glass, another film which seems to be taking place in someone's head as you watch it.

Although most of the characters are generic types and intended to be seen as such, most of the actors do a fine job. James Woods captures the attention with a fearsome performance as Max, a man who combines volatile rage with simmering resentment, topped off with a cynical amusement at the people he works with. Tuesday Weld is very funny in a breathtakingly non-PC role as the girl who so enjoys her rape at the hands of the gang that she becomes Max's regular squeeze and Darlanne Fleugel, in a small but pivotal role as Noodles' girlfriend, is gorgeous and talented enough to make an impression in a very small amount of screen time. Burt Young does Burt Young, as usual, and Joe Pesci is fun in a cameo. In fact, the only major casting misjudgment is Elizabeth McGovern as Deborah, the girl for whom Noodles has pined since he was a boy. She's not a bad actress exactly but she's an alarmingly inexpressive one and she makes so little impression that at least two key scenes have considerably less impact than they should. It also doesn't help that when she reappears in 1968 she looks no older than she does in 1933 - a decision which was apparently deliberate but which was, on this evidence, totally wrong-headed. If you're going to have most of the cast done up in grey hair and wrinkles then there's no point singling out a particularly pivotal character as somehow ageless. I should mention the young actors in the childhood sections, all of whom do a fine job of evoking their adult counterpoints; Scott Tiler as the young De Niro and Rusty Jacobs as the childhood Woods deserve particular plaudits.

Noodles is the central character in the film and Robert De Niro's performance is one of his very best. This actor, who has given so many lazy turns in bad movies to keep his reputation alive, really is as good here as everyone says he is. Noodles isn't a showy role and much of the time he is observing and reacting, especially in the 1968 scenes, but De Niro keeps the character in focus by his intense watchfulness and awareness of the events in which he is involved. The muted nature of Noodles' character is vital to the pacing and structure of the film and it makes the violent scenes - especially the violent rape of Deborah - genuinely startling. It's also very notable that Noodles rarely smiles in the film and the final smile in the film (even if its a simple effect of the opium) is a beautiful epiphany.

It's through Noodles that the story is told and through him that the key themes of the film are expressed. The yearnings of the characters for power and riches are contrasted with another yearning, that of Noodles for Deborah. This begins at an early age, as he watches her dancing through a hole in the wall, so close and yet prevented by barriers which are as much social as physical. She explains to him, both as a girl and as a woman, that he cannot have her and that his possessiveness would destroy her as surely as his yearning is destroying him. This desperate wishing for something unattainable haunts the film and is one of the things which makes it so moving. Noodles knows he wants Deborah and that he can't have her, ultimately destroying whatever love might be possible in a single act of rape, an assault of such unprovoked and unexpected brutality that it sums up everything which made the love unrequited. But the yearning remains because it hasn't been satisfied - the rape may have taken the edge off the lust but does nothing to dim the desire or, if the word isn't misplaced, the 'love'. When he meets Deborah again in 1968 - when she is a huge star and he is an unimportant old man - their conversation is as much about what is unsaid as about what is spoken; but then, Noodles is a man for whom words are merely signals of deeper feelings that he can't adequately express.

It's the Noodles of 1968 who seems to represent the real emotional thrust of the film. A man left with nothing - and ultimately not even with his own past, disfigured as it is by the revelations of the last reel - he has been so battered by failure and disappointment that, despite the terrible things he does, he is a genuinely tragic figure. Seeing him at the end, in flashback, as a child is a poignant reminder of what time can do to the promise we once showed and the things we all looked forward to when we were young. Noodles may have destroyed his own dreams through his actions - notably the rape of Deborah - but he's also a victim of time, lingering in the golden-brown tinged memories that, perhaps, protect him from the sadness which has come to dominate his life. The questions that continue to recur during discussions of the film - is it all a dream ? who, if anyone, is in the garbage truck at the end ? - seem oddly appropriate when one considers that this is a film about memory, and memory is notoriously elusive and subjective. It is one of the few films to genuinely capture what we might call a Proustian sense of time and memory and at some points - the sudden reveal of Deborah's son for example -is as good a filmic representation of Proust's wonderful moments of dislocation in time as anything in the films more directly inspired by "In Search of Lost Time". By the end of the film, Noodles is totally lost; lost in his own memories, spiritually lost in betrayal and a realisation of his own hopeless sadness and lost in an old age which he never expected to reach. In this, Once Upon A Time In America is one of the most heartbreaking movies ever made.

Technically, the film is almost beyond criticism. I say almost because some of the editing isn't as tight as it could be and I'm not entirely convinced that the pacing always needs to be as slow as it is. But these are minor quibbles in the face of such accomplishment. Sergio Leone is so surehanded that he takes scenes which shouldn't work - the scenes with Aiello and the baby for example - and brings them to life. There's none of the grotesquerie which plagues his Dollars trilogy nor of the reliance on extreme close-up which always takes me out of my involvement in Once Upon A Time In The West. This is a seamless piece of work and the collaboration with Tonino Delli Colli is even more inspired than on the earlier film. The mythic grandeur of the images is just what's required, springing directly from Leone's obsessive fascination with old postcards. Adding to this mythmaking quality is the music score by Ennio Morricone. I don't know if this really is the greatest music score of all time, as has been suggested, but it is an extraordinarily effective one and the perfect accompaniment to a film which is as nostalgic and poignant as it is violent. It's romantic and nostalgic and constantly beautiful, building on the main theme of Once Upon A Time In America and bringing in the influence of Samuel Barber during Deborah's Theme. The choice of music is spot-on throughout, even the muzak version of "Yesterday" which has exactly the right kitsch pop-culture quality for the scene it accompanies.

The continuing questions about the film, notably the idea that it might be some kind of opium pipe-dream, are interesting but not entirely relevant because the film already works brilliantly well on its own terms. If it is some kind of dream, it seems to me to be a diaphanous waking dream which we are invited to join, the dream of a thousand Hollywood movies. Leone transports us into another reality - the past is certainly a foreign country here - and allows us to share in his vision of time and memory as a shadow-play which is as impossible to pin down as it is beautiful. This is why the final smile is so memorable and moving - it's a smile that defies pain and sadness, an epiphany that suggests that even if we are beaten and broken by time then there might still be something we carry within us that offers a kind of redemption. I don't know what that might be, any more than Noodles knows, but it's a gorgeous moment of transcendent (if chemically induced) joy and it brings the whole film together. You finish this film awed and exhausted and infused with a love of the way that movies can affect the heart and change your awareness of the world around you.

The Disc

A much anticipated release, this Warner special edition of the film is certainly the best presentation of the film for home viewing that has yet been released. I have certain reservations about the disc but nothing that changes the fact that it's an essential purchase.

The film is presented in the generally accepted 'full version' which checks in at 220 minutes on PAL video. It has been passed uncut by the BBFC. Reports of longer versions exist but this is the longest cut of the film which has been presented in England. The film is divided over two discs and presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. Some reports have suggested that this is a poor transfer but I have to disagree. There is certainly some grain in evidence but this isn't a problem - indeed, it may have been intentional to evoke the look of old pictures in some scenes - and the general quality of the image is very good indeed. Colours are staggering - using a fairly limited palate but a vast amount of variations in shade and tone, the differentiations are displayed to fine effect here. The blacks are deep and rich too and the occasional artifacting isn't too distracting, although certainly unwelcome. The film is divided over 2 discs and this has obviously led to a better image than would otherwise be present. My main reservation is that there is some evident print damage in places resulting in occasional scratches and white speckling. Otherwise, this is a very good picture.

The original Mono soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it results in a nicely cleaned up soundtrack with particularly glorious music which really envelops the viewer. On the other, the surround channels are rarely used and the dialogue sounds a little remote and monoaural. However, the clarity of the sound is generally very good and at least it's an improvement on the hopelessly muddy sound of the VHS release.

The extras are sparse but interesting. The main one is a full-length commentary from Richard Schickel. This is well worth listening to, although he sometimes simply describes what's happening on the screen. His insights into the characters and the structure of the film are valuable however and he certainly seems to know what he's talking about. Personally, I'd have liked Christopher Frayling to do this commentary as a Leone expert, but Schickel does well and talks without too much hesitation or repetition for most of the 220 minutes. We also get a 19 minute extract from a longer documentary called "Sergio Leone: Once Upon A Time" which is so good that it made me wish that the whole thing had been included. The original theatrical trailer is included along with some entertaining production photographs. Apart from the commentary, all the extras are on disc 2. The point at which the disc break comes has caused some comment and is certainly not ideal but was apparently chosen as the best place to break without causing the transfer quality to be affected.

There are a reasonably generous 59 chapter stops and some nice animated menus backed by Morricone's score.

Once Upon A Time In America is one of the cinema's definitive statements on the power of time to wear us down and eventually defeat us. It's also an exciting and intelligent genre film that is essential viewing for everyone with the slightest interest in films. This DVD is good value and well presented, despite a feeling that more extras could have been provided to make it a really special Special Edition., and I certainly recommend it.

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