Once Upon a Time in America ★★★★

Here I arrive at the end of the line, Leone’s final station, Once Upon a Time in America; a wonderful finale if there ever was one, but certainly far from fitting. It was clear that there was still room for more from the filmmaker, despite the exaggerated lengths he would in his latter years go through in forwarding a production, confident that there are still a couple more epics rattling around the director’s mind before his eventual death; much like the celebrated Stanley Kubrick, whom surely had envisioned a different future for himself, one that would at least penetrate the new century and create a few more films. Unfortunately life’s unpredictability could affect our plans, and thus some of the world’s greatest individuals fall far too early; for us in the living all we could do is mourn and cherish what they have left behind.

Once Upon a Time in America stands isolated from many of his works as Leone treats us to a backdrop far different from what we expect of him; a pivotal figure in the development of a new sub-genre of the dying Western, he has moved on from his roots but hasn’t abandoned his fundamentals. This is still much a Leone film as A Fistful of Dollars or Once Upon a Time in the West, the core difference is simply the physical ambition, the emotional scope, and the further solidified confidence. Once Upon a Time in the West was as much of a pivotal point for the filmmaker as A Fistful of Dollars was, where his stories finally began to search the heart that pulsated within its characters, searching for weight and complexity beneath their identifiable exteriors, a personal feat that cannot be helped but show admiration for even if one, like myself, couldn’t completely lose within it and find mass intrigue. Once Upon a Time in America continues on this intrinsic and immersive approach that grips its audience through exploratory methods, aiming to emotionally and intellectually reward in ways that are far subtler than what he has previously presented.

It was then in his swift rise to fame that his works were wrapped in their self-aware innovations, allowing the strings that he pulls to be clearly visible and finding ourselves in deep admiration for it, an outlook of a much more youthful director; what was once a filmmaker who found comfort in his cheekiness and methodical practices, has now developed from it, stripping his trademarks of its superficialities and pushed its essence to such palpable levels, showing a deep sense of care for his audience and aims to emotionally stir and potentially transform them. The film is still filled with the familiar close-ups, patiently boiling tension, and minimalistic dialogue, but now with a self-conscious effort to layer these trademarks, demonstrate a deep sense of respect for the material and to those who view and invest in it. Although Leone and cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli, have opted to use spherical lens rather than the familiar Techniscope format, the film nevertheless captures the beautiful backdrop and detail of its period, understanding that the chosen period has shown society moving upwards rather than expanding, as Leone frequently captures the glorious heights of such monuments and surroundings, emphasising the parallels of his character’s fates; and he captures the city with a far more poetic grace that neither of his previous films could match, an evolution from his efforts from Once Upon a Time in the West, consciously creating connections with the evolution of the city itself as it travels through three distinct periods.

Once Upon a Time in America approaches its material differently from past works of Leone’s, now navigating through a single man’s life through fragmented flashbacks, noting the difficult roots of Noodles and his pals in the Jewish ghetto of New York City, and then slowly shows their rise to fortune and glory through criminality in the constraining conditions of the Prohibition era of America. This is a film that attempts to remain pure in its exploration of the protagonist, Noodles, and his developed friendship with Max; a partnership critical to their success, and surrounded by a tale that demonstrates the challenges and rewards that came from such a friendship; the sense of loyalty and the unconditional empathy that cohesively holds their relationship. Although their relationship acts as the film’s central intention from the screenplay, it does however occasionally lose itself in the characters’ objective goal, wanting to demonstrate a sense of detail to the business they ran and the physical rewards they gain, executed with a lack of emotional weight or development of character that primarily held my attention. The film initiates our intrigue through the mystery that surrounds the contents of the suitcase, a MacGuffin that effectively works due to its strength to initially hold us, and slowly transition into the film’s heart, the relationship between Noodles and Max; if only its middle stretches remained intrinsically focused.

Leone still follows within the same cynical vein as his previous features, depicting his characters as dedicated individuals in reaching their materialistic goals and anti-heroic ambitions; but no longer is Leone attempting to contrast a genre that is black and white, the gangster world naturally contains such unlikeable figures with a filmmaker’s intention is to evolve them into worthy figures, and indeed Noodles endures a similar treatment, but instead reversed as we begin admiring his spirit and intentions, while slowly showcasing the darker nature that runs within the character, exposing the humanity that defines him, unlike the hero that we so hoped him to evolve into. This is a man who would go on to make mistakes and introduce vices that would show him re-entering into his long detached world with a sense of melancholy, regret, and reminiscence. The film’s other key figure, Max, is also shined by Leone with a similar light; a figure capable of undertaking such pessimistic changes, but due to the film’s connection remains tight with Noodle, it is unshakeable the sense of forgiveness and affection we have for the character, given that by its end, such sentiment could be felt as Noodles gains a resolution to his curiosity that he so desired over the years.

Of course, such beauty, admiration, and intrigue to come from characters could not have been remotely possible without the powerfully intrinsic performance brought by the cast; an assembly that is worthy of praise for its precise choices, despite the fact that Robert De Niro have taken on a similar role earlier in his career, rarely does the experience of his performance evoke other films. Under Leone’s direction, De Niro’s stares, movement, hesitations, and actions speak volumes; and amplified further with the gorgeous and emotionally charged score from Ennio Morricone, a unique effort from their years of collaboration, one that may not be as memorable as his works in the Western, but arguably his finest effort. Morricone’s score is essential to the film as it allows the character to be spoken for, allowing the emotions that churn within the character at multiple fragments of periods be palpable, ensuring careful construction that evoke a sense of growth for the character as we travel through Noodles’ personal tale. The rest of the cast, particularly James Woods and Elizabeth McGovern, provide equally strong performances, an effort that is only held back by the intense focus laid upon its protagonist.

Once Upon a Time in America is a triumphant achievement due to the internal storytelling and seamless transition of its method of flashbacks, finding an emotional side from a filmmaker that was only barely visible in his previous features. The film’s intermediate may find itself slightly distracted, but such an issue isn’t enough to justify one’s hesitation of seeing such a film.

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