M S Krishna Prateek’s review published on Letterboxd:
YOUR YOUNGEST AND STRONGEST WILL FALL BY THE SWORD
"Many years ago, I had a friend." "A dear friend." "It was a great friendship."
Spanning several decades, From the lives of poor children in 1918 Manhattan Jewish ghettos To the grown-up adults leading a rich life in the 1930s Prohibition era To the now old people leading a life both rich and poor in terms of memories and regrets accompanied by the violence of 1968 New York, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is a sweeping masterpiece (yes, I will come back to this again) in encompassing pretty much the entirety of different eras (ranging From delinquency To friendship To greed To love To lust To adultery to sacrifice To betrayal To heartbreaks To mob mentality To redemption To remorse and everything in between) in a tight SUITCASE that takes 4 hours to open completely and then it can be "EMPTY" for some viewers and full for some viewers and I'm glad that in my case, it's FULL!
First things first - Absolutely horrendous act from the American Distributors to re-edit this 229-minute epic European theatrical cut to a meagre 139-minute cut without the acknowledgement of Leone that too by rearranging everything in a linear chronological narrative by butchering some of the main themes of the film like memories and regrets. Just when I thought there could be nothing more horrendous than this, I was baffled while looking at no Oscar nomination even for Ennio Morricone's original score due to the studio accidentally omitting the composer's name from the opening credits while trimming its running time for the American release... well, heights... absolute heights of...
Coming to the masterpiece thing IMO, I see some hate here for the film and majority of it is either due to the lengthy runtime issue or the comparisons drawn to The Godfather. Firstly, despite sharing the same genre, many acclaimed gangster classics pale down at least a bit when they're compared to the utter perfection of The Godfather and while I understand the runtime factor putting off many, if one dislikes the film solely by drawing comparisons to its contemporaries, I feel it's not justified as the film is neither sharing all the themes nor a franchise even to compare them. The similarities between The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America start and end at spanning across the generations structure of narrative and while the former is all on conflicts within a family and their rise and fall in the family as well as business, the latter is more about the chosen family and fall and fall of gangsters as human beings until there are not many left to see their least bit of rising as humans and the film is least concerned about the business thing although there were some kickass mass (as we call in our Indian commercial cinema lingo) moments emerging from the hideouts or the gunshots because the thing with gangsters is that one never knows what their mind is up to at a specific instant!
Meticulous editing with match cuts timed to perfection in going back and forth in time and the production design was as immaculate as it can get in teleporting me to all the bygone eras. I don't even want to get started on praising the cinematography of this film because that would take time as long as the runtime of the film itself in mentioning every shot, but to single out one, there is this iconic street view shot of boys walking in the foreground with the Manhattan bridge in the background that's probably the most number of times I've seen a frame popping up on my Insta Cinema feed and every time I thought of watching the film to know the background behind it, but kept on procrastinating and the sheer ecstasy I felt while living that frame on-screen starting from the 1:24:07 mark is something to which words can't do justice!
"I've always said that my best dialogue and screenwriter is Ennio Morricone." - Sergio Leone
In an almost 4-hour long film like this with sparse dialogue, Morricone not only wrote the score but also seems to have written literal lyrics in explaining every situation just through the music in a poetic manner and added a distinct layer of lyricism to the film of this genre. Every piece of the score in this film is the epitome of the word atmospheric, so much so that even after 4 hours, while writing this, I'm listening to various themes in the OST, for instance, From the strings-led Main Theme tugging at my heartstrings and returning with a jazz twist to it during the Speakeasy episode, To, both the versions of Deborah's Theme. What happened to Deborah (actually it took me a while to realize that young Deborah is none other than Jennifer Connelly whose performance I loved recently in A Beautiful Mind) just before the "INTERMISSION" surprised me more than the ending twist and holy fuck, I didn't see it coming in the wildest of my dreams and if there's anything I hated in this film, it's this, but can't do anything about it as it's a part and parcel of the story.
All-in-all, a film across the ages that's truly the one for the ages, be it in its genre or all of Cinema and I already see myself saying this often in future: Once Upon a Time in Cinema, there was Once Upon a Time in America!