Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America ★★★★★

The phrase “gangster epic” is thrown around a lot. The Godfather immediately come to mind. Once Upon a Time in America fits perfectly into that conversation as well. Sergio Leone’s final film, an adaptation of the novel The Hoods by Harry Grey, is four hours and change of top tier crime drama, and it’s a shame, frankly, that we may never see those final 20 or so minutes. Regardless, this is everything you could hope for. 

The cast here is absolutely stellar. Robert DeNiro plays Noodles, the main character, and is flanked by James Woods as Max, Elizabeth McGovern as Deborah, James Hayden as Patsy, William Forsythe as Cockeye, and countless more. There are many characters, but it’s easy to follow because they each contribute so well to this story. 

Trying to sum up the plot would be impossible, especially in short form, but the general idea follows childhood friends turned well-off criminals during prohibition. They make their money, but through a series of flashbacks, it shows the demise of the gang as well as the remainder of their lives. Telling this through opium-induced flashback is an interesting choice, and some of the loose threads are quickly summed up in the final act. The dialogue is witty as hell, and some scenes will make you laugh while others will tear your emotions apart. “Noodles, I slipped...” 

The film itself is so beautiful. The iconic shot of the boys crossing the street in front of the Manhattan Bridge is just one incredible shot. Leone’s incredible sense of visual style that is so present in his westerns translates beautifully to Prohibition-era New York City. Tonino Delli Colli complements Leone wonderfully, and even the smallest details like the design of a Pope’s chair are made interesting. 

Ennio Morricone provides the music for this, and wouldn’t you know it — it’s incredible. His creative talents really shine here, and the piano refrain that pops up and returns throughout the film is catchy as hell, and frankly, just as good as the theme song from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The music that isn’t from Morricone adds to scenes as well, and is enjoyable, and it marks important character moments, such as the interest between Noodles and Deborah. 

I have no desire to talk about spoilers in the review, but the final act of this makes the long runtime more than worth sitting through. It helps that the entire film is incredible, but that final act really sends this into home run territory. I just kind of sat and watched the credits roll without actually reading them. It’s one of those endings that offers up so much debate, and I imagine I won’t stop thinking about it anytime soon. An absolutely incredible work from Leone, and necessary viewing for anyone who even slightly enjoys epic drama.