'80s Movie Month: "Once Upon a Time in America" Review

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A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to the Lower East Side of Manhattan over thirty years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.
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'80s Movie Month: "Once Upon a Time in America" Review

Rating: R (strong violence, sexual content, language, and some drug use)
Length: 229 minutes
Release Date: February 17, 1984
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Genre: Crime/Drama

While Sergio Leone is undoubtedly best known for his Western films, during the later part of his career, he began to become interested in other areas of American history. After reading Harry Grey'sThe Hoods, he decided to make a gangster film of his own, even turning down an opportunity to direct "The Godfather" just so that he could work on his chosen project. "Once Upon a Time in America" was meant to be the first film in a new trilogy, but troubles with the studio ultimately sank Leone's plans and ended his filmmaking career.

"Once Upon a Time in America" chronicles the lives of a group of friends who grow up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, rising from street kids to a criminal bootlegging gang. When the opportunity for a dangerous but potentially lucrative score presents itself, it causes a rift among the crew. Noodles (Robert De Niro) sees an attempt to rob the Federal Reserve as too dangerous to consider, while Max (James Woods) sees it as their ticket to survival as Prohibition's repeal destroys their alcohol profits. An attempt to defuse the situation leads to unimaginable consequences, forcing Noodles to flee his former life and start over fresh in Buffalo. Decades later, however, his past reaches out to touch him in unexpected ways, and he finds himself drawn back into a life he tried desperately to forget.

The film tells its story non-chronologically, opening and closing in the year 1933 as Noodles escapes his troubles in an opium den, but showing events ranging from the 1920s to the late 1960s. This allows Leone to pace plot revelations for maximum impact, showing the rise and fall of the gang and illustrating how the effects of events can play out over a lifetime, with some events hiding their true significance until later in the film. The framing also brings up the possibility that the 1960s scenes are merely a garbled opiate dream of the future, an interpretation Leone encouraged in interviews after its release.

In addition to De Niro and Woods as the rival leaders of the gang, the film features Elizabeth McGovern as a local girl Noodles spends most of his teenage and young adult years chasing, only to drive her away with his brutality when she expresses a desire for more out of life. Tuesday Weld is Carol, Max's girlfriend, who ends up keeping a secret through the years that proves vital to the film's central tale. The film also features performances by Joe Pesci and Danny Aiello in supporting roles, two actors who would become staple players in the gangster genre.

The original cut of the film was a whopping 269 minutes, but Leone reluctantly removed 40 minutes for its premiere at Cannes and its showing in European theaters. The American distributor felt the movie was still too long, however, and trimmed it down to 139 minutes for the American release. The resulting cut of the film turned out to be a mess, with events happening seemingly without reason or explanation. This also removed the non-chronological storytelling method Leone used and thus drastically altered the film's narrative impact. This version of the film was widely panned by critics, leading to an extremely poor box-office performance. Leone never recovered from the betrayal of his vision and never made another film.

Fortunately, the 229-minute version is readily available on home video and has done much to redeem the film in the eyes of critics and fans. Many of those who decried the original release as one of the worst films ever made placed the restored version high on their list of best films. De Niro's performance is as nuanced and riveting as viewers would expect from the legendary actor in his prime, and Woods presents a dark mirror of how his life could have gone if things were just slightly different. The restored non-chronological cut emphasizes the long decades Noodles spends regretting a youthful action, only to discover much later in life that things were not as he had assumed all along.

While the longer cut is by far the superior version of the film, it is not without its flaws. The story meanders somewhat through the long run time of the film, and the graphic brutality may turn off some viewers. In his quest to produce an honest, unflinching look at the criminal subculture, Leone presents very few likeable characters, and the story ventures in some very unpleasant territory at times. However, the film remains one of the most ambitious attempts of a legendary director, and fans of Leone's work will find it a suitable addition to their movie collections.

Rating: 4 out of 5