Once Upon A Time In America (1984)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

/USA, 1984. , , , . Screenplay by , , , , , Sergio Leone, additional dialogue by , based on the novel The Hoods by . Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli. Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

The title rings memory bells that take one back to director Sergio Leone’s earlier masterpiece Once Upon a Time In The West and, in the case of both films, the wording suggests tales set not in a factual past, but one whose details are laced with elements of fairy tale and myth. Returning to feature filmmaking for the first time in thirteen years, Leone’s swan song, made five years before his ridiculously young death at the age of sixty, is among his most complex and confident works, a gangster tale that features plenty of the requisite sex and violence of the genre but with the grandeur of high opera, all of it played in a downbeat, minor and often compellingly ugly key.

gives a dark and brooding performance as David “Noodles” Aaronson, a gangster who has barely escaped New York with his life after his best childhood friends and fellow mobsters were killed while attempting to rob the Federal Reserve. He goes into hiding in Buffalo, and then thirty-five years later is lured back to the big metropolis by a mysterious letter from an anonymous sender who claims to want to hire him for a job. His return to his old haunt prompts flashbacks to his childhood, when he first meets Max Bercovicz and the two of them begin their takeover of the streets of the Jewish Lower East Side neighbourhood, first by taking over the beat of a prohibition-era bootlegger’s sentry (played by a young ), then later as adults (with Max played by ) taking over running the neighbourhood’s booze business and getting involved with the mess that corrupt politicians get themselves into with labor unions.

Noodles has been in love since childhood with the beautiful Deborah (played by , later as a grown woman by ), and his not being as ruthlessly ambitious as Max should result in their enjoying a fine, happy romance, but Noodles has been dehumanized by the violence of the streets and his years in prison; by the time he has the opportunity to pursue a relationship with Deborah, it is expressed much as all sexuality with women is portrayed in this film, as more violence and abuse.

Told over a sprawling length of nearly four hours, Leone never rushes his story and doesn’t overcrowd it with incident in an effort to deliver a breathless epic; the episodes that make up the telling of these lives feel both spare and concentrated, the conflicts between characters are not explosive but the moral compromises they make slowly chip away at friendship, loyalty and love. What is left in the end are empty husks that are desperate for one last showdown in a blaze of glory, but can’t light the spark that could set them ablaze.

Situating these figures within an endless array of ornate sets, beautiful period costumes, the stunning lighting by cinematographer Tonnino Delli Colli and Ennio Morricone’s baroque musical score only further emphasize the characters turning from warm and humorous kids in the beginning to two-dimensional artistic creations in the end, for while the film deepens in its sorrowful condemnation of its figures, they have only become shallower in their lack of humanity. A fascinating experience, the film was lambasted by critics when first released in a truncated two hour version in North America, before the longer European cut was made available and was rightly hailed a masterpiece of the decade.

Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Director (Sergio Leone); Best Original Score

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