Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Director:  Sergio Leone 
Cast:   Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Jennifer Connelly
Plot:  A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to Brooklyn over 30 years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life. 
Genre:  Crime / Drama 
Awards:  Nom. for 2 Golden Globes - Best Director, Best Original Score
Runtime:  229min
Rating:  M18 for strong graphic violence, language, and sexuality. 

On the cover of the video for Once Upon a Time in America is a sepia-toned picture of a gang of five in trench coats and hats strolling past the Manhattan Bridge.  The smallest of the quintet appears to do a dance backwards as if imitating Chaplin.  This nostalgic shot eventually leads to one of the most unforgettable sequences ever captured in American film - a stunning mix of strong visuals and powerful music. 

Sergio Leone, whose film masterpiece remains to be Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), has embarked on perhaps the most ambitious motion picture about organized crime since Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part mafia drama The Godfather in the early 1970s, putting together an original cut that runs nearly four hours, transporting viewers back to nearly fifty years of American underworld history. 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Leone’s crime epic (apart from its extraordinary length) is Ennio Morricone’s legendary score.  Truth be told, it is one of the greatest film scores never to be nominated for an Oscar (due to a late submission caused by a clerical error). The beauty of Morricone’s score is largely confined to the first half of the film where it is played more often and has its most resonance because it perfectly evocates the nostalgia of early 20th century 

Once Upon a Time in America stars Robert De Niro (Noodles) and James Woods (Max) in the film’s two lead roles, and is accompanied by an extensive cast of young and old including a 12-year-old Jennifer Connelly, Joe Pesci, Tuesday Weld, and Elizabeth McGovern. 

The acting is consistent throughout; every role is given time to develop.  This is especially so for roles which have two different actors playing them in two different timelines.  Of course, the best performance comes unsurprisingly from De Niro, whose powerhouse display of male chauvinism and uncompromising personality does no harm in affecting his reputation as one of the world’s most proficient actors. 

The bloody violence is reminiscent of The Godfather but Leone’s film is harder to watch because there are two graphic depictions of rape shown.  Although Once Upon a Time in America tends to devalue and victimize women by portraying them as objects of sexual and verbal abuse, the film’s strength lies in Leone’s ability to build a story around core values of friendship, loyalty, and brotherhood amongst men. 

Once Upon a Time in America does not move in a linear fashion.  It is a series of inter-cutting character development flashbacks and flash forwards edited with excellence and assembled with coherence to a main narrative that reveals few things. 

Its puzzling ending is shrouded with mystery and till today remains the most talked about part of the film.  Each character is distinctive and developed with immense depth, yet after four hours, we still know so little about them.  But it is this enigmatic quality that these characters emanate that makes Leone’s film such a satisfying watch. 

Coppola romanticized organized crime with The Godfather while Martin Scorsese’s take with Goodfellas was explosively visceral.  Sergio Leone, on the other hand, has opted for nostalgia. 

Once Upon A Time In America is a massive film; it is a landmark of its time and a colossal achievement rarely equaled.  To see this film is “to be swept away by the assurance and vitality of a great director making his final statement in a medium he adored” (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times).  Highly recommended!

GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)

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