Monday, May 25, 2015
Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1984)
Once Upon a Time in America
All throughout the sixties and seventies, Sergio Leone had been dreaming about an adaption of Harry Grey’s book, “The Hoods,” a quasi-autobiographical story of Jewish gangsters in the twenties and thirties. Leone was so determined to bring this story to the screen that he even turned down the chance to direct “The Godfather,” fearing the two projects were too similar. “Once Upon a Time in America,” the eventual movie, had a protracted pre-production. Production began as early as 1975, with Gerard Depardieu and Richard Dreyfus being considered for the lead roles. The movie went through many forms before finally being made in 1984. Though its release was troubled at the time, eventually the film would be recognized as Sergio Leone’s final masterpiece.
“Once Upon a Time in America” covers fifty years of history. It follows Noodles and Max, two Jewish kids growing up in 1920s New York. They desire to break into the local criminal scene. The rising empire is interrupted when Noodles ends up in jail. After being released, he and his friends resume their rise to power in the underworld. However, the good times only last so long. On the last day of Prohibition, Noodles betrays his friends and leaves the city. Thirty years later, now as an old man, Noodles receives a mysterious invitation back to New York. Haunted by guilt and his memories, he finds himself confronting his past.
Before discussing “Once Upon a Time in America,” you must discuss which version of the movie you saw. Leone’s original cut ran six hours long, with the intention of releasing the movie in two parts. The version that screened at Cannes in 1984, and received a fifteen minute standing ovation, ran 229 minutes, nearly four hours long. The American distributors founds this run time too daunting. The movie was re-edited and drastically cut down to 139 minutes when originally released in American theaters. (Thankfully, this butchered version is becoming increasingly difficult to find.) Just last year, a 269 minute cut was assembled by Leone’s children and released on Blu-Ray. But I’m a purist. Though the newest variation claims to be as close to the director’s original vision as possible, Leone isn’t around anymore to verify that. The director did approve the widely available four hour version. So that’s the one reviewed here.
a memory fraught opium dream. This is as valid an interpretation as any. The movie intentionally creates a dream-like, moody tone of memories, lost friendships, and lifelong regrets.
Nearly all of Leone’s films deal with the bonds formed between tough men during hard times. “Once Upon a Time in America” is no different and indeed focuses on friendship over anything else. Growing up as Jews in 1920s New York, Noodles and his friends are outcasts from the start. Relying on each other, they form a bond that is impossible to break. The death of one of their own, and Noodles’ subsequent incarceration, does nothing but strengthen their brotherhood. The friendship between Noodles and Max is especially strong. Yet the wages of friendship is not always easy and Noodles and Max’s commitment to each other falters over time. That soured union is what drives the emotional heart of “Once Upon a Time in America.
As it focuses on the guys in their youth, “Once Upon a Time in America” is also a coming of age story of sorts. As teenagers, Noodles and his friends have their first, awkward encounters with sex. Polly, a local girl, is a budding prostitute. She sells her body in exchange for fancy deserts. Noodles runs into her in the bathroom and is so overcome with lust, he dry-humps her and paws her up then and there. With nothing to give her in exchange, she pushes him away. Patsy, the most sensitive member of the crew, buys a dessert to give her in exchange for sex. But he looses his composure and eats the dessert in the hallway. Not long afterwards, Noodles and Max take turns with Polly, loosing their virginity in rushed, awkward sessions. Though he fucks Polly, Noodles longs for Deborah, the pure, virginal sister of another friend. This impossible love stands in contrast with the ugly rutting he gives Polly. Yes, the movie embraces the Madonna/Whore complex without irony. Yet this is the mindset of a teenage boy in the twenties and influences his decision throughout his life.
After his twelve year sentence in prison is up, Noodles returns to his friends, now played by Robert DeNiro. Leone highly respected DeNiro, calling him a real actor. DeNiro seems haunted throughout the whole film. During the sequences set in the 1960s, he wears convincing old age make-up, playing up the lifetime of regrets he has. However, even in the earlier scenes, Noodles’ past hangs over him. DeNiro’s great subtlety as an actor is well employed in the part. It’s not just the character’s pain that simmers beneath the surface. His anger, lust, and quiet humor shine through without breaking the man’s stoic exterior.
James Woods plays Max, Noodles’ closest friend. The fiery rage Woods displays, and overplays for camp in many other movies, is kept in-check here. Max is a man of reckless ambition, always pushing for more power. His companionship with his friends keep him grounded and, when he looses them, he looses part of his soul. Woods’ imbues the character’s anger and outrage with a sensitive humanity. Also among the supporting cast is Elizabeth McGovern as the adult Deborah, who gives an amazingly emotional performance. Jennifer Connolly, in her first screen role, plays the character as a teenager. I also really like Burt Young as Fat Joe.
Is Max a repressed homosexual? Maybe. If he is, it seemingly confirms the homoerotic subtext beneath many of Leone’s films.
In the opening scenes of “Once Upon a Time in America,” Fat Joe is beaten to a bright red, bloody pulp. DeNiro blows the attacker’s brains out, splattering blood over the front of his face. The violence in the film is brutal, sudden, and uncompromising. A head shot later in the film comes out of nowhere, the body jerking back violently. A drive-by shooting tears through a phone booth, peppering a man’s legs with countless, tiny red holes. A similar scene later on reduces a car to a hole-filled piece of metal. There’s little of the style Leone brought to his earlier westerns here. This is not “fun” or “cool” violence. It’s direct and resolute. Leone is making a point, about the loss of life, suddenness of death, and the wastefulness of murder.
As a historical epic, “Once Upon a Time in America’ shows the rise of organized crime in America and its’ frequently unmentioned effects on politics. Throughout their adventures, Noodles’ gang begins working with the budding union movement. They intimidate police officers and business owners in order to push union boss Jimmy O’Donnell’s plan through. Their most elaborate method has them reorganizing a nursery, misplacing Police Chief Aiello’s only son. Max smartly realizes that power and money is intertwined. The movie draws a direct parallel between the greed of the gangsters and the greed of the politicians. By the last act, in a rather literal move, the gangsters and the politicians become one and the same.
passing a trash truck. A man that might be Max walks out to the truck. As the trash truck drives off, the camera lingers on the spinning augers in the back. What does this mean? Was the truck filled with hitmen Max had sent for Noodles? Does, as I’ve always assumed, Max throw himself into the back of the truck in an elaborate suicide? The film provides no easy answers. Instead, it creates a dreamy tone of uncertainty and mystery, like a half-forgotten memory.
“Once Upon a Time in America” has Sergio Leone’s direction evolving in some interesting ways. The long-takes are maintained but in far fewer numbers. The lingering close-ups on his men’s faces is down-played. Instead, he captures as much of the scenery as possible. The streets of New York are painted in broad, bright colors, like a painting. Frequently, the characters seem small among the big city. One iconic, poster-lending moment focuses on the boys, looking tiny, running across the streets, a bridge overpass in the distance. My favorite shot is from Noodles’ eyes as he’s carted off to jail, his friends looking small against a huge, stone wall. This cuts suddenly, dramatically to the tomb where their bodies are kept, thirty years later. Another notable moment is when Leone’s camera spins above the nursery, as the guys switch out the babies. Leone’s direction is more muted, to go with the lower-key material, yet no less classical and stylish.
Ennio Morricone’s score is typically excellent. He incorporates a lot of music from the period, creating a frequently jazzy, exciting feel. A rather on-the-nose cut has the Beatles’ “Yesterday” playing as DeNiro considers his past. However, the best music in the film fits the story’s quiet, introspective tone. The main theme is both sweeping and nostalgic, backed-up by quivering instruments and rising vocals. The chirping piano is solitary and sad, aligning itself with the men’s childhoods in poverty. The most beautiful piece of music is Deborah’s Theme, which trembles and ques with the angelic beauty Noodles associates with his childhood crush, arriving to a full, gorgeous sung melody.
The mishandling of "Once Upon a Time in America" broke Sergio Leone's heart. He died five years later. While the gangster epic was destined to be his final film, it was not the last movie he attempted to make. He wrote the screenplay for an American-style western called "A Place Only Mary Knows" that might have starred Mickey Rourke and Richard Gere. In the years leading up to his death, he had begun work on a war epic about the siege of Leningrad, which would have been called "The 900 Days." Two days before officially signing on to the projects, Leone had a massive heart attack, dying suddenly. Though its tempting to fantasize about these unrealized project, Leone left behind a staggering legacy. The man created five genuine masterpieces in a row, that continue to influence and enhance films today. He was truly one of the masters of cinema.