- Director: Sergio Leone
- Writers: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, and Sergio Leone, based on the The Hoods by Harry Grey
- Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Jennifer Connelly, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, James Hayden, and William Forsythe
- Accolades: Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 (#89), shown at 1984 Cannes Film Festival
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV
Today we live in a time where “the Snyder Cut” actually gets released, and every random movie and its brother has to have a “Director’s Cut.” Many of these directors claim, with varying degrees of sincerity, that the original movie released by the studio did not reflect their “vision.” But for few movies is this dichotomy so drastic as for Once Upon a Time in America. Director Sergio Leone originally wanted to release a six hour movie in two parts, but that was not really a thing anyone was doing in 1984, and he was eventually convinced to cut the movie down to three hours and 49 minutes by the time of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which was rapturously received and given a 20-minute standing ovation. This version, which became known as the “European Version,” jumps around between its various time periods, as well, and was what was shown in European movie theaters.
But the American distributors, the Ladd Company, decided to both cut the thing down to two hours and to put everything in chronological order. Roger Ebert gave the American Version a 1-star review, calling it an “incomprehensible mess,” which I suppose makes sense, since I found the full-length version barely comprehensible sometimes as it was. The movie was a critical flop and financial disaster in the US. When American critics later saw the European Version, they nearly universally reversed their opinions. Roger Ebert gave the original cut 4 stars, and his partner Gene Siskel went one step further, naming the European Version the best movie of 1984 and the American Version the worst movie of 1984.
That does not answer, however, whether this is a movie that justifies the time and resources put into it. I thought it was… interesting? On the down side, it takes the same view of “the wide, sweeping story of America is best told through the point of view of gangsters” that the Godfather movies do, and it’s not something I find very rewarding. But while the similarities to, particularly, those Godfather movies are obvious (a general serious sepia tone, large sections set among immigrants in early-20th Century New York City), the things Once Upon a Time in America is interested in are very different. In fact, Sergio Leone was apparently producer Robert Evans’ first choice to direct The Godfather, but turned it down.
In some ways Leone seems to have intended Once Upon a Time in America as sort of his magnum opus, and it ended up being the only movie he really produced over the last couple decades of his life. Obviously best known for his trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood, Leone hadn’t released a movie in 13 years at this point, and had in fact been working on this movie for a significant part of that time. Perhaps the portion of the movie that made the biggest impact on the culture ended up being the score by frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone, which I had definitely heard multiple bits of before despite barely having heard of this movie. The movie also ended up being Leone’s final film before his death in 1989.
In terms of those differences, on an obvious level, despite being directed by an Italian, Once Upon a Time in America is about Jewish gangsters, and even makes the somewhat weird decision to cast Robert De Niro as a Jewish guy. In fact, this is a role where he is not only playing a Jewish guy, he is doing so in scenes where he is placed in direct opposition to Italian mobsters, who are the “other” guys in the story. While most other mob movies going back to Scarface are at least partly about family dynamics, if the families of any of our main characters in this movie ever make an appearance I don’t remember it. I also noticed that, while the Godfather films always felt mostly sexless to me, this is a much, much hornier movie. Normally I say this sort of thing approvingly, but that’s not really what I mean here. For one thing, we are generally asked to, if not root for, identify with the De Niro character (amusingly named “Noodles”), despite the fact that he commits not one but two on-screen, lengthy rapes of the course of the movie. There is no cutting away here.
To take a step back, Once a Time in America is the story of a group of friends who start out as petty criminals and eventually, at least temporarily, are in charge of the New York crime world during Prohibition. The story takes place in several time periods, including what I think of as the Gangs of New York era, with our leads as little kids, through Prohibition to just after, and again in what is apparently supposed to be the 1960s (for some reason it basically felt present day to me, at least 1984 present day, but then the fact that the characters aren’t super old wouldn’t make sense). De Niro’s Noodles has an ongoing friendship and partnership with Max, played as an adult by James Woods, while simultaneously cultivating an on-off relationship with aspiring actress Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern as an adult, a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly as a kid). The latter is torpedoed when Noodles, with more money than he knows what to do with, rents out an entire fancy French restaurant for a date with Deborah only to be told that she’s leaving town to train as an actress, in response to which he rapes her in the back of his 1930s-version of a limo. The chauffeur just lets this happen, though he does seem super pissed at Noodles afterwards.
Soon after, prohibition ends, meaning that Noodles and Max have to come up with a different business model. Max decides to rob a heavily-guarded bank, which both Noodles and Max’s sort of crazy girlfriend (Tuesday Weld) are convinced is suicide. In an attempt to prevent this, Noodles tips off the police, then goes and gets wasted in an opium den in his guilt (Leone himself halfway hinted the 1960s parts of the movie are Noodles’ “vision of the future” that he has while guilty and high, but I’m generally not into those weird readings of movies), only to find that all his friends died in a shootout when the police came to arrest them.
Decades later, an older Noodles (there really isn’t a lot of old-age makeup, which seems like a good choice, though they dye De Niro’s hair gray) returns to New York on the basis that the synagogue is moving out his father’s grave, but soon realizes he was actually brought back by vaguely nefarious forces that might have something to do with a scandal-plagued, unseen Secretary of Commerce… or something. Eventually he goes to a party at a rich person’s house to which he’s been mysteriously invited, where he finds out that the Secretary of Commerce is somehow Max, who has faked his own death and now wants Noodles to… kill him I guess?
So even in the full length version, I found parts of the plot of Once Upon a Time in America sort of confusing. That running time is also padded by some plots that are both some of the weirder things in the movie and seem unnecessary. For example, there is a jewelry robbery that Noodles and Max’s gang is sent on (by Joe Pesci, who randomly shows up for like two scenes), during which, despite specifically being told to “be gentle with the woman,” Noodles rapes Weld’s character Carol while wearing a balaclava. She apparently decides that she liked it and then shows up at their crime hangout and asks them all to take down their pants, since that is the only way she can “recognize” the guy. She incorrectly picks Max out of the lineup and it’s implied they then have lots of wild sex. Noodles basically just smirks and lets this go on, as his heart belongs to Deborah even when Carol offers to do a threesome. But if that’s the case, why did he rape her in the first place? I also feel compelled to mention that Danny Aiello plays a police chief that is strangely also named “Chief Aiello,” who the gang threatens by switching all the babies in the maternity ward around so he doesn’t know which one is his newborn son. But then they forget how they switched them around, so they just give the chief and all the other families involved back random babies.
Anyway, this is a weird movie. I suppose that if you were someone who was really into modern, self-serious gangster movies already, you might consider this a really cool find if you previously didn’t know much about it. As someone who is not one of those people, I was not as enraptured by it as Siskel and Ebert. I thought it had interesting parts, but that wasn’t enough to sustain me over nearly four hours.