Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: The Ladd Company | PSO International | Embassy International Pictures | Rafran Cinematografica
Sometimes it seems that all you have to do to make it on a Great Films list is to make a movie about gangsters and make it very long. That is the formula that legendary Italian director Sergio Leone followed in making Once Upon a Time in America, which ended up being his final film, and one he spent over a decade creating. It’s also the final part of a loose trilogy of Once Upon a Time… movies that began with Once Upon a Time in the West. Notoriously, the production company severely cut down the movie for its American release and rearranged the scenes in chronological order. This movie bombed in the U.S. but the nearly 4-hour “European Cut” that I watched is considered a classic.
The movie is told from the point of view of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro, played by Scott Tiler as a teenager) who forms a gang in the Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his friend Max (James Woods, Rusty Jacobs as a teenager) and three other friends. The story is framed by an older Noodles returning to New York City after 35 years because someone has learned he betrayed his friends in 1933. The bulk of the film takes place in flashback during the Prohibition Era of the 1910s to 1930s.
Noodles is the epitome of unsympathetic narrator as we see him not only carry out violent crimes, but brutally rape two different women including the one who is supposed to be his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly as a teenager). Women in this film are seemingly just there to be humiliated, beaten, and raped. This is no doubt and accurate depiction of how gangsters treated women and girls, but if it’s up to you if that’s something you want to watch in a movie.
I’m not sure why Leone chose to cast actors of Italian/Irish and Irish ancestry in the lead roles as Jewish gangsters. Not only was it unfair to ethnically Jewish actors who could’ve played the parts but it’s confusing since DeNiro and Woods had already played gangsters of other ethnicities. I found Jacobs was a lot more charismatic as the Young Max than Woods, who is just his usually creepy-ass self. The plot hinges on the audience’s’ belief in Noodles and Max having a deep friendship but I never feel any such connection between DeNiro and Woods. Indeed, the film seems to deliberately repel any emotional connection one might make with the characters. There are huge plot twists that end up being corny and unconvincing, and at the end I was left wondering why we spent nearly four hours on this story.
The one thing Once Upon a Time in America has going for it is that it looks really good. The sets are picture-perfect recreation of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. I’d love to learn how it was produced and how they got Manhattan Bridge to hover over so many of the street scenes in the era before CGI. Otherwise, gangster movies aren’t really my cup of tea, so your impression of this film may vary, but I found this movie to “meh” overall.