You know those moments of inspiration when you feel the urge to do something absolutely magnificent, for which you will be remembered forever? In such cases, you don’t care how long getting to that absolute perfection will take, as long as you reach it. That was the attitude Sergio Leone had when creating what he wanted to be his ultimate, most prominent masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America. The film was in the making for about thirteen years, tons of research was done, many filming locations were looked for, and thousands of actors were interviewed. With the powerful final effect of Leone’s last artwork, it can be said that Leone’s painstaking effort and passion for the project, all the sweat that the making of Once Upon a Time in America must have taken, was completely worth it.
Upon receiving an invitation to a party of a mysterious Secretary Bailey, David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro), a Jewish Prohibition-era gangster, returns to New York after decades of absence. With his arrival, the ghosts of his past haunt him, as he his constantly being reminded of his youth, friendship, love and tragic loss he suffered.
The story of Once Upon a Time in America is, quite unfortunately, the story of numerous cuts and edits. After several efforts of his own and negotiations with the producers, Leone reduced the running time from over-eight-hour mark to 229 minutes for European distributors. Paradox of the matter is that in the United States, where the movie takes place and where all of the events pictured in it happened, the movie suffered a tremendous amount of edits: not only was it shown in chronological order (the European version and the version that Leone wanted the audience to see is told in non-linear manner, as most of David’s story is told through long flashbacks), it was also edited down to the runtime of less than two and a half hours. Leone was heartbroken upon seeing what the American editors did with his masterpiece and never made another film again, dying in 1989 at the age of 60. The American version received horrific reviews from the critics and was a box office failure. Nevertheless, the true art of Leone’s work did not pass unnoticed, as the film was later seen in its proper version by the critics. James Woods (who appears in the film as Max) has stated that one critic, seeing the American version, called the film the worst one of 1984. Seeing the European version later, he called it the best movie of the 1980s.
Like in all works that are done meticulously, just about every aspect of Once Upon a Time in America is glorious. (I’m referring of course to the European version, as I have not seen and do not wish to ever see the American one.) The cast gives spellbinding performances from the beginning to end. Robert De Niro is excellent as “Noodles,” as the mimic of his face and the tone of his voice perfectly give off the anguish and the nostalgia that his character feels in most of the scenes. James Woods is magnificent as Max, “Noodles'” best friend. Elizabeth McGovern stars as Deborah, the love of “Noodles'” life, whom “the age cannot wither,” who abandons him after they break each other’s hearts in a scene that starts out as heartbreaking and becomes very violent and tragic. In the parts of the film that take place in the 1920s, Deborah is portrayed by Jennifer Connelly, who has her first screen appearance ever.
Ennio Morricone composed the score, as he was working with Leone on other projects. Allow me to say that I believe Morricone is the very best composer of film music who has ever lived, and I personally consider Once Upon a Time in America to be his absolute best work. QED: Once Upon a Time in America has the best soundtrack out of all the movies I have seen (and mind you, I have seen many). The haunting gorgeousness of “Deborah’s Theme” perfectly gives off the sense of utter, eternal beauty, and yet inability of “Noodles” to ever be a part of his love’s life after what happens between the two. “Childhood Memories” starts out with a tone of nostalgia before breaking into a blissful music that characterizes the youth and the carefree attitudes of David and his friends, and then returning to the tone set before. The jazzy “Prohibition Dirge” celebrates the jazz age in the United States, during which “Noodles'” business prospers. The wonderfulness of Morricone’s soundtrack can be heard in every single piece, and every single scene in which a given piece is played. Aside from Morricone’s tremendous work, however, the film also makes use of other songs. For example, “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin is played on several occasions in an ironic manner. This only seems to emphasize how much of a meaning a soundtrack can have on a film.
The characters of Once Upon a Time in America are ruthless and violent. One of them has no problem shooting a man in the head with a straight face and without any conscience. There are two rape scenes in the film, the second one being particularly brutal and full of tragedy. Even though there is plenty of violence throughout Leone’s last movie, there is no saying that it is not an absolutely beautiful, mesmerizing feature that is just as important to the cinematic history as the Prohibition era is to the history of the United States. It takes true effort to have a viewer care about the characters who are so brutal and most of the times driven by little but greed, and yet Once Upon a Time in America manages to do it. I would argue that this is one of the most tragic films ever made, and yet the viewer who professes true film love may not resist watching it numerous times and experiencing the anguish of the characters with every viewing.
With the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, the Director’s Cut (which runs 251 minutes) is being released on Blu-ray in two sets, including Collector’s Edition, which contains both the European original cut and the Director’s Cut, and more special features. It will certainly be a joy to watch the extended version of Leone’s last movie – the one he wanted to be his everlasting legacy. Although I personally think that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the director’s work at its absolute best, I consider it also to be the best movie I have seen, and Once Upon a Time in America does not fall remotely far.