Naturally, when I hear the name Sergio Leone, I think “spaghetti Western”. So, it’s a bit of a culture shock looking at Once Upon a Time in America, which falls into a genre that’s about as un-Western as you can get; a modern, city-driven crime drama. Oh, and let’s not forget the word “epic”, to which this certainly applies; what with its nearly four-hour length and all, as well as a story that follows and encompasses the lives of its main characters over the span of a generation of American life. This is quite obviously another of the films that followed in the wake of the success of The Godfather, an amusing anecdote since Leone was offered the job of directing that film but turned it down. Indeed, Leone would struggle to get this film off the ground for so long that, after 1971, it would be the only film he would direct before his death in 1989. Still, though, despite the heartbreak he would suffer at the severely truncated American edit of this film that would cause him to never direct another film again, what a hell of a way to go, huh?
The plot is pretty much like those of other ‘love letter to crime’ films, but the pace is much more slow to let everything unfold on its own pace, instead of trying to rush or cram everything in. Robert De Niro is Noodles, a young man who forms a gang with other like young folks in a Jewish ghetto of New York City, with another enterprising young man named Max. Together, they fight to make their own way in the face of a rival gang, the police, and maybe sometimes each other. The film actually takes place over three separate time eras; the 1920s, when the gang meets and is formed, the 1930s, when they reunite and revive their friendship and business in the face of Prohibition, and the 1960s, when Noodles is the only one left alive and tries to tie up the loose ends left behind. The film’s scenes, especially in the first part, are out of order chronologically, so there’s a bit of initial confusion when the film jumps between the three time periods, but this quickly dims once you get a handle on who is who and where everybody is in each era. What really stuck out at me for this one was how emblematic it looked of Prohibition-era New York. It’s always amazing how so much of New York is so much like it was in the 1930s, unless Leone and the film crew were pretty much able to completely rebuild and renovate locations to fit the time period (which I wouldn’t put it past some movie companies to have the power and resources to do). The cinematography gladly takes full advantage of the architecture and landscape of New York, and it was nothing but a pleasure to watch. Here, once again, Leone enlists the services of film score maestro Ennio Morricone, who tops himself with each film he does, and this is no exception; even during the segments where I wasn’t sure where I was or what was going on, Morricone’s beautiful score was always there as a constant comfort to me, as well as an exceptionally handy reference point as to which time era I was currently in, thanks to Morricone adapting and integrating music of each time period into the score itself. Exceptionally done. Also, keep an eye out for a young Jennifer Connelly as the adolescent Deborah, Noodles’ love-interest.
Even with its extreme length, I had no problem getting through this one. It was solidly entertaining in just about every way, even if it was a little deliberately slow at points, but like I pointed out in my previous reviews of Leone’s work, it’s not slow to be slow; it is merely methodically paced in exactly the manner it wishes to be, no more and no less. Some part of me is curious enough to want to seek out the truncated American edit just to see how it is (it reportedly rearranged the scenes back into chronological order), but another larger part of me doesn’t want to spoil the grand feeling I had when this was over; that I had just watched an exceptional piece of work. There is so much to like and appreciate about this film, and really only the length of it as the sole reason not to watch it. It’s not as mind-blowingly brilliant as his westerns, but this is still a damn fine film, and I am certainly glad to have seen it.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10