|Once Upon a Time in America|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 10 June 2003|
This was the last film of director Sergio Leone, who first gained fame, and then recognition, beginning with his first Clint Eastwood movie, "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964). But recognition came slowly to Leone; he was an intensely creative director, totally committed to each new project that came along, but he also chose to work in genres, primarily in Westerns, but here turned his attention to gangster films as well.
Europeans had long realized that a great deal of the most significant film art was being done in Hollywood, in movies that were, categorically, standard Hollywood output. This viewpoint led to the formation of the now well-known auteur theory, but it was only beginning to make itself felt on this side of the Atlantic at the time Leone. The three Eastwood "Dollars" Westerns gave Leone an increasing reputation, enough that he was able to make what many (including me) think is his best film, the epic, stylized and graceful "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968). But the film didn't make a substantial profit; Leone's next Western, "Duck, You Sucker" (1972), was his last, and his last directorial effort for many years.
He kept busy as a producer, and finally returned to directing with this lengthy, hypnotically engrossing but ultimately puzzling epic of Jewish gangsters in New York. In Leone's preferred version, "Once Upon a Time in America" was eleven minutes short of four hours, but the appalled American distributor severely recut the movie, removing no less than 90 minutes -- an entire feature. The complicated flashback structure Leone planned was completely dropped, and the three primary time periods were made consecutive. Finally, the unusual, even perplexing, ending of the film was simply dropped.
Leone was devastated, but pressed on, planning a huge Italian-Soviet coproduction about the siege of Leningrad, but he died of a heart attack in 1989. "Once Upon a Time" was given another American release, at 192 minutes; this DVD seems to be the first time the full-length, Leone-preferred version of the film is available to American audiences. The movie is so long that it is split between two discs, and features somewhat fewer auxiliary features than a film of this fame and magnitude would seem to suggest. (And it did achieve fame; one American reviewer described the first US cut as the worst film of that month; she later described Leone's cut as the best film of the year.)
"Once Upon a Time in America" is a gorgeously-produced film, clearly meticulously planned -- Leone had worked on the script for ten years -- and overall, is a stunning achievement. It never reaches the mythic heights that "Once Upon a Time in America" does, partly because Westerns and gangster movies work with very different symbols, and because "the Old West" is a nebulous period, somewhat out of touch for those growing up in the latter part of the 20th centry. The time of gangsters is closer, almost within direct memory; gangster movies take place in more restricted, realistic surroundings than does the average Western, and are more clearly tied to real-life events and locations.
It's an epic tale, and a very long one. Average movie-goers are likely to find the film slow and uninvolving, but those with more patience and willingness to go down unusual pathways may well regard this film as an authentic masterpiece. The disc includes the part of a documentary on Leone's whole career that's devoted to "Once Upon a Time in America." James Woods, the second lead in the movie, was clearly awestruck to work with the scrupulously detailed Leone, and says that it was the greatest artistic experience of his life. He declares the full film one of the best movies ever made, adding that he almost wishes he weren't in it so his declaration could be seen as objective. And no, he doesn't know what happens at the end, either.
As mentioned, the story covers three time periods, smoothly shifting between them throughout the long running time. After a brutal killing (a beautiful blonde) and an even more brutal beating, three hit men set a trap for their prey; the time is the early 1930s. Elsewhere, their prey, David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) is lost in the haze of a pipe dream in a vast Chinatown opium den. The headline in a newspaper reveals that three gangsters, Philip Stein, Patrick Goldberg and Maximilian Bercovicz, have been killed in a fiery car crash (and evidently a shootout with police).
Noodles escapes the trap, and hastily opens a train station locker, to find the suitcase within, which he'd expected to be full of money, contains only newspapers instead. He flees New York -- and then returns again 35 years later. He's been summoned by a mysterious politican, Mr. Bryan, and once again opens the locker -- the suitcase within is now stuffed with money and a note saying it's payment for his "next job." At the long-established bar-restaurant run by his friend Fat Moe (Larry Rapp), photos remind him of the past.
In Noodles' memories, we go back even further, to when he (now Scott Tiler), his friends Philip "Cockeye" Stein (William Forsythe) and Patrick "Patsy" Goldberg (James Hayden) roam the mean streets committing petty crimes. He's also deeply attracted to Moe's younger sister Deborah (Jennifer Connelly, making her movie debut), but she doesn't like his criminal activities; she wants to be a famous dancer/actress, and can't be held back by a neighborhood kid.
Noodles meets Max Bercovicz (Rusty Jacobs), a tough newcomer from the Bronx, who has ambitions way beyond those of Max and his friends. Soon, Max and Noodles are best friends, and making their way up the gangster ladder -- even though Noodles winds up in jail for about ten years.
When he (now De Niro) gets out, Max (now James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsyth) and Patsy (James Hayden) welcome him back into the gang. Deborah (now Elizabeth McGovern) is still attracted to Noodles, but is even more determined to break away from her origins. The majority of the film is set in this time period, but the movie weaves all three periods together. We never see the gang engaged in their most profitable activity, running booze during Prohibition, but they wear expensive suits and drive fancy cars -- they're doing well. They occasionally take on an outside gig (one includes Joe Pesci and Burt Young) which, in Max's view, helps them rise higher in the criminal aristocracy. Such as assisting ambitious union leader Jimmy O'Connell (Treat Williams). Max attracts a vividly masochistic beauty, Carol (Tuesday Weld), whom they, well, met during a robbery, and she frantically induced Noodles to rape her. But his heart is still with Carol.
When Prohibition ends, Noodles hopes to simply back out of crime altogether; they have a well-established infrastructure of trucks and the like, so it would be easy to begin a shipping business. But Max has other plans -- he wants to rob a Federal Reserve Bank, but Noodles is strongly against this. Things go wrong.
It began as an adaptation of an autobiographical novel, "The Hoods," by Harry Grey, who based Noodles on himself. The screenplay is by Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini and Leone himself. (The number of writers may seem long, but most American films have lots of writers -- they're just not always listed in the credits.) The American dialog is by Stuart Kaminski, who also turns up in the documentary, with colorful, affectionate stories about Leone.
But the greatness of "Once Upon a Time in America" doesn't really lie in its story, which is overall fairly simple and uncomplicated; the interlaced periods add depth to a story that would not seem to have much without that format. And without the exceptional actors who inhabit it.
It's Leone's overall vision, very precise and very detailed, that gives the film its almost awesome stature. This is nothing like the great gangster movies made by Americans, such as those made by Coppola and Scorsese; it's at once more realistic in its details -- at times the film seems to require time travel, so detailed and realistic are the settings -- and less realistic in the content. It's called "Once Upon a Time in America" for a reason -- this is not a realistic report on Jewish gangsters. It's a moody meditation on passion, on friendship and betrayal. The central character, Noodles, is really something of a loser; he's always unsophisticated, believing what he's told, rarely trying to find any hidden meanings. He's also socially a clod; he usually doesn't seem so, as he's very quiet, but on his most important date with Carol (a stunningly lavish dinner party for two), he reveals the brutal side of his nature. It's a real shock to us -- and Carol -- but we should have known it was always there.
Almost all the other characters are as seen through Noodles' eyes; there are rarely any significant scenes without him, and when there are, they're about him. De Niro carries the film well, but he's given excellent help by James Woods in particular, as well as Elizabeth McGovern and, in the scenes in the early '20s, by a remarkable cast of adolescent actors.
Overall, there is one constant: Noodles is essentially simple -- what you see is what you get. And he regards everyone else in the same way. But Max, from his first appearance as a boy to his very last, is a complex character, full of schemes and ideas, not all of which he shares with everyone. But his betrayals eat away at him.
Ultimately, the movie is about loss, mostly on the part of Noodles. But this criminal life is hard on everyone, even those who seem to have made a great success. The ending of the movie involves a possible suicide -- by garbage truck.
But is that what's going on? The very last scene shows the Noodles of the 1930s back in the opium den, dragging on a pipe; on De Niro's smiling reflection in gilded panelling, the credits roll.
Was the whole film -- or at least everything since the 1930s -- a pipe dream, an opium fantasy? It's possible, and it's equally possible it isn't. Americans like solid, fully-explained endings; ambiguity worries American audiences, and big-scale ambiguity such as presented here can drive some people nearly nuts. Leone never explained himself; the actors don't offer any explanations, nor does the commentary track -- for the whole almost four hours of the film -- by Richard Schickel. He himself believes that yes, all of the 1968 scenes are a pipe-smoke fantasy by Noodles, but admits there are problems with this interpretation. Still, it's interesting, and lends to the odd, melancholy tone of the entire film.
For a gangster movie, there's really not very much violence, but that which is here is direct and brutal, unflinchingly presented, but not dwelled on. It's necessary to keep reminding us that our "friends" Noodles, Max and the others really are bad guys, no matter how sympathetic they might seem. Still, the film doesn't really lose its grip on us, either.
"Once Upon a Time in America" is a great-looking movie, almost unique in the strong recreation of the past. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli works mostly in subdued colors; even Noodles' lavish dinner for Carol is all in black and white. The art direction by Carlo Simi and costume design by Gabriella Pescucci seem to go beyond realism; the sets are often huge, both in height and in extent, and no detail seems to have been overlooked. Photos taken from this film could easily be matched to photos really of the time -- except that they look somehow even more realistic. The fable-like nature of the film is less obvioius against such backdrops.
The music overall is by Ennio Morricone; it makes creative use of the pan flute (and yes, Zamphir is the soloist), which we occasionally see Cockeye playing. The music was actually largely composed well before production began, and at times, Leone played it on the set to provide the correct atmosphere. Morricone and Leone also use existing melodies at times, particularly "Amapola" (by Jose Maria LaCalle) and Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." The most surprising addition to the sound track is Lennon & McCartney's "Yesterday," which is heard when the Noodles of 1968 remembers the past.
Richard Schickel's commentary is often interesting, but just as often, he resorts to the now commonplace fallback for those who do commentary tracks -- he resorts to merely describing what we're seeing. Still, his insights are interesting and unpretentious, the thoughts of an intelligent man about an intelligent movie which he takes on its own terms. The fragment of the Leone documentary included is extremely well-done, involving screenwriters, James Woods and (somewhat unexpectedly) James Coburn (who was in "Duck, You Sucker!"); the only downside is that it makes you want to see the entire commentary -- and all of the other films Leone directed.
It has to be said again that this is not a film for everyone. It is very slow-paced by American standards, full of long, thoughtful pauses. But it's an epic achievement by a particularly interesting director; it may not provide you, as it did James Woods, with the greatest artistic experience of your life, but if you can give itself over to its slow, mesmerizing rhythms, it's likely to be a film you just can't shake off.