Once Upon a Time in America ★★★


There's nothing worse than having been let down by a film you very much expected to laud, especially one that has been composed by one of the great filmmakers of epic cinema: Sergio Leone, an astonishing filmmaker who has directed some of the finer pieces in the western genre with The Dollars Trilogy and, my personal favorite, Once Upon a Time in the West. It's happened once before, in prominence (as there have been other anticlimactic cinematic ventures I've become witness to) with Visconti's The Leopard, another sprawling epic heralded by many critics and audience members* alike (among them, chiefly, Martin Scorsese).

As much as I see the taglines purporting this to be one of the greatest gangster films of all time, I would be entirely remiss to include it in that category myself. The forewarning of my dismay came quickly into the film during the opening credits where we see six (eight total) credited screenwriters onscreen; already did I wince at the prospect of a bloated, incongruous mess of a film (considering so many independent pens making their mark on a script would only raise cause for alarm in the interest of a mismanaged story), yet the critical acclaim this film had assured me otherwise. Still, throughout the film's 251-minute runtime (I took to a viewing of the Extended Director's Cut, which was a mistake given the additional scenes were poorly restored—fuzzy, discolored, with the audio imperfect—and, therefore, distracting whenever they enter the narrative... to which, by extension, I can understand that this footage was originally assumed lost/sullied, so one can't expect perfection, yet even these additional scenes were determinably extraneous to the plot), I could never shed this overwhelming suspicion that the film just felt too long and too disconsonant, as if Leone kept inserting scenes into the film with no care to if they would add anything of value to the story.

Can't quite even sum up the story myself beyond a brief synopsis, for the film is oddly constructed in such a manner that suggests our characters are bumbling from one situation to the next with no thematic/emotional/anything connective tissue. And the suggestion of a story is a fine one indeed, what with our main character, David "Noodles" Aaronson (played by Robert De Niro, himself continually adding to his notched belt labeled 'play every magnificent gangster role ever'), now aged and 35-years distanced from his brutal past, revisits those regrets, the Prohibition-era savagery he found himself a part of—not to mention his scathing proclivity to rape women (including his assault of his once-teenage sweetheart in the backseat of a car), which is another dispiritedly received point entire.

That's not to say in any measure that I eschew rape in stories, far from it, but the way this film operates in sexual assault feels slimy. Most of my denunciation of this point comes in with the robbery sequence; a carnal young woman practically begs our antihero to rape her, to which he obliges with vigor, only for this violation to become the punchline of an extended joke in a later scene where she looks to discover her rapist through the examination of our main players' exposed genitals. Of course, such women who enjoy literalized rape fantasies (looking to Verhoeven's Elle, a fine picture) are fine, but Leone and his band of overflowing writers orchestrate it with little flair. Which, in the end, is my consummate reception to the film: a sturdy outline of what ostensibly could be a great story, only to be marred by shaky storytelling and editing.

Most of the players do a fine job here, with Robert De Niro and James Woods assuming the lead roles as two childhood street urchins who rise from petty crime to playing in racketeering and bootlegging during Prohibition, their lives spanning forty-eight years, beginning in the 1920s and ending in 1968. It's the classic rags-to-riches tale, strung along with fine performances. Though not everyone is a shining example of talent, leaving the young man playing a young Noodles something to be desired, as well as Elizabeth McGovern feeling inconsistently seductive as Noodles' true darling despite his many sexual encounters with other women. Joe Pesci's presence here feels enormously wasted, himself appearing in two scenes; the first, a protracted table conversation, and the second, his seemingly inconsequential arrival to a pair of elevators. It's a mishmash of great performances infrequently marred by perplexing ones.

Yet, with this seemingly antagonistic salvo of embittered ammunition directed at this picture from my part, I will not, in the end, deride this film of its worth. Technically, this is a brilliant film; Leone's signature close-ups are instantly recognizable, plus his cutting from reaction shot to reaction shot as we scan the facial expressions of a group of characters—Leone's signatures are there in the celluloid. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli cooperates with Leone one final time (Colli having shot The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West), as this is to be Leone's final film before his death five years later. And as is the case with those two films, Colli once again paints Leone's vision with beautiful composition: look to the film's poster for a simplified version of a shot from the film. Magnificent work in this regard. Magnificent, also, is the presence of Ennio Morricone, a longtime Leone collaborator, and simply one of the finest composers of cinema. Though his compositions are superlative, they do overcrowd themselves here; certain themes appearing over and over throughout the film, their insistent presence bordering upon enervation. Leone's direction, along with those whose mastery at their craft has always been marvelous, support this film all too well; if only the narration (blighted by incessant digressions—or simply scenes that just weren't strong enough) were stronger.

The foundation is sturdy, but the film's massive enterprise/ambition strangles away what could have been a sweeping epic concerning violence, lust, regret, and friendship. The first ninety minutes of the film, along with the final thirty minutes, are tremendous, but the other 131 minutes of the film is a frustrating mess. With all the praise situating this as one of the greatest gangster dramas of all time, I can only disagree, find myself bewildered over such a claim, and resign it as only a disappointment.

*Expecting another sad face emoticon from Cinefan now, who has long recommended this to me. And to my understanding, this is one of your favorites. Sad to say, as you have likely read, this was a bust for me any many respects, but there was also a lot to admire.

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