There are many film directors who have made dozens of films within their lifetimes but I’ve often found that the fewer films a director makes, the better each individual film seems. Nowhere is this more in evidence then when you examine the films made by Italian director Sergio Leone. In his life time he was the credited director for only seven films but I think anyone would agree that they were all masterpieces, (although I can’t speak for Duck you Sucker or The Colossus of Rhodes as I haven’t seen them). Having recently seen his final film I decided to give my thoughts on it. This is the Illusive One’s Review of Once Upon a Time in America.
The film was released in 1984 and starred Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Treat Williams, and an early role for Jennifer Connelly. 30 years after apparently betraying his gang and fleeing New York City, former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster, David “Noodles” Aaronson, (De Niro), returns to his old neighborhood to face the ghosts and regrets of his old life. Through a series of flashbacks the viewer finds out how his old gang came together in their early teenage years in the 20s, views their criminal operations in the early 30s and the events that lead to the gang’s demise while exploring the themes of childhood friendship, love, lust, greed, betrayal, loss, and broken relationships.
As I mentioned, this was Sergio Leone’s final film despite the fact he was only fifty five when it was released. So why was this his final film? Well, he lost all faith in the modern film system after its release. When he finished filming the film, he had about eight to ten hours of footage but cut it down to six. He originally wanted to release the film as a two part film, each around three hours but the idea didn’t appeal to his producers so he cut it down again, this time to four hours and twenty nine minutes. For its premier, he was then forced to cut down again to three hours and forty nine minutes and most of the world saw this version.
While its runtime made it a very long film, it was necessary to properly tell the story but apparently the distributers in America disagreed, as they cut it down again to two hours and nineteen minutes. This was done without Leone’s consent and was flat out against his wishes and was heartbroken by the American cut and never made a film again. It turned out he was right to object to it because the American cut flopped at the box office and received universal panning in the states. Luckily, however, this version is nearly impossible to find and it isn’t the one I’ll be reviewing today but it really goes to show just how editing can affect the quality of a film. So, without further delay, let’s get into the positives and negatives of this film.
To tell you the truth, nearly everything about this film was great. The acting was great, the characters were great, the story was great, and the themes explored were apparent but weren’t shoved in your face. Oh! And they were great. The best theme used, however, was the “you can’t go home again” theme as it’s frequently in play and is something anyone above the age of twenty should be able to relate to. Noodles frequently finds himself separated from his friends and old neighborhood for years on end and always returns only to find his friends vastly different people and his neighborhood a vastly different place. In this regard, Noodles is a very relatable character and feel attached to him as most people at some point try to go back to a place from their youth or reunite with an old friend from an earlier point in their lives, only to find that the place or person is vastly different from what they remember and this film captures that essence perfectly.
Much of the film revolved around the forming rift between Noodles and his best friend and business partner Max, (Woods) and this was very well put together as well. The way the characters reacted and worked off each other was just perfectly done and the shifting between the past and the present helped make you feel what Noodles was going through and adds on to the power of the “you can’t go home again” theme. The music by Ennio Morricone was perfect for the film and, as always, matched the mood of what was on camera perfectly. That aside I can’t think of anything else to tell you why this film so great. It’s just one of those kinds of films that you have to see in order to really understand and I just can’t do it justice on this blog.
While this was a great film there were one or two things to complain about. The first deals with the opening, as it almost feels like the end of the story rather than the beginning. While it should become clear by the time you’re an hour past the opening, it may put the casual viewer off. Then you had the blood effects that looked really bad and it seemed like the dropped the ball on this one. Still, the film wasn’t meant to be gore fest and it was easy for me to look past it. There was also a twist at the end that I saw coming a mile away. While it was built up very well, I saw it coming and I think a lot of other people did to when they watched it for the first time. While the acting in this film was great, the dialog didn’t seem particularly tight. Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed like there was a pause after each actor finished a sentence. Then you have the run time. While the run time of three hours and forty-nine minutes didn’t bother me, (I know that sounds weird), it will probably scare all but a few people off and that’s why I included it in my negatives.
All around, this was a great film and can easily stand toe to toe with all the other great crime dramas that have been released over the years. For some reason, however, this one always seems to get passed over in favor of Coppola/Scorsese/Tarantino and other “classic” crime films despite the fact that this one is just as good, (and even better in some cases), as those films. So for all of you out there, who agree with me on this, help me get this film the recognition it deserves. Oh! And for those of you, who haven’t seen this film, check it out because it’s a great one. I may be a little hyped and overzealous because I just saw it, but I think this film would go on my list as one of my favorite films of all time. It had great characters, great themes, a great story, and was a more then worthy final film for a great director.