Once Upon a Time in America is an epic gangster picture with flaws, some troublesome, but nonetheless a classic of sorts. It's not as loony as Once Upon a Time in the West, although it's even more ambitious than that sprawling Western, and it's not as iconic as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And unlike so many gangster epics, it refuses to romanticize its anti-heroes.
The complicated structure, which jumps between eras and doesn't always promise reliable narration, was famously messed with in the original release in the USA. It was shorter by 90 minutes (!) and the structure was "uncomplicated", which only ended up making everything incomprehensible. (I am relying on sources here ... I have never seen that particular release.) Even the final, 3 hour and 49 minute version is said to have been cut from six hours by Leone. I am infamous for my general distaste for movies that are too long, and at times that opinion is reduced to a simple idea that anything longer than 2 hours is bloated. But a 90-minute movie can be too long, and a three-hour movie can be engrossing for its entire length. Once Upon a Time in America is not too long ... I was never bored, although I felt the intermission came a bit late for my bladder (2 1/2 hours had already run by then).
The name Sergio Leone brings to mind a certain kind of movie ... the extreme close-ups, the long takes, the often leisurely pace. It's amazing to realize that Leone only got credit for directing 7 movies in his career, considering how deeply he imprinted his style on the world of film. Once Upon a Time in America was his final picture ... he died of a heart attack five years later, and some think the damage done to his film contributed to his demise.
There is so much greatness in this film. The period recreations are as impressive as those in The Godfather Part II. The cinematography is brilliant. Ennio Morricone's score is one of his best, and it had a part in the writing of the Pogues' classic "Fairytale in New York". And some of the acting is marvelous. Robert De Niro as Noodles is low-key, James Woods is more excitable, which fits their characters, but it's the supporting cast that really sticks. The criminally overlooked Tuesday Weld shines (David Thompson once wrote of Weld, "If she had been 'Susan Weld' [her real name] she might now be known as one of our great actresses"). Elizabeth McGovern isn't given much of a part as Deborah, even though she is the female lead, but Jennifer Connelly, who plays the character as a young girl, is wonderful in what was her film debut.
Weld triumphs over the material, McGovern does not, but they share something that points to worst aspect of the movie. One could guess that Leone wasn't much interested in the female characters, one reason Weld and McGovern are left to their own devices. (To be honest, Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West is the only female character I can remember in Leone's work, outside of this film.) As noted, there is no romanticization of these gangsters ... we see them at their worst, and even De Niro's Noodles must resort to opium to forget what he has done. So their actions throughout are violent and hypermasculinized. But this leads to two rape scenes, both awful, and inexcusable in that they exist largely as a comment on the rapists rather than as a concern for the victims. Weld's Carol seems to "ask for it", and she continues to hang with the gang after the event, as if it was nothing. And when Noodles rapes Deborah, it is properly revolting, but again Leone seems more interested in illuminating the character of Noodles than he is in giving Deborah some sympathetic depth.
There is so much to admire about Once Upon a Time in America. There are also scenes that are far over the line. #102 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Top five movies of 1984:
- The Terminator
- Stop Making Sense
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
- The Times of Harvey Milk