Robin’s Underrated Gems: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

On our 100th episode of Shouts From the Back Row, we each picked a personal favourite movie for our fellow podcasters to watch, so that we could analyze and discuss it. I did not let Gill and TK off easy as I had them check out Sergio Leone s epic four-hour crime drama, Once Upon a Time in America. I’ve debated for a long time whether this movie should qualify as an underrated gem since it is beloved and thought of as a masterpiece by most people who’ve seen it. But on the other hand, not a whole lot of people have seen it. Because of its deliberate pace and nearly four-hour running time, you really have to be in the right mood to sit down and watch Once Upon a Time in America. The film also never received the mainstream acclaim it deserved because it was the victim of one of the most botched theatrical releases in North American history. Sergio Leone’s original 229-minute cut of the film played in European cinemas and generated a lot of buzz after a successful screening at the Cannes Film Festival. However, Warner Bros. was not confident that North American audiences would want to sit through a four-hour film, so they extensively re-edited and cut down Once Upon a Time in America for its release here in 1984. The non-linear story was reassembled to play in chronological order and the running time was severely cut down to 139 minutes. As a result, the version of Once Upon a Time in America that played in North American cinemas was an incoherent mess and wound up being a critical and commercial failure. In Roger Ebert’s review, he gave the original cut a four-star rating and the North American version one star, and one critic who had called Once Upon the Time in America the worst film of 1984 reportedly changed his tune when he saw the original cut and called it the best film of the decade! Thankfully, when the film was released on home video, it was restored to its 229-minute running time and the truncated version has pretty much been erased for existence. Anyone who watches Once Upon a Time in America today will see it for the masterpiece it is.

Once Upon a Time in America is an epic jigsaw puzzle of a movie that frequently switches back and forth between three different time periods and forces the viewers to put all the pieces together. The film opens in the 1930s where a Jewish gangster named Noodles (Robert De Niro) is hiding out in a Chinese opium den in New York City, unaware that he is being pursued by vicious mobsters. In an early sequence of scenes, the sound of a ringing telephone is heard on the soundtrack 24 straight times. This seems to torment Noodles and it is obvious that he is using the opium to escape the consequences of his actions. Noodles is forced to leave the city and remain in hiding until 1968, when the movie shows us an older, graying Noodles returning to New York. Noodles has received a mysterious letter and it s obvious that he is being lured back into the open to face up to something from his past. The movie then cuts back to the 1920s to show Noodles when he was a poor street kid in the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Noodles heads a small street gang and they eventually befriend another young hood named Max, who leads them into a successful life of crime. After Noodles commits a crime and is sent to prison, he is released in 1932 where his now-adult friends, Max (James Woods), Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe) are running a very successful bootlegging industry in the era of Prohibition. Noodles also rekindles his relationship with a fellow neighbourhood girl named Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), whom he has been infatuated with since childhood. In the 1920s scenes, the younger version of Deborah is played by 12-year old Jennifer Connelly in her film debut.

Once Upon a Time in America is such a complex and multi-layered film that it s pretty hard to describe it in a simple plot summary. The central heart of the movie is Noodles’ relationships with Max and Deborah and how he deals with his guilty feelings about having betrayed them. It becomes pretty obvious that the sound of the constantly ringing phone in the opening scenes represents Noodles’ decision to call the cops on Max and his friends, an action he believed was right, but wound up backfiring horribly. Ever since childhood, Deborah has resisted the advances of Noodles because she looks at him as a punk. After getting released from prison, Noodles goes out of his way to court her, but she tells them that she is leaving the city to pursue her acting career. In a scene that literally made my jaw drop the first time I watched the film, Noodles reacts to Deborah’s rejection by raping her in the back of a limo! Of course, Noodles feels instant remorse for his actions and you can certainly understand why he would feel the need to visit an opium den to wipe these memories out of his mind. However, he eventually discovers during the 1968 scenes that things may not be quite what they seem. Sergio Leone takes his sweet time to tell this story, but he’s one of those rare directors who is such a great visual storyteller than you don’t mind his deliberate pace. While some of Leone’s scenes may seem self-indulgent and there are moments where you don’t quite understand what’s going on, you always feel confident that the director knows what he’s doing and that everything will pay off in the end. His transitions between the numerous time periods throughout the film are masterfully done and it’s great to watch all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Once Upon a Time in America was based on a semi-autobiographical novel called The Hoods written by Harry Grey. In the early 1970s, Leone decided he wanted to move on from spaghetti westerns to make a gangster film, and he actually turned down an offer to direct The Godfather so he could use the novel as a basis for his pet project. Once Upon a Time in America was over a decade in the making and some believe that Leone s obsession with his epic project damaged his health and shortened his lifespan. This was to be Leone’s last film and five years after it was released, he wound up dying of a heart attack at the age of 60. Leone looked at numerous A-list actors while attempting to cast his roles, but his eventual choices turned out to be the right ones. Like I pointed out earlier, this is a story where the main protagonist winds up raping his love interest halfway through the film and only an actor of Robert De Niro’s caliber could still make you care about a character after he does something like that. Even though we don’t always sympathize with Noodles and abhor some of his actions, we still understand his motivations and are interested in finding out what happens to him. De Niro is often asked to carry several long scenes without dialogue, but he effectively conveys what his character is thinking through his face and body language. However, it is James Woods who completely steals the film with his charismatic portrayal of Max and gives the proceedings a boost of energy when the story is in danger of dragging. Quite a few recognizable faces pop up in smaller roles, such as Joe Pesci as a mob boss, Treat Williams as a unionist, and Danny Aiello as a corrupt police chief. In the film’s most darkly comic sequence, Max and his gang blackmail the chief by switching all the tags in the maternity ward containing his newborn son, so that he won’t know which baby is his! As you can see, Leone pays a nice tribute to A Clockwork Orange with this sequence.

The most hotly-debated aspect of Once Upon a Time in America is its ending, which can be interpreted in many different ways by the viewer. Towards the end, there a few moments that just don’t seem to make much logical sense and it’s implied that certain scenes might be nothing more than an opium-induced hallucination from Noodles. Whatever your interpretation, the open ending will definitely make you want to watch the film again and look for clues that provide the ultimate answer. Once Upon a Time in America is that rare film which moves at a deliberate pace and requires great patience, but gets you so caught up in its world that, even after four hours, you almost don’t want the film end. Those who are not big fans of Once Upon a Time in America still have to concede that the direction, photography and production values are first-rate, and every scene is greatly enhanced by Ennio Morricone’s score, which is one of the very best of his long and illustrious career. Believe it or not, the 229-minute version of Once Upon a Time in America is not even the longest version of the film. Leone’s original cut was actually 269 minutes before it was cut down for European release. A 245-minute version actually screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year, and they are currently working out some rights issues with the remaining footage to get the full 269-minute cut released. This would allow the world to finally see Sergio Leone’s full, definitive version of the film but until then, the 229-minute version will do just fine and still stands as a masterful piece of cinema. Once Upon a Time in America still ranks as one of my favourite films of all time and its botched theatrical release in 1984 probably prevented it from being universally hailed as a masterpiece. It’s a very complex, challenging and thought-provoking film that will require your complete and full attention, but if you’re in the right mindset and have four hours to set aside, you owe it to yourself to sit down and watch this.

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