Once Upon a Time In America (1984) Review

Words by Yazen Al Samen

Upon its release in America, in 1984, Once Upon A Time In America was massacred. The Studio and the distributors had cut it to just over 2 hours long, rendering into a messy, incoherent run of events. Leone was apparently deeply hurt at this. This became the last movie he ever made before dying in 1989. A movie that was about 15 years in the making (Leone reportedly finished adapting it from the novel “The Hoods” by Harry Grey as early as the late 60s).

Earlier in 1984, it was released in Cannes at the original running time of nearly 3 hours 45 minutes.  The movie at Cannes was hailed. But it was ignored in the US because people only saw the edited version. The Oscars ignored it; even its music by the great Morricone was dismissed because of a technicality. The film was shown in different lengths in different countries until the DVD came in the late 90s, containing the original running time.

And it was about time. Once Upon A Time In America is an epic story of a magnificent canvass. So hypnotic and mournful. It chronicles the life of Noodles (Robert De Niro), a young Jewish hoodlum growing in New York alongside his childhood friends. The film spans 6 decades, from the WWI to the 70s, as the young Jewish friends grow up into the echelons of organized crime and bootlegging business. But the film goes further, detailing the relationships between De Niro and his closest friend, Max (James Woods), and the movie’s central plot is the developments that happen between them; their conflicts about money and love and sex.

The film has a non-linear plot line, which was organized chronologically in the short, chopped version, which also missed some of the most creative and distinct sequence about the movie, including one where a Frisbee acts as a time-lapse in a shot reminiscent of that Bone-into-Spaceship one in 2001 : A Space Odyssey. The 230 minutes long movie is one of the most evocative and nostalgic films I have ever seen.   It’s calm, romantic visual style and that greatest of all music scores by Ennio Morricone establish it as a forgotten landmark of cinema.

Sergio Leone spent a lot of time and money, and went through different casts to bring his story alive. He was a master of the Spaghetti westerns, with classics like “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” and “Once Upon A Time In The West”. This movie stands at the top of his achievements. One of its wonders is how fully it brings these characters to life, a movie that touches human nature so delicately that it fleshes out the sadness, greed, lust and love that fills the people of its story; ending with such a grace and impact that puts the entire film into perspective.

An epic like these can so rarely be made into something as detailed as this movie, But it’s Leone’s sense of the human heart and it’s wretched desire drives what is already a great gangster and period picture. A couple of weeks ago it was announced the whole uncut version of the movie, at 4 hours 30 minutes, is going to premiere at Cannes this May. A triumphant moment for every movie fan.

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