Once Upon a Time in America at 40: Sergio Leone’s brutal gangster epic endures

Estimated read time 6 min read

There’s no mob whacking in movie history as gruesome as the job Warner Bros did on Sergio Leone’s final feature, Once Upon a Time in America, a sumptuous crime epic that Leone tried to cut down from 269 minutes to 229 for its premiere at the Cannes film festival in 1984, only to have 90 more minutes lopped off for its US release, taking it all the way down to 139 minutes. The changes, done without Leone’s supervision or approval, had the predictable effect of alienating critics, who’d lauded the film at Cannes, while tanking the film at the box office, and it has taken decades to restore its length and reputation. Longer cuts have circulated – a 251-minute version returned to Cannes in 2012 – but the 229-minute European cut has now become the standard, better late than never.

The excruciating irony of the situation is that time may be the film’s most important theme, and Leone’s signature style, established in classics like Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is to elongate time as much as possible, squeezing every bit of tension and detail out of crucial moments. Through the full scope of its hero’s life – from his hardscrabble upbringing as a street tough on the Lower East Side in the 20s to his ascendence as a Prohibition-era gangster to his obsolescence as a regretful old man in the 60s — the film reflects the rotten, corruptible soul of the country itself over the same period. That’s not a story that could be told quickly. It was The Godfather for an era that had grown hostile to auteur visions.

Actually, it was more like The Godfather Part II, since Leone and his team of screenwriters interweave three different eras in a complicated structure that suffuses the story with profound regret – and suggests, to some degree, that its perfumed memories are part of an opium dream. All that was lost in the shorter cut, too, which ditched the flashbacks in favor of a chronological narrative that ostensibly sacrificed art for clarity, but ditched so much footage that basic coherence become a problem. As it stands now, 40 years later, Once Upon a Time in America finds the aging director still working at the peak of his powers, upending the mythology of Hollywood gangster pictures with the same sumptuousness and revisionist thinking that distinguished his famed spaghetti westerns.

Based on The Hoods, a semi-autobiographical book by Harry Grey, a former gangster writing under a pseudonym, the film stars Robert De Niro as a Jewish kingpin named David “Noodles” Aaronson, but doesn’t offer anything like the charisma of De Niro’s young Don Vito Corleone or even the swagger of his ne’er-do-well in Mean Streets. Noodles is an opportunist who falls into petty, violent criminality as an adolescent and keeps on falling, even as his financial fortunes rise on the bootlegging business that fattened gangsters’ wallets during Prohibition. In the early 20s, Noodles and his best friend, Max (played as an adult by James Woods), along with three other kids, make collections for a Lower East Side boss and “roll” local drunks for whatever money and possessions they can swipe from them.

The quintet all agree to pool their ill-gotten funds in a suitcase tucked into a railway station locker, and the take grows significantly as they ramp up in ambition. While young Noodles is off serving time for killing a rival and injuring a cop, Max and the others thrive as bootleggers in the early 30s, and Noodles helps them expand their operation in the wake of a successful diamond heist. But there’s some discord within the group as Noodles argues for a more low-key business while Max seeks power and influence within the Teamsters union and higher political circles. Their fractured relationship leads to astonishing betrayal and tragedy, but it also feeds into a larger story about America in the middle of the 20th century, a country tarnished by such unclean hands.

There’s an abundance of memorable scenes in Once Upon a Time in America, bound together by Tonino Delli Colli’s Rembrandt-worthy compositions and a typically great Ennio Morricone score. (Between this and The Karate Kid, June 1984 was a boon for Gheorghe Zamfir pan flute solos.) But in one standout moment, Noodles and the gang rescue a union boss, Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams), who refuses to back down from other mobsters, even after they’ve doused him with gasoline and lit a match. They don’t do it out of charity – Max wants a piece of the Teamsters and eventually muscles a strike into a resolution – but it’s startling to see Jimmy stick to his principles, no matter the imminent threat to his life. Later, he has to sell out. Decency can always be chipped away, whether at the allure of money and power or at the barrel of a gun.

Though Leone delivers some beautiful gangland set pieces, the film is distinguished by a full sense of the brutality and destruction of violent men, starting with Noodles, who’s a tragic figure without being a redeemable one. Leone’s graphic depiction of Noodles raping two different women – one a jeweler employee (Tuesday Weld) who later becomes Max’s moll, the other (Elizabeth McGovern) an aspiring actor he’s loved since childhood – continues to be a source of controversy, but it strips away the glamor of gangsterism, reducing Noodles to a stunted child who can’t control himself. He’s a small, impulsive man in a country that becomes overrun by them during the course of his life, no nobler than Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed killer in Once Upon a Time in the West or Lee Van Cleef’s sadistic mercenary in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Longer cuts may still surface of the film and bring out more from these characters, but the current version has brought Once Upon a Time in America back from the dead, where it shoveled into blockbuster season like a corpse in the Pine Barrens. Though the richness of Leone’s production gives the film a nostalgic hue, it remains the rare gangster film where the criminal life never seems alluring, even when the money’s rolling in. No wonder Noodles gets sucked into the opium den. He has the cash to smoke his conscience and memories away.

Source: theguardian.com

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