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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 10.89%
Average: 4.95%
Pretty Bad: 2.97%
Total Crap: 0.99%

1 review, 95 user ratings

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Once Upon a Time in America
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by Erik Childress

"Lyrical. Poetic. In Other Words, A Movie Lover's Fairy Tale"
5 stars

Why are movies considered “timeless”? Is it because the great ones live on in the archives as well as in our hearts and minds? Perhaps, but I prefer to swing the debate towards the idea of how they adapt. Films, in essence, stay the same but our perception of them grow and expand over time as we change. Older and wiser we can look back upon the films of our youth and find flaws while still remaining affectionate. Grown-up and more astute in the ways of the world we can value the inner depths of a storyteller beyond the artificial labels of character and plot. Then there are those rare occasions when seeing the same movie twice is like watching two different movies altogether.

Two films in my life fall into this category and a sadness befalls me as they will probably also be the last two. Ironically enough, both titles are the subject of the most controversial studio decisions in a long history of idiotic decisions. Before Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was re-edited down to nothing with its unfathomable “love conquers all” ending, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America saw 90 minutes excised and its labyrinthian timeline reorganized chronologically for its American release. A telling sign for the American dream gone horribly wrong.

At its restored 229-minute cut, Leone in his directorial swan song proves in its first half-hour how he’s the master of cinematic hypnosis. He permeates an air of mystery that has you intrigued to what’s going on, what HAS happened and who these characters are that are populating the screen. Opening with a brutal murder and torture, we are thrust into the end of an era where surviving mobster “Noodles” (Robert DeNiro) is on the run from the latest in a series of miscalculated life decisions that finally turned friendship into betrayal.

As a youngster in New York, Noodles and his gang of friends run errands for the local street boss. With the newly arriving Max (played as an adult by James Woods), the Italian/Jewsh brotherhood formed a bond that would see them, in the true entreprenaureal spirit, create an invention that would benefit not the common man, but the bootleggers in fear of coast guard inspection. When competition turns progress into tragedy, Noodles goes to prison and comes out the other side a dozen years later to see his friends flourishing but never forgetting.

Leone, co-adapting from Harry Grey’s novel (The Hoods), isn’t concerned with grand crime capers (although the film has its solid share including a comical baby-switching moment that would be right at home in A Clockwork Orange), but about history and time. His unsubtle thematic gestures manifest once again as a stolen watch becomes the symbol of the friendship of Max and Noodles, of lost time and the passage of it into a Dickensian grandeur. Other directors can try to pull off parallels between characters and the actions that unconsciously affect those around them at later periods, but Leone lyrically usurps us into a slow haze consisting of languid camera movements and Ennio Morricone’s virtuoso score. It’s a type of filmmaking that just doesn’t exist anymore (even Scorsese, a Leone worshipper, likes to cut fast) and will frustrate any viewer looking at their own watch during that opening half-hour.

From Morricone’s music to the subtle ambient noises, Leone uses all sound like a composer in the Garden of Eden. Whole set pieces develop out of sound, beginning with a ringing telephone that permeates over several scenes until we discover its destination. Even the fear of the evening noises of New York can’t compare to the tension of a stirring spoon in a roomful of blurred suspicion.

The setting “in America” is not a complete encapsulation of the country anymore than “the West” was in Leone’s classic western. It’s one story of one time that is more in love with the cinema than its actual setting; a fact that Leone has corroborated. Like the Hollywood that strived on celebrating gangsters in the movies of the 30s, when Prohibition is repealed (or the box office runs dry) leaving those like Noodles and Max out-of-business, it’s time for a new era of robbers like Butch Cassidy and Clyde Barrow; a tradition that the anti-heroes of Leone’s epic are all-too-ready to help begin.

With a history of classic anti-heroes that includes Barrow, Henry Hill and the Corleones, DeNiro’s Noodles may be both the easiest and the most difficult to sympathize with. Sure they steal, lie and kill, but very few possess the seething animalistic quality that Noodles saves up for unspecial occasions.

Noodles was never a parent’s bragging rights as a kid, but the one constant was his love for Deborah (played most confidently as a child by Jennifer Connelly in her debut and Elizabeth McGovern as the never-aging adult.) She represents that other road; one which she is more than happy to steer him to. But the choice to get behind the wheel is all his and Max is there to jerk it just as he’s getting it started.

Noodle’s libido overdrive can be attributed (and forgiven) to bouts of adolescent discovery and a backed-up prison residence. Pent-up frustration and years of rejection however eventually get the better of him to label him, for lack of a better term, a serial rapist. Despite its fairy tale ruminations, the Once Upon a Time certainly doesn’t apply to the film’s women. One woman (it can be argued) all but asked for it, another is a nympho-in-training but the third in the trifecta is as disturbing and sad as any brutalization we’ve ever witnessed on screen (and that includes the 9-minute unbroken rape sequence in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible.)

Leone has always been accused of misogyny towards his female characters and it takes the melancholy reflections by an actor like DeNiro to somehow make them endurable past the point of utter hatred. Minor femmes have their breasts held at gunpoint or shot in cold blood before our discovery of how meaningless they actually are to the overall story. Three times does Noodles get first crack at a woman before Max gets a more mentally penetrating form of sloppy seconds at the realization of the kind of love that he will never experience (symbolized early by his inability to perform.)

Leone’s grand moment in this whole outlook though comes during a sequence that would normally be cut from any other film. It involves a supporting character who is never more to the story than just one of the gang. The promise of sexual gratification is offered in exchange for nothing more than a cream puff. As he proudly buys one and is then forced by the girl to wait for her, he sits down on the stairs thinking about his options. He gives in to take a little taste, enjoys it, carefully fingers up the excess cream on the wrapping but leaves the cherry for her. (Remember, Leone ain’t subtle.) Finally he can’t wait any longer, eats the topping and inhales the whole thing, almost completely forgetting why he bought the thing in the first place. Anyone who can’t appreciate all the thematic instruments playing in that scene has no business pretending to be a film lover.

What I remember seeing of Once Upon a Time in America on either cable or video as a youth is irrevelent since my jogged recollection pieces it together as if it were the chopped-up version. Revisiting it for the first time in a single sitting must recall what it must have been like for critics in 1984 to finally see Leone’s vision in all its glory. As that final freeze frame begin to haunt my dreams before I even went to sleep, it was impossible to nearly start writing a thesis paper on what that final image implied. Time magazine’s Richard Schickel’s interpretation of a modern opium dream is too simplistic to do the experience justice. Since the flashback can be attributed to two places on the timeline, are we looking at a satisfaction of finally doing the right thing, a glee of having gotten just revenge for exposing his vulnerability to the world or merely the one look of escape from the hell he’s created for himself? When a final shot of a nearly four-hour movie can have you thinking for hours before you can even get back to the other 228-minutes, then yes, you have just witnessed a dream; a cinematic one that doesn’t come along often enough.

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originally posted: 09/01/03 08:01:06
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User Comments

9/10/18 Carl Bruun Gangster epic enhanced by beautiful, haunting score. 5 stars
9/22/17 morris campbell good but 2 fucking long 4 stars
10/19/16 RickinA2 Absolutely incredible 5 stars
4/27/16 Ken Sergio Leone's epic gangster masterstroke and swan song. 5 stars
4/21/16 Nick I think this movie is a bit overrated, and it was the nearly 4hr version I saw. 3 stars
6/26/15 stanley welles a work of tremendous intellectual depth and emotional range 5 stars
2/15/15 john IDIOT 1 stars
1/05/15 JAMES This may not be the best gangster film ever. But it is the best film ever with Gangsters in 5 stars
3/24/14 Justin R. Sergio Leone's haunting epic gangster masterpiece. 5 stars
11/26/10 Beanz67 Present>Future<Past & all inbetween, with a smile for a last scene. wow! 5 stars
9/24/10 Flathead King The film is entertaining but it lacks style and decent characterization. 3 stars
9/08/10 Dennis Excellent gangster epic and one of the best films of the 1980s. 5 stars
10/30/09 Omar An epic gangster masterpiece. 5 stars
8/01/09 Kippers Worth a look certainly, but not as involving as OUATITW 4 stars
7/23/09 Meatbog A consistently plotted, sublime masterpiece. 5 stars
3/28/08 backstreets A hypnotic masterpiece including the best score ever written. Probably my favourite movie 5 stars
2/04/08 Allan Morris The full version is unmissable-simply terrific. 5 stars
2/04/08 Pamela White De Niro is in his element, great period piece 4 stars
1/26/08 paul the epitome of violence, heart break and despair. 2 stars
12/07/07 mike Leone misogynous? Consider Jinn ion "Onec Upon a Time in the West" 5 stars
5/15/07 MP Bartley A hypnotic, sublime masterpiece. The sistine chapel of film. 5 stars
5/05/07 Quigley De Niro is very good and the film's look is superb, but I'll stick with Road to Perdition 4 stars
2/06/07 action movie fan good first half, second half dull-still one of leone,s better efforts 3 stars
1/02/07 Bitchflaps A sublime masterpiece, few films can compare in terms of depth and consistent brilliance. 5 stars
1/01/07 carlo v. marinello Tediously boring, perverse and disappointing. 2 stars
12/30/06 Adam Long, but never felt slow. Deserves high praise. 5 stars
12/17/06 Denise Leone's crafts a love/hate immigrants tribute to the American Dream 5 stars
12/03/06 joni i saw it 11 times great epic 5 stars
10/26/06 Josh Racine A hard film to watch, yet one of the best of all-time. 5 stars
9/16/06 rwelsh Lingers in memory like the dream it may have meant to be 5 stars
4/30/06 Joshua It's brilliant. 5 stars
4/26/06 magaafi this gave me that wonderful buzz i rarely get in movies... 5 stars
2/04/06 Eden Complex, violent, brilliant, tragic ganster movie - maybe the best 5 stars
1/28/06 Reklc The ubermensch of films! 5 stars
11/18/05 John Dog I loved it. 5 stars
10/16/05 Moctezuma The 4th best mob/gangster movie of all time in my list. 5 stars
10/07/05 Johnny Wonderful gangster movie. 5 stars
9/29/05 Michael Blower Hard work but ultimately very rewarding 5 stars
6/22/05 Regis One of the best gangster movies. 5 stars
6/07/05 JFK great movie dude. great story 5 stars
4/01/05 Mr. Slave Amazing. 5 stars
3/19/05 scottster A brilliant film. Nearly moved me to tears at the end. 5 stars
3/07/05 Daveman Episodic but focused and rich in lyricism, fails to set the right tone though. 4 stars
2/17/05 C Vega an amazing film with an exceptional cast that should be seen by all 5 stars
12/08/04 Tony Second best movie of the 1980s, behind "Raging Bull". 5 stars
11/18/04 chris rare genius 5 stars
10/23/04 UMER Robert de niro is the greatest actor of his generation 5 stars
10/23/04 ODH Most underrated and overlooked film I can think of, a cinema masterpiece 5 stars
10/18/04 ray w Amadeus? Please! Best film since Once Upon a Time in the West 5 stars
9/03/04 Sugarfoot Movies like this are why one feels sad that Treat Williams is relegated to STV crap. Great. 5 stars
8/28/04 Goggman A very very good movie, epic in length, scope, and story. 5 stars
8/03/04 Evan The Greatest SAGA ever told 5 stars
4/26/04 The man with the plan The Godfather of the 80s 5 stars
4/01/04 snow Just as amazing as Godfather 5 stars
3/25/04 Markus Just great. one of the all-time best. 5 stars
1/31/04 Ultron A good movie, but it seems to build to a climax that is never really fufilled. 4 stars
1/24/04 CC Agee with Bill 5 stars
12/29/03 Sammy I watched it on AMC, it was ok, I saw it uncut, It was awesome. 5 stars
12/17/03 Captain Zarg Brilliant 5 stars
12/06/03 Fat Moe Brilliant romance 5 stars
11/29/03 john a powerful epic - slow but worth it 4 stars
11/22/03 Phil M. Aficionado 4.5 stars; beautiful but a little disjointed and slow paced at times 4 stars
11/19/03 TWO TOO MANY Leone/Morricone/Delli Colli-History is their critic 5 stars
10/11/03 Big Lou Best movie in gangster movie history. 5 stars
9/16/03 BSilverbush Wow! A classic of epic proportion. 5 stars
9/01/03 Monster W. Kung Too muddled to be involving. Certainly not a patch on The Godfather. 3 stars
8/26/03 Bobby d noddles rulz 5 stars
8/08/03 Joeyz The perfect movie. A MUST SEE !!!! 5 stars
7/28/03 AD perfect 5 stars
6/22/03 daniel iriarte absolutely brilliant from start to finish, an American classic... 5 stars
2/20/03 Oei Eng Goan A bravura performance by both actors and director 5 stars
1/21/03 Andy Bronson james woods best acting performence the film isn't as good as once upon a time in the west 4 stars
1/06/03 Jack Sommersby The best film of all-time. A monumental achievement! 5 stars
11/17/02 The Man Such a complex, beautiful epic. Truck part at end has always bothered me though. 5 stars
10/14/02 Charles Tatum Sergio Leone was a film god 5 stars
9/20/02 leon best thing i ever seen 5 stars
9/15/02 Dwindley Masterpiece 5 stars
9/15/02 thomas james The best film ever made????? 5 stars
8/25/02 Kathleen Egan EXCELLENT 5 stars
7/20/02 terry finnegan a masterpiece music photography actors sets everything 5 stars
6/13/02 The Guru Possibly the single most uderrated film of all time. Brilliant storytelling, period. 5 stars
6/06/02 R.W. Welch Leoni's cut is long but quite effective; great re-creation of early day New York. 5 stars
2/27/02 Barbara Perry A collector's treasure 5 stars
1/03/02 The Man Operatic masterpiece. One of a kind. 5 stars
10/26/01 David Kehela A towering masterpiece.Once seen never forgotten 5 stars
4/23/01 Skip Young It's gotten better with repeated viewings, but I don't see it as his masterpiece. 4 stars
4/05/01 Toktela One of the most beautifully crafted films of all time but don't watch the short version 5 stars
4/03/01 fat tony awesomemovie, but too damn short 3 stars
3/31/01 Jesse L Amazing a movie this long sustains itself - first rate 5 stars
9/20/00 Jeff an amazing gangster opera 5 stars
8/17/00 Josh Seff One of the best movies of all-time! 5 stars
5/19/00 tank Marvellous gangster film. See the full version and be patient. 4 stars
4/25/00 Craig Deniro's best film 5 stars
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  02-May-1984 (R)



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