Once Upon a Time in America ★★★★½

The mythology of the American Old West never really disappeared, it just evolved and became more complex. The horse became the automobile. The cowboy became the gangster. The gun became the almighty dollar. Harsh, unruly country was developed into modern, newfangled city. Anarchy was eventually seduced by the greed of capitalism. And the promise of civilization to quell the savagery and lawlessness of the land ironically fell into the hands of organized thugs and fancy-looking criminals. Industrialization didn’t civilize America, it just made it easier to conceal crime. 

All of this was immortalized in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, a film that behaves like an operatic harbinger to the closing stages of the old frontier and the gateway into the new corporate world of gangsterism found in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. You really need to watch these films back to back. Together they form a closed set, a mythological universe. It’s like watching one long fairytale told at two ends of the historical spectrum, one is just a little further up the road fulfilling the work that Mr. Morton began. 

The future Morton’s railroad brought into the world forever changed the landscape, inspiring a conveyer belt of dreamers to manifest their own destiny, pull themselves up by their own boot straps, plunder the land, compete for resources, to eventually organize into criminal factions. Cowboys in the modern world wear elegant business suits, but many are still ruthless, brutal thugs. Leone’s point is that the American Dream has rarely been achieved honestly, and that today’s power structures were built on principles of corruption and thuggery. In this light, the America of the 1920s, 30s, 40s and beyond is just as savage as the America of the Old-timey West. One just looks more professional-looking than the other. 

If Leone was telling us a fable about how the West came to an end in OUATITW, he’s now telling us a fable about how the Old West was merely reborn in OUATIA. Like fashions that go in and out of style, OUATITW isn’t so much about the end of an era as it is a setup for its continuation in another era. That continuation — that evolution of the Old World’s immorality — finds its ultimate New World expression in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. 

At the center of this evocative, slow-burn epic, a story of immigrants scraping the bottom of the American Dream unfolds on New York’s Lower East Side. In microcosm of the larger mob family hidden within and beyond the ghetto, immigrant children play their hand at petty crimes as if training to become those disaffected, wildly ambitious gangsters of the future. They were born into a poverty stricken Jewish neighborhood, where the looming Manhattan Bridge in the distance, and its promise of upward mobility, always seemed beyond the pale of their present circumstances. No matter how many times these kids reinvent themselves throughout their lives, their roots of being “little cockroach” sons and daughters forever haunts them. Noodles and his gang transform from poor ghetto kids into rich, well-dressed gangsters, their wealth never inherited as it was stolen through corrupt means. In a world that seems to have excluded the poor from legitimate education, housing, and employment, the prospect of crime may have been the only logical solution for Noodles and his gang to survive the mean streets of New York. It’s also a symbol of mainstream America’s failure to provide equal opportunity for all, which speaks further to the grand illusion and degeneration of the American Dream. 

For me, the appeal of the film is in the surreal, almost impressionistic way Leone tells the story of how these broken kids rose to power during the dwindling era of Prohibition. It’s the most leisurely poetic film about gangsters I’ve ever seen, one that imprisons time and allows you to meditate on its arresting visuals and enigmatic themes. As Christopher Orr of the Atlantic said of OUATITW (which also holds true for OUATIA): “The close-ups are closer, the silences are longer, the compositions — with characters in foreground, background, and sometimes mid-ground — are more striking.” Each moment is infused with a deliberate, slow-burn pace, coupled with a beautifully aching Morricone score that just lets you dwell in a baffled mixture of anguish, rage and remorse.

The film spans nearly 50 years intricately exploring how the lure of American capitalism belied the promises of equality and opportunity for those seeking refuge on American shores, in favor of a violent criminal empire that was built by kids who made the myth possible. Past and present events are blended seamlessly into a fragmented, non-linear whole, each part examining the mechanics of time, memory and identity from the perspective of Noodles coming to terms with his history. We sense a nostalgic view of America trying to focus itself through Noodles perspective, one that is sadly suffocated by a life of lavish excess, violence, misogyny and betrayal. Any idealism for the American Dream at the beginning is reduced to garbage by the film’s end, emphasizing the contradiction between what the Dream inspired and how it was actually achieved. So fierce is the contradiction between nostalgic dream and grim reality, Noodles, in a bewildering climax, refuses to face the reality of what his crumbling empire has become, instead choosing to embrace the legacy of what he and his friends built in their mythic, supposedly glorious youth. Also, given the bookends of the opium den, it’s not entirely clear if what we’ve seen throughout has been a dream, a nightmare, or a distorted memory, and it’s that mystery we find ourselves immersed in that gives the film its lasting, indelible power. 

The most haunting thing about OUATIA? How little America has changed since OUATITW. Two inverted worlds of each other built on the same corrupt proclivities. The coordinates of the Old West may no longer hold, but the savagery of its frontier is still frozen in time. Mr. Morton’s encroaching railroad had promised to civilize the land, the cowboy, and the system in which he lived, humans just found a new way to evolve the ruthless thuggery of the past. Leone is one of the best cinematic iconoclasts of the frontier myth and its impact on the American Dream. He subverted the idealism of the West over and over again, challenging the glories of frontier expansion while exposing America’s violent history. OUATIA to me reads like an exposure of a nation’s traumatic birth, along with the underlying greed, violence and betrayal that makes social mobility possible in America. Some, like Noodles, would rather sanitize those rough edges by smoking a peace pipe, pretending the ugliness of the past doesn’t exist, or perhaps they’ve already decided what truth will occupy their minds by simply rejecting claims to the counter. In a way, Leone’s filmography and its critique of the American West is no different than Noodles’ treatment of Deborah: an opportunity to pervert America’s nostalgic tenderness for its past into an aggressively ugly statement about manifest destiny-inspired rape, pillage and corruption. Add to these indictments an impressive operatic style that changed the landscape of the western genre as we know it, and you have yourself an auteur who both romanticized and deconstructed America’s past at the same time. Pretty punk rock if you ask me. 

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