Director: Sergio Leone
Genres: Crime/Gangster, Drama
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Jennifer Connelly
Box Office: $2,500,000 (USA) in rentals
Trivia: Sergio Leone turned down an opportunity to direct The Godfather (1972) in order to make this film – a decision he would later regret.
Fat Moe: What have you been doing all these years?
Noodles: I’ve been going to bed early.
Max: You’ll live with the stink of the streets all your life.
Noodles: I like the stink of the streets. It cleans out my lungs. And it gives me a hard-on.
Noodles: You see, I have a story too, Mr. Bailey. I had a friend once. A dear friend. I turned him in to save his life. He died. But he wanted it that way. Things went bad for my friend, and they went bad for me too
Running 229 minutes, the narrative, about a group of gangsters in New York City, has two major parts that are linked by a third part. The third story is set in the late Sixties as the hero, played by Robert De Niro, having lived a modest life since he went into hiding, is drawn back to the city. The first part depicts his character as a child, when he first met his companion in crime—played as an adult by James Woods. The second part, the bulk of the film, is about their activities as adults, accumulating power and pulling off some major crimes until differences in the strategic direction of their gang split them apart. The end of the second part, however, both opens and closes the movie, with De Niro’s character smoking opium in a Chinatown den as hitmen try to determine his whereabouts. Now, opium turns a user into lead—floating lead, but lead. His ability, then, to nimbly sneak out the back and escape when the hitmen arrive, as he does at the film’s beginning, has a compelling ambiguity that weaves its way, like the smoke from his pipe, through the entire movie. Are all the subsequent flashbacks and flash-forwards just his besotted imagination as he lays on the cot waiting to rot or to die (after all, consider the film’s title…)? Or is that a metaphor for what happens to everyone, in a non-Matrix sort of way?
All of this build-up is shown in an almost balletic way – swooping shots, twirling romance and the rhythmical beat of life. Vivid sequences of robbery, murder, rape and torture stud the lives of Max and Noodles – so close to each other that they could be brothers, that hate and love can be the same thing. Oscillating between 1921, 1933 and 1968, Noodles reflects on his actions, lives those moments and grows-up towards those events. The tremendous power of the storyline is such that although individual scenes may be unclear, the entire narrative is never lost, providing a solid backbone. The motivations of the ‘old’ Noodles can be felt throughout – the guilt, betrayal and unswerving honor. These are the classic themes which Leone weaves into a rich tapestry
But the treasures of the film come from its individual sequences. There are so many wonderful, memorable moments in the movie that it conveys a lifetime of experience as it unfolds. Not all of these scenes are charming—it takes a couple viewings to overcome repulsion toward the scene where De Niro rapes Elizabeth McGovern and to recognize that, as characters, what happens to them is depicted and performed with a stunning intelligence. From a plot standpoint, you probably could eliminate a lot of the childhood scenes and still have enough to establish the relationships between the characters, but you would lose so much texture in the depiction of the New York neighborhoods teeming with immigrants and the many perfectly crafted scenes showing youngsters straining to act like adults and failing (perhaps the most memorable of all—a young boy spends all of his savings on a cream puff that is the price of a young girl’s sexual favors, but as he is waiting for her with his gift, he can’t resist its own temptation). It is the brilliance of these moments that accumulate on multiple viewings, so that you are eventually overwhelmed by the movie’s rich artistic vastness.
Beware of the commentary by the film critic, Richard Schickel. He explains and analyzes everything, and while he admits that some of his interpretations are nothing more than his own opinions, his breakdown of the movie is so thorough that it robs a bit of its magic. He does to the movie’s ambiguities what Clint Eastwood used to do to a bad guy’s henchmen. Nevertheless, he talks through the entire movie without too many gaps, describing what is happening in the film and the motivations behind the action, explaining Leone’s techniques, talking a little bit about the production background, and discussing other matters inspired by the film’s artistry. “Once Upon a Time in America” is a standard-bearer for the gangster film genre, enhanced by the touch of Leone and the chance to show a lifetime in detail (without having to fit it into 120 minutes).