Warner Bros. // 1984 // 229 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 11th, 2011
"All that we have left now are our memories. If you go to that party on Saturday night, you won't have those anymore. Tear up that invitation." -- Deborah Gelly
Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is based on Harry Grey's novel The Hoods, a pastiche of the careers of Jewish gangsters Bugsy Seigel and Meyer Lansky, with ample helpings of Grey's own adventures as a mobster thrown in for good measure. Due to rights issues and other delays, Leone spent nearly a decade in pre-production on the film. When cameras finally began rolling, Leone was in an enviable position: He had the backing of a major American studio, a sizable budget, and an amazing Hollywood cast headed by Robert De Niro (Raging Bull). Once Upon a Time in America was to be the Italian director's ultimate statement on the emptiness of the American dream (a topic he'd explored in one way or another in each of his previous auteur films). Many critics consider it his magnum opus. Not this one.
After 30 years of living in hiding in Buffalo, New York, one-time gangster David "Noodles" Aaronson (De Niro) returns to his old Brooklyn stomping ground in response to a letter from the local rabbi indicating that the remains of three of his friends must be relocated due to a construction project in the neighborhood. In 1933, as Prohibition was coming to an end, Noodles' brothers in crime -- Max Bercovicz (James Woods, Videodrome), Patrick "Patsy" Goldberg (James Hayden, The First Deadly Sin), and Philip "Cockeye" Stein (William Forsythe, Fargo) -- were gunned down by cops while trying to rob the Federal Reserve. Noodles had dropped a dime on them. He figures someone has called him back to the old neighborhood to settle the score. Once in Brooklyn, he meets up with old friend Fat Moe (Larry Rapp, Turk 182!) and indulges memories of growing up with Max, Patsy, and Cockeye in the Jewish section of Brooklyn in the '20s, and their eventual bootlegging and work for an Italian mobster (Burt Young, Rocky).
Noodles eventually pays a visit to Fat Moe's sister Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Ragtime), a famous actress on whom he had a crush when they were both kids. He is seeking information about an invitation he received to a party thrown by politician Christopher Bailey, a man he's never heard of and who has offered him a job. What does Bailey want with him, and will attending the party lead to answers about who summoned him back to the city and why?
Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is undeniably beautiful, but anyone who asserts that it is a better gangster film than Goodfellas or either of the first two Godfather movies needs to put down the opium pipe. Leone, whose output as an auteur consists of six films organized into two loose trilogies, reached his peak with his third film: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an epic Western full of equal parts style and substance; it embodies every visual and narrative element that exemplifies Leone's style. Leone followed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with his Once Upon a Time trilogy -- Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Duck, You Sucker (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America. Though a solidly made trio of pictures, they tend to fall prey to Leone's increasing self-indulgence, particularly his lackadaisical pacing. A fundamentally visual communicator, Leone was always able to take 100-pages of story and stretch them into three hours of beautifully framed imagery. Throughout the Once Upon a Time trilogy, he let this tendency get the better of him, delivering stories that felt needlessly weighted by their epic running times. Once Upon a Time in America is the worst offender in this regard. It offers a surprisingly simplistic story made somewhat more complex by layered flashbacks and a smart framing device, but at a whopping 229 minutes it labors under its director's excesses. There are sequences in the film that go on for 20 or 30 beats too long, or that needlessly cut multiple times between two characters looking at each other with no exchange of dialog. There's nothing inherently wrong with languid pacing, but Leone seems not to have understood that most of his actors (especially De Niro and Woods) were able to communicate in seconds using their eyes and faces what he insisted on taking minutes to present to the audience. The effect is to make Once Upon a Time in America an often exasperating viewing experience. Warner Brothers famously re-edited the movie after its Cannes Film Festival premiere, reorganizing the story into chronological order and trimming its length by 90 minutes. This 229 minute version is undoubtedly better than that hatchet job, but more self-discipline on Leone's part could have yielded a more compelling movie that avoided breaking the three-hour barrier.
What most hurts Once Upon a Time in America, though, is its lack of a sense of humor. One of the defining characteristics of Leone's style is his impish wit and gallows comedy. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is full of cleverly executed double-crosses and turns of plot that rely on the playfully amoral relish with which each of the characters approaches life. Once Upon a Time in America, by contrast, is a mostly somber affair. As a result, its characters are romantic cyphers instead of three-dimensional human beings. Despite the movie's visual splendor, there's something false and flat in the details of its world. Perhaps the film's vision of America is less convincing because it is set in an industrial era more similar to our own than the Wild West of Leone's earlier movies and, as a result, we're better able to see the director's lack of a true connection to the nation (he'd never even been to the United States). Whatever the reason or reasons, much of Once Upon a Time in America rings false. Consider Ennio Morricone's score. It is lush and beautiful to be sure (if often overly assertive and sentimental), but the composer's heavy use of the pan flute is just bizarre. Is that timbre supposed to evoke American life in the early 20th century, or something specifically Jewish? It does neither. It's as though Leone and Morricone decided to paint a picture of America, but selected all the wrong colors.
One of my favorite sequences in Once Upon a Time in America features a very young Patsy Goldberg (played by Brian Bloom, The A-Team) paying a visit to a local girl who turns tricks in exchange for pastries. As he waits for the girl, he slowly falls prey to the temptation of the sweet, first unwrapping it, then gingerly tasting its frosting, and finally deciding that he'd rather have the cupcake than the lay, and devouring it. The scene is one of the few that showcases Leone's sharp wit. It is gently funny, perfectly paced, and brilliant in the way that it reveals how, despite his criminal enterprises, Patsy is still very much a little boy. A handful of other scenes in the movie have a similar pure cinema power, forcefully expressing universal truths through carefully composed images and with little in the way of dialogue. A sequence, for instance, in which young Noodles spies on Deborah (played by Jennifer Connelly, Labyrinth) practicing a dance routine in the storeroom of her family's restaurant, perfectly captures the intensity of his adolescent longing for her. The interesting thing about these stand-out scenes is that their style and approach is more in keeping with the aesthetics of the Italian neorealist movement than with American gangster films. It's as though Leone's soul was primed to make an Italian movie, but the director decided instead to push his obsession with America just beyond its breaking point. Once Upon a Time in America is constructed of some exquisite pieces, but those pieces never congeal into a satisfying whole.
Leone fans had much to celebrate back in 2003 when Warner Brothers released the director's preferred 229-minute cut of Once Up a Time in America on a two-disc Special Edition DVD. This Blu-ray edition is a direct port of that earlier release, but it doesn't quite thrill to the same extent. The 1080p/AVC transfer offers more depth and better color reproduction than the DVD, but the upgrade isn't as stunning as fans will hope. Detail is decent, but far from eye-popping. The default audio option is a DTS-HD master audio expansion of the movie's original optical mono track, which is to say it's clean but cramped and occasionally shrill. There are also seven foreign language dubs, and an insane number of subtitle options.
Extras are identical to those found on the Special Edition DVD. Film critic Richard Schickel provides an excellent commentary that rebuts nearly everything I've said in this review, asserting that Once Upon a Time in America is Leone's masterpiece. Schickel is well-spoken, passionate, and engaging. It's a great track. There's also a 20-minute excerpt from the feature-length documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone. It delves specifically into the production of Once Upon a Time in America. Finally, there's a trailer for the movie. That's it.
Like all of Sergio Leone's auteur films, Once Upon a Time in America is a fascinating viewing experience. It's not entirely successful, but is still a must-see movie. Warner's Blu-ray release of the movie doesn't offer enough of a bump in A/V quality to warrant an upgrade for anyone but diehard fans of the film.
Review content copyright © 2011 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Czech)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Hungarian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Polish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 229 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Documentary Excerpt