Once Upon a Time in America (1984): Italian maestro Sergio Leone's epic crime saga about Jewish gangsters

Robert De Niro and James Woods shine in Leone's swansong and magnum opus 

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 
once upon a time in america, directed by sergio leone
Once Upon a Time in America (1984) - By Sergio Leone
Our Rating: 10.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.4
Genre: Crime |  Drama
CastRobert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
Language: English  Italian | French
Country: Italy | USA
Runtime: 229 min
ColorColor (Technicolor) 

Summary: A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to the Lower East Side of Manhattan over thirty years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.

Once Upon a Time in America was master Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone's dream project and it took him almost two decades to realize his dream. The movie is a testament to Leone's penchant for cinema and his absolute adherence to its free spirit as an Art form. 

Italian filmmmaker sergio leone, on the camera
In order to cater to their everlasting lust for making money, the movie production studios have always endorsed the motto of quid pro quo – "A favour in return of another". Every movie-maker capable enough to be called an auteur—by the virtue of his knack for eccentricity and novelty—has at some point in time or the other borne the brunt of this naked opportunism: be it D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick. Sergio Leone too had to pay collaterally by having to make five Westerns in order to get funding for his dream project and magnum opus, Once Upon a time in America, which ironically is not as renowned as his relatively inferior ‘Spaghetti’ classics.  Once Upon a Time in America is a masterpiece of epic proportions and is consummate on almost every front. The uniqueness of the  movie is such that it can be looked upon from various angles, and each perspective immensely adds to movie's substance and profundity.  Once Upon a Time in America not only transcends genres and makes simultaneous forays into the realms of Crime, Drama, Mystery, Suspense and Fantasy, but it also crosses the fine line that separates dream from reality on numerous occasions.

young noodles, once upon a time in america, Directed by Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in America: Young Noodles
At the beginning of his career, Leone got widely proclaimed as a master of style. His penchant for technical novelty elevated cinema to new heights as he added new dimensions to cinematography, screenplay and background music. Leone's first major production was ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ – The First installment in The Dollars Trilogy. Movie's success was marred when master movie-maker Akira Kurosawa, who was Leone' primary source of inspiration in the early days, sued the production house for plagiarizing his brainchild 'Yojimbo (1961)', as the producers were forced to pay $50,000 as compensation. Leone bounced back with the second edition of The Dollars Trilogy: ‘For a Few More Dollars’. He single-handedly reinvented the Western genre by providing a completely different perspective to the Old West, which was hitherto caricatured as the battle ground for the epic battle of virtue versus vice in the backdrop of chivalry and machismo. With ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, Leone perpetuated what would become his trademark: Spaghetti Western. Leone's distinctive style included juxtapositions, super close-ups, long continuous shots, quick panning and un-panning of the terrain, and the rotating camera shots. Leone's collaboration with master-composer Ennio Morricone gave cinema some of its most mellifluous compositions, as background music no longer remained merely music as it attained new zeniths with the advent of the 'Spaghetti Sound'. 'Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)' elevated Leone from the position of a showman to a serious moviemaker—an auteur capable of much profound works. Leone refused a multitude of projects, including the opportunity to direct ‘The Godfather (1972)’, in a bid to realize his dream project: ‘Once upon a time in America (1984)’.

jewish-gangsters-childhood, noodles, patsy, max, Once Upon a Time in America, Directed by Sergio Leone
A Still from Once Upon a Time in America
Once Upon a Time in America is an epic crime saga based on the lives of Jewish gangsters from their humble childhood in the ghettos of New York to their rise in the world of organized crime. David "Noodles" Aaronson struggles as a street kid in the East Side of Manhattan in the early 1920s. His gang consists of Patrick "Patsy" Goldberg, Phillip "Cockeye" Stein, and little Dominic. They work for Bugsy, a local gangster, until they decide to start an independent operation under Noodles, triggering a series of incidents that changes their lives for ever. Robert De Niro as ‘Noodles’ gives one of the most subtle performances of his career—second only to his portrayal in The Godfather: Part II.

James Woods as Maximilian 'Max' Bercovicz in Once Upon a Time in America, Directed by Sergio Leone
James Woods in Once Upon a Time in America
James Woods is chillingly menacing as ‘Max’. Young 13-year-old Jennifer Connelly as ‘Deborah’ serves as a pulchritudinous delight for the sour eyes, and I say this as a testament to her ethereal, nymphean charm that was evident even at such a tender age. The rest of the cast  manages to offer great support to the actors in lead with special mention of Elizabeth McGovern, James Hayden and the ever reliable Joe Pesci. The music is composed by Leone's long-time collaborator and virtuoso Ennio Morricone who once again weaves his magic by creating music that is so plaintively divine that even Mozart would be proud of it. The credit must also go to the Romanian flute player called Georghe Zamfir for brilliantly playing the  haunting Pan's song (Zamfir had played the same tune equally effectively in Australian filmmaker Peter Weir's 1975 masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock). Once Upon a Time in America poignantly explores the themes of love, lust, friendship, greed, betrayal and loss of innocence in the backdrop of the 20th century America

jennifer connelly as young deborah, Once Upon a Time in America, directed by Sergio Leone
Jennifer Connelly in Once Upon a Time in America
The story was adapted from the novel ‘The Hoods’, written by Harry Grey. Leone’s original version was 269 minutes long, but he cut it down to 229 minutes to appease the distributors. It was this version that was shown in the European cinemas. However, for the US release, Once Upon a Time in America was ignominiously edited down to 139 minutes by the muddle-headed studio personnel against the director's wishes. In this short version, the flashback narrative was omitted as the scenes were put back in the chronological order. Many of the movie's most beautiful shots are not present in the shorter version, including the nigh magical sequence in which time-switching is alluded to through the sudden appearance of a Frisbee. Once Upon a Time in America’s abysmal show in America is attributed to this sabotage. Leone was reportedly heartbroken by the American cut and never made another film until his death in 1989.
Robert De Niro as Noodles under effect of opium, in Once Upon a Time in America, directed by Sergio Leone
Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America
The dreamlike screenplay of Once Upon a Time in America  gives it a lyrical, almost hypnotic feel. The movie is a tapestry of highly complex mesh work: the story depicts the lives of same individuals across three different timelines. The time-switching techniques used in Once Upon a Time in America are so effective that the flash-backs and flash-forwards seem absolutely seem-less,  thereby keeping the viewer guessing throughout. The mystical ringing tone that the viewer gets to hear in the beginning of the movie provides a great subterfuge in unison with the dream-like finale, and adds surrealistic elements to the movie by raising doubts that the past and future depicted in the movie could well have been a part of a drug-induced dream that Noodles could have been experiencing under the hypnotic effect of opium. Leone himself confirmed the validity of this interpretation, saying that the scenes set in the 1960s could be seen as an opium dream of Noodles. The motion picture has a multitude of unforgettable moments, which can be cherished again and again with the same levels of indulgence. The sequence in which little Dominic—caught between the want to satiate his newly attained puberty and the fundamental urges—buys a pastry to charm a neighborhood girl but succumbs to the most basic temptation and  ends up eating it himself is pure gold and epitomizes innocence. And the graphic scene which depicts Robert De Niro molesting his childhood buddy represents cinema at its most macabre. The make-up, set designing and costume designing is absolutely top-notch. The make-up artists have gone about their business with such meticulousness that the actors seem to genuinely represent their character’s age in any given era.  
noodles-patsy, once upon a time in america, robert de niro as old noodles, directed by sergio leone
A Still from Once Upon a Time in America
In a nutshell, Once Upon a Time in America  is a testament to Sergio Leone’s dedication to the free spirit of art and his commitment to manifest a kind of cinema that is both entertaining as well as thought-provoking. The film  succeeds at multiple levels and makes the viewer go through an entire gamut of emotions, keeping him amused throughout. In fact, Once Upon a Time in America manages to pack a punch at both the emotional and psychological levels and movie’s impact can be felt well beyond its length.  The movie is highly sanguinary and is surfeited with such brutality and blood-cuddling violence that makes it unsuitable for the faint-hearted. However,  Once Upon a Time in America  would serve as an elixir for the followers of the ‘Crime’ genre, which it not only reinvents—amalgamating it with other genres—but also elevates to unsurpassable levels.

For Best Films by Sergio Leone, please click here

Once Upon a Time in America - Our Video Essay

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Once Upon a Time in America (1984) Trailer
Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!

Next Review: Inception (2010)

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  1. People talk a lot of the Spaghetti Westerns made by Sergio Leone, but people forget about his real work of genius: Once Upon a Time in America.

    Thanks a ton for bringing back some old memories :P

  2. The pleasure is indeed mine! The sole purpose of 'A Potpourri of Vestiges' is to bring back the old memories of Cinema. I think that it was the outrageous editing of the American cut that sealed the movie's fate. Irrespectively, Once Upon a Time in America will always be a timeless master piece.

  3. Subhorup DasguptaMay 29, 2012 at 8:29 AM

    this was a real treat, since for some reason, i have been bumping into sergio leone posts on blogs recently, but most of them are hack jobs, focused on his popular work. i endup looking forward to your posts, as they remind me of the cinema that is art and not industry.

  4. Thanks for those kind words, Subhorup! I am indeed honored. The sole purpose of my site is to inculcate in the masses a liking for cinema that's not just entertaining but also intelligent and thought-provoking. It's good to see that finally my site has started to fulfill its purpose. 

  5. This is one of my favorite films. An excellent review of Leone's final masterpiece! Thanks so much for being part of our blogathon. http://www.furiouscinema.com

  6. Thanks Pete... the pleasure is all mine :-)

  7. This one's hard to beat. An epic the way an epic should be done. Enjoyed your background on Leone too, an interesting story in itself.

  8. Can't agree with you more. Btw, I am really glad you liked it!!!

  9. As I stumble thru movie life I occasionally come across movies that I think are truly standout and that may qualify for my all time fave until I embark on my annual viewing of OUATIA - it is a complete and utter masterpiece. There's no competition. Just watched the BluRay with the added twenty minutes - not sure that they add much.


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