Once Upon a Time in America ★★★★★

The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, and Once Upon a Time in America are all gangster movies that I think are fantastic. They are all perfect in their own way and I am not willing to compre them to one another because they deal with the mafia theme with completely different goals. Now, with that out of the way...

The films I just mentioned all share a spot among my favorite movies of all time. Yet, Once Upon a Time in America gave me one of the most emotionally impactful cinematic experiences I’ve possibly ever had. 

The runtime was daunting as hell the first time I watched it; I went in absolutely sure I was going to get bored at some point and I was making peace with that fact. I was completely wrong. I was so invested in these characters’ lives that I wasn’t even aware of the runtime. That being said, I really want to address the characters and what they mean for the film (in my view) because I’ve seen people insisting that Leone is somehow romanticizing gangsters and sexual violence when he is doing the exact opposite.

Leone turns the gangster story on its head entirely. Ask yourself, what is it that we usually see in these character arcs? The rise and fall. We see them ascend into a life of excess in all sense; money, violence, prestige. Throughout this part of the story we want to be them. We want to be a part of the honorable Corleone family. We want Tony Montana’s beautiful mansion. We desire Henry Hill’s status as he enters the crowded Copacabana and gets the best table. It is completely romantic, until it isn’t. 

Yet, in Once Upon a Time in America, the only ‘romantic’ part, tinted with sepia hues and bonds of brotherhood, are the childhood memories. We get to see these boys enter into this lifestyle together, supported by principles of strong companionship. But, is it really romantic? It might appear so at surface-level, but we get to see how these boys’ decisions receive real physical abuse as a consequence. We see a progression of the loss of innocence. That prolonged scene with the boy eating the charlotte russe instead of having sex, is Leone reminding us.. they’re just children. Yet they are so attracted by ascending in status that they feel compelled to do this. It’s tragic. 

Since we are witnessing the story from Noodles’ eyes, we don’t see the rise. We meet the boys as young adults and they have already reached the top. Now, they just want more. We get to see the corruption, the depravity. We never want to be these men. We just witness how inevitably, this lifestyle absolutely corrupts people to the core. This is not true in The Godfather, Goodfellas, or Scarface because their humanity is still there. We see ourselves reflected in them. They do romanticize the life in one way or another. The gangsters in America have become sick, power-hungry, greedy, misogynistic assholes that take pleasure from humiliation and physical aggression. There is no salvation for them. This is not romanticization, it’s reality. 

Now, the women. I’ve seen the treatment of women in the film complained about a LOT. I understand, We’re in a time where we must truly be conscious of these issues, and at the top of the list is how women are portrayed in fiction. I don’t think the people who are angry at this have bad intentions, but I don’t believe they really paid sufficient thought to the film. Apart from distinctly pointing out how morally depraved the main characters are in many ways, their view of women is one of the most (if not the most) important character flaw. 

It obviously starts with Peggy, a young girl who prostitutes herself for food. Really, this is the most accessible girl for them as boys, so they learn to view women in this way. They exist only for their pleasure. Looking at this character in a deeper manner, I think prostituting herself is her own way of gaining some status. She can’t do it like the boys do; violence and money, so she does it through sex. It’s her own perception of liberation. (I think this is true for Carol too.) 

As Leone’s own scholar (Christopher Frayling) says, these men are sexually stunted. They have the perception of women uniquely as sexual objects, and have no idea how to properly treat them. This is most obvious with Noodles, who after planning this opulent, romantic evening with his love, Deborah, violates her in the worst way imaginable, as a direct cause of her expressing that she doesn’t need him. She has plans that are apart from him. She wants to empower herself by leaving for Hollywood and making her way on her own. Noodles is baffled. How could she have plans that don’t include me? 

My question is, how would Leone create Deborah’s character if he himself was misogynistic? Deborah is introduced as Noodles’ angel when she is a child, later to be exposed as a woman with a mind of her own and goals she wants to achieve. Noodles’ illusion of her existing only for him—that dream which comforted him in his time in prison—is shattered. When we are faced with the uncomfortable aftermath of his horrible treatment, there is no doubt in our minds that he has no possibility of redemption. 

His actions towards Deborah make us understand his character in latter years more. He is old and sad; haunted by the ghosts of his past... not his own pain, but the pain he caused others. In a similar way as The Irishman, we are not meant to feel sympathy. We are fully aware that this man’s own deliberate actions have led him to where he finds himself in the twilight of his life.

Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score is definitely nostalgic and romantic, which contrasts with our perceptions of these characters, But it’s completely intentional. Noodles looks back to a past where (in his mind) his friendships were honest and his dreams of greatness were within his grasp. But all of this is an illusion; these men became self-interested and unequivocally corrupted by ambition. Noodles’ only solution to the real world is to look back at his journey with rose-tinted sunglasses. This is the true story of the American dream, hence the title; Once Upon a Time in America.

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