Wednesday, November 9, 2011

707. Once Upon a Time in America (1983)

Running Time: 227 minutes
Directed By: Sergio Leone
Written By: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone, Ernesto Gastaldi, from the novel The Hoods by Harry Grey
Main Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, James Hayden, William Forsythe
Click here to view the trailer


From the dusty settings of the old west to the dirty streets of prohibition era Brooklyn, Sergio Leone's hat trick of films comes to a conclusion with "Once Upon a Time in America".

Despite it's epic length, the film's plot is actually fairly simple as we follow a group of Jewish youths on their rise to power in the criminal ranks. Our main character is Noodles (De Niro) and as the film opens we seem him as he nears the end of his criminal run, hiding out in a Chinese theater as detectives interrogate his closest allies. Eventually the cops beat some information out of one of Noodles confidants, Moe, but Noodles gives the detectives the slip and heads for the train station. On the way, Noodles stops to survey three dead bodies and we watch as tags are are fastened to the body bags, reading the names of "Max", "Phillip" and "Patrick". Noodles slips out of the crowd, gathered around the bodies and proceeds to buy a ticket for the first train out of town. He makes a detour into Coney Island and then says "goodbye" to New York City. Suddenly, the film flashes forward and we see a much older Noodles arriving back in the Big Apple, renting a car and going to "Fat Moe's" restaurant, to visit his old friend. Moe offers to put him up and later that night Noodles begins to reminisce over his life.

Well, where do you start with a movie the caliber of "Once Upon a Time in America"? I guess I'll start by saying that I thought it was an absolute masterpiece. There were things about it that I didn't like (which I'll get to), but in the end, these things are easy to overlook when you take into account the entire picture and how ultimately fabulous it all was. "Once Upon a Time in America" is much more than your typical gangster flick. It's about life, but more specifically it's about the loss of youth - at least that's one of the main themes that I took away from it. On top of all that, there's also a very beautiful, sometimes very complicated romance story lying underneath it all. As the icing on the cake, Ennio Morricone returns to accompany Sergio Leone yet again, belting out an absolutely impeccable score. The camerawork, as usual for a Leone picture, is top notch and there are certain scenes and images that I won't soon shake from my mind. The acting is superb, with De Niro proving, once again, why he's the recipient of so many accolades and here he's surrounded by the great performances of James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Larry Rapp, Burt Young and William Forsythe.


You know, silly me, but I kept expecting Steven Spielberg like moments to crop up as this film progressed. Let me explain... For example, when Noodles reunites with Deborah, near the end of the film, I kept expecting him to apologize to her, for raping her. And maybe she would resist the apology, kicking him out of her dressing room and sending him off to never be forgiven for the vicious sin that he committed. But those moments never came and in retrospect, I just don't think Leone was that kind of filmmaker, to serve up those moments to his viewers on a silver platter. He just let everything loom in the background. Sure, he wanted us to think that Noodles or Deborah was going to mention the rape - I mean, how could they not? It was the most uncomfortable scene in the whole picture and yet, during their reunion, it's never mentioned. In a way, I wish it had been brought up. As far as I'm concerned, Deborah greets Noodles with to warm of a reception, when she should have been terrified of Noodles for turning out to be someone vicious enough to rape her. And as far as the rape scene itself, I thought it was a great scene. It was one of those scenes that really set this movie apart, as other filmmakers wouldn't go the brutal route and I think it only helps to make us ponder the character of Noodles even more. Uncomfortable, YES, but in my opinion it worked.

Apparently there are a lot of theories going around the net as to why Noodles' smiles at the end of the movie. For starters, NO I don't think that everything after he took opium was a dream. I love (sarcasm) how every time a moviegoer can't understand something, it simply gets chalked up as a dream sequence and then we all feel smart for "cracking that mystery". Anyway, throughout the whole movie, there are several scenes where Noodles' eyes seem to be welling up with tears. You can notice it when he returns to Fat Moe's, at the beginning of the movie and takes a peek through his old peephole. As the camera pans in toward his eyes and right before the film flashes back, he seems to be right on the brink of tears. This happens again at the end of the movie, as he lays down on the bed at the Chinese theater. Noodles seems like he could burst into tears at any moment, as he takes the pipe and smokes the opiates. He finishes his toke and there seems to be one final moment of reflection and possible, emotional breakdown before he forms the big smile to end the movie. In my opinion, Noodles smiled as a way of containing himself and not breaking down in tears. This is a man who was brought up on the streets of Brooklyn and someone who would have had the mindset that crying is a sign of weakness and you just don't do it. When Noodles felt the tears about to come, he simply put a big smile on his face as a way of tricking the tears back into his eyes. That's just my opinion, of course.

As much as I loved this movie, I have to say that the ending was a real letdown. Is it just me or does Leone have a slight problem with ending his pictures? I'm not really talking about the very end of the film as the subtle, smiling Noodles ending was a fine one. However, what I'm talking about is the resurrection of Max and how absolutely stupid it was! For starters, if we MUST bring Max back to life, then the first revelation of this should have come when Noodles enters the room. The camera should have been positioned firmly on the back of Max's head (the audience and Noodles still thinking that it's Secretary Bailey) and then he turns around, revealing to us and to Noodles that it's actually Max. Instead, he peeks out the window as Noodles arrives to the party and for a moment, I was as confused as hell! I just wish that Max's resurrection would have been left out. It just seemed like a cheap thrill to throw in there, a moment maker and for me it didn't work at all.

But, it's really hard to deny this movie the praise that it deserves. I loved it and I won't soon forget it and I'm sure it's one that I'll be tossing around in my head for the next few weeks or even months. It was a visual delight and something that really comes off almost flawlessly. It makes an impression on you (if you allow it to) and it sucks you in.

RATING: 10/10 Going lower than a '10' just wouldn't feel right, so I'll give it the full monty and call it a day. I'd say that after a few days of reflection, that both "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" were also '10's'. Three absolute MUST SEE pictures.



Just a quick couple of words about Sergio Leone. In his short career, Leone only managed to direct a handful of films (seven to be exact), but with less than half of his body of work, he's managed to turn me into a much pickier film junkie. As I've made my way through the pages of the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", I've seen a lot of fantastic pieces of cinema history and my tastes are becoming more and more refined. With the "Sergio Leone Hat Trick", I've managed to accentuate my tastes even further and I have no doubt that from here on out I'll be much more fussier when it comes to ingesting films. Leone's films felt like films. When you were in the midst of experiencing them, no matter where you were, you felt like you were sitting in the middle row of an empty theater and being personally entertained. I'll also tip my hat to Ennio Morricone, who has, single-handedly made me much more appreciative of film scores.

November 9, 2011 3:33pm

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