Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
If any film was going to kill him, it was Once Upon a Time in America. You can’t make a film like that, for that many years, and have it released at an hour and forty-five minutes and expect to have any reason to live after that. (x)
I thought had seen almost every great movie, but as I watched Sergio Leone’s masterpiece I realized I was uncovering an overlooked gem of American film history. Growing up as a kid, I was OBSESSED with gangster films such as Scorcese’s Goodfellas. Robert DeNiro for many years was my favorite actor. Finally watching this movie was like opening a forgotten Christmas present, I felt like a kid again, completely immersed into an incredible film I had never experienced.
I hadn’t watched this film for so many years because of its infamous running time of four hours. Leone originally planned to make Once Upon a Time in America as two three-hour films, but at producer’s requests he trimmed six hours into four, and that was his final cut. When it was finally released in America, it was presented in a truncated form of two-hours, completely destroying its majestic sense of history and character. For many people who first saw it that way it was dismissed as a failure, only decades later did it begin to grow in admiration long after Leone passed away. I’m glad I overlooked its rough history and running time because its new-found respect is well deserved.
Once Upon a Time in America is great, a gangster epic truly deserving of its running time with incredible pacing, performances, and cinematography. DeNiro is excellent as usual, but James Woods truly shines. Another pleasure in watching this film was seeing the sharp style of Leone applied to American gangsters, whereas before I had only seen his Spaghetti Western work. The way he captures the city life with his camerawork is mesmerizing, there are tons of beautiful shots that perfectly frame the tall buildings surrounding the characters. The violence is also surprisingly brutal, the film opens with DeNiro fleeting mobsters who kill and torture all of his remaining friends. The audience is suddenly dropped into a mystery with characters already dying off. It’s this unique narrative structure that allows the film to succeed in its grand story, there are flashbacks that jump around from the 1910’s, 30’s, and 60’s. We see a character’s entire life as a gangster, the childhood sequences are incredibly charming and the segments in the 30’s are the best depiction of the prohibition I’ve seen.
I was floored by this film, to me it’s a newly discovered classic. It’s a shame the distributors and producers didn’t respect Leone’s grand vision, but fortunately once it was released on home video everyone else was able to fully appreciate it. For me it was almost 30 years later, but it was well worth the wait.