Gangster 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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Gangster Movie Month: "Once Upon a Time in America" Review

-- Rating: Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, language and some drug use
Length: 229 minutes
Release Date: June 1, 1984
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Genre: Crime Drama

"Once Upon a Time in America" is an epic film directed by Sergio Leone, who also cowrote the screenplay. He adapted the story from "The Hoods," a novel written by Harry Grey. Leone chose the title of the film while he was filming the western "Once Upon a Time in the West." "Once Upon a Time in America" is about a group of Jewish boys in New York City who become mobsters. Several versions of this film exist, and they differ greatly in their quality.

The length of Leone's original film is 269 minutes, and this version premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival in the out-of-competition category. Leone then cut the film down to a 229-minute version, which was shown in European theaters. The film studio Embassy International further cut it down to 139 minutes for the US release against Leone's wishes. The scenes in this version were also resequenced to appear in chronological order, whereas the longer versions used flashback narration. Leone's children acquired the distribution rights to all but twenty-four minutes of the original film by 2011 and created a 251-minute version that premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. They are currently still trying to get the rights to the remaining twenty-four minutes, which will allow them to recreate the original 269-minute version.

The 229-minute version of "Once Upon a Time in America" is now commercially available in the United States. It covers four time periods: the 1920s, 1932, 1933, and 1968. Most of the film is told as flashbacks from 1968. The film begins when David "Noodles" Aaronson (whose younger self is played by Scott Tiler) is an adolescent street kid living in Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1920. He is the leader of a small gang that works for Bugsy (James Russo) until he begins an independent operation with the help of Max Bercovicz (Rusty Jacobs). Noodles kills Bugsy in retaliation for killing one of his gang members and is sent to prison.

Noodles (Robert De Niro) is released from prison in 1932 and reunites with members of his old gang, who are now major bootleggers at the end of Prohibition. Joe (Burt Young) is a mobster from Detroit who recruits Noodles and his gang to steal a shipment of diamonds. The gang attacks Joe at the behest of rival mobster Frankie Manoldi (Joe Pesci), although Noodles knows nothing about the planned hit. Noodles' three gang members are killed in a shootout in 1933 after Noodles informs the police of their plans to rob a Federal Reserve Bank.

In 1968, Noodles is a world-weary retired mobster who has come out of hiding and returned to New York City. The other three members of his original gang were buried in a cemetery that is about to be redeveloped. Noodles has received a letter offering to move the remains of his friends, even though they have already been moved to a private cemetery. Noodles interprets this to mean that his enemies have discovered his whereabouts and are about to attack him. The final flashback portion of the film begins when Noodles enters an opium den in 1933 shortly after the death of his friends. His face begins to relax and then breaks into a broad grin at the end of the film as Noodles makes a sudden realization.

The 229-minute version of "Once Upon a Time in America" is an epic chronicle of greed and violence. Audience members must pay careful attention to the film to understand the story's construction, since most of it is told through flashbacks and an opium dream. The film covers almost fifty years, during which the characters and their relationships change dramatically.

The primary theme in the film is the guilt experienced by Noodles when he feels he has betrayed his gang members, with whom he shares a strong bond of loyalty. Noodles carries this guilt from 1933, when his friends are killed, until 1968, when he discovers that he was actually betrayed. Two very violent scenes at the film's opening set the tone for the early part of the film. Robert De Niro delivers a very powerful scene in the opium den as his character tries to escape his past.

This film is engrossing throughout its length of nearly four hours and will prevent the audience from becoming restless. It maintains its emotional integrity as the episodes move back and forth through time. Audience members may not always know exactly when the events in the story are occurring, but they will always have confidence in the film's ability to tell the story.

Rating 4 out of 5