#77: Once Upon a Time in America [1984]

Sergio Leone co-wrote and directed this epic tale of young, ambitious Jewish boys rising through the ranks of the New York mobster scene, eager to make something of themselves. Robert De Niro plays David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson, who returns to New York in 1968 from his self-imposed exile to re-examine his past. We try to keep pace with his flashbacks to the 1920s and 30s while he investigates the anonymous threats he receives in the 60s. The flashbacks, while not chronological, narrate Noodles’ meeting with Maximilian ‘Max’ Bercovicz (James Woods) and the development of their relationship and... business enterprise, which also involves Patrick ‘Patsy’ Goldberg (James Hayden) and Philip ‘Cockeye’ Stein (William Forsythe). They make the big time, thanks to the profitability of prohibition, a careful choice of allies and their sheer ruthlessness. Yet beneath the surface, Noodles and Max’s relationship is a constant power struggle. Whether their usefulness to each other outweighs true affection is up for debate, perhaps more so than any other issue this film creates.
Given the film is nearly four hours long (and was longer after the first round of editing), it’s unsurprising that many, many issues come to light. Primarily (by which I mean obviously), Leone is looking at the immigrant identity and how this fits into twentieth-century American society. The lengths the syndicate go to in order to grasp at wealth, power and status questions said society, as the mindlessness of their cruelty leaves us reconsidering the America Dream ideal. There are many sub-themes which branch from this central subject, for me the appalling treatment of women being the most significant.
The sexual violence in Once Upon a Time in America is the main reason I’d hesitate before making a blanket recommendation of the film. The rape scenes have their place in the storyline of the film, are significant factors in the development of the characters, and play out key themes powerfully due the poignancy of the emotions evoked in characters and audience alike. However, just because it’s effective, doesn’t make it any easier to watch.  
As you might be able to tell from reading this, none of the characters are particularly likeable. In fact, most of them are downright contemptible, deserving whatever comeuppance fate (or the scriptwriter) has in store for them. While Max is a charismatic, he is intensely dislikeable. Noodles is a slimy kid and an even slimier man, who we increasingly detest as his story unravels. This, perhaps more than any other factor, makes each of the film’s 229 minutes very long ones. The lingering shots of nothing in particular add to this effect also.
However, I don’t want you to think I didn’t appreciate this as a work of genius. It was hard going, but well worth enduring. Leone is a talented director with a reassuringly clear vision. I just wish we hadn’t broken the film up so much. Next time I watch this film it certainly won’t be with someone who needs a fag break every 45 minutes, as this irreparably interrupted the flow and feel of it all. As it is, I would put this on a must-see list, but would advise caution based on an accurate evaluation of your nervous system; it gets quite a pounding.


Tom’s currently on a night coach on his way back from Holland, so you’ll have to wait for his summary. I’m sure it’ll be concise and witty, as ever.

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