Once Upon a Time in America (1984) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

 

If you are just a casual film fan, you probably recognize the title, but have never seen the film. Perhaps you are vaguely aware that it bombed at the box in the USA, and also received some fairly weak reviews. On the other hand, if you are any kind of serious film buff you know that it is possibly the best film made in the past 20 years. The film was cheered resoundingly when it was screened at Cannes in 1984.

Why the differences in perceptions? It was released in the United States in 1984 in a truncated version, which was simply not a very good movie. That last sentence was a poor example of litotes. Stated more directly, the short version sucks.

The director, Sergio Leone, originally dreamt of a ten hour film to be shown in multiple parts. He then cut it back to six hours, and was persuaded to cut the six hour version back to 238 minutes for the European release, which was hailed as a masterpiece. The money boys thought that America had no market for a serious four hour epic film which spanned sixty years in the lives of its main characters, and had a very complex interweaving of the time periods. Therefore, the USA release was trimmed to 139 minutes, and was re-cut so that the story was told in chronological order. That short version was a disaster, which is why you may not be aware of how good this movie is. The truncation removed every bit of art from the film, eliminated so much of the story that it became incoherent, and completely destroyed the sense of mystery created by the time-shifts. Do you remember how writers used to end chapters with a cliffhanger that kept you from setting the book down? This film does that almost every time it shifts time periods. Just when you think you're about to discover an important secret, the scene shifts, deepening your curiosity.

The film covers three periods in the lives of some men and women born at the beginning of the 20th century.

  • In the first era, we see them as working class Jewish kids born in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Five of the guys become street-smart, help out some racketeers, and eventually start running their own rackets, until one of them dies and another ("Noodles" - DeNiro) goes to prison in the aftermath of a battle with a rival gang leader.
  • In the second era, they are up-and-coming gangsters, making a living from Prohibition and occasionally profiting from an act of violence. The gang of five is now down to four, and this section ends with three of them dying and Noodles fleeing into permanent hiding.
  • In the third era, thirty five years later, the last gang member is still alive, trying to solve a mystery. Robert DeNiro, as Noodles, thinks that his three best friends were killed in an attempted robbery of the Federal Reserve Bank all those years ago. For 35 years, he has lived with the guilt caused by the fact that he was the one who ratted them out, for a variety of complex reasons. His new life in another city, living under a pseudonym, is shattered one day when he receives a letter which clearly indicates that somebody knows who he really is and wants him back in New York. He returns to New York simply because he is curious to find out who knows his real identity, and why they care enough to summon him back indirectly without revealing their real motivation. Another thing has always bothered him. After his friends died in 1933, he attempted to flee with the gang's entire suitcase full of cash. He found the suitcase in the locker, where it was supposed to be, but the cash had been removed.

The film is filled with truly intriguing mysteries which are not generated by outrageous plot points as in most modern movies, but are created from everyday events by the subtleties of the storytelling technique. Following Noodles, we know only as much as he knows, so we can only resolve the unresolved points by following him through his memories. Most intriguing is the suitcase full of money in a train station locker. An elderly Noodles found the locker key a second time in 1968. It was hanging from the wall in the mausoleum which housed his three fallen comrades. The million dollars which disappeared in 1933 had re-appeared in 1968 with a mysterious note attached.

Who is pulling the strings and leading Noodles through all this intrigue? Just as important, why?

In order to solve the mysteries, the elderly Noodles visits the only two people he knows from that era, a brother and sister who both loved him in one way or another, and who represent the best and worst memories of his life.

The film is laden with atmospheric mystery, but it isn't a mystery film.

The characters in this film are gangsters, but it isn't really a gangster film either.

Its real essence is summed up by its title. It's about what it was like once upon a time in America, when the urban streets shaped a generation or two of white, ethnic Americans. The gangsters are real people, no different from any of us. Perhaps they represent exactly how we would have turned out if we had been born in their stead. The characters are complex, and the morality is ambivalent. The period detail is painstakingly accurate and about half of the scenes took me back to places where I have been, seemingly perfect in every detail. The street scenes will make you feel that you have gone back in time to those days. Leone found some locations in Montreal that filled in perfectly for a New York of an earlier day. An ex-girlfriend once told me that she loved Gone With the Wind so much that she even cried at the scenery. That's how I feel about this movie. If you grew up in urban America, as I did, watching this film is like being able to watch your own childhood. Robert DeNiro is not Polish and was not playing a Polish character, but he might as well have been impersonating my own father. Ultimately this film is a serious piece of genuine art, a statement about friendship, betrayal, regret, guilt, honor, and lost opportunities - themes that affect us all, although most of us are not gangsters.

The context of the film is the process by which immigrants were assimilated into the population of the United States. The US has been trying for years to figure out a smooth way to incorporate the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses into the mainstream of American society. As it so happened, crime was a fairly popular lifestyle for the uneducated urban immigrants and their first generation offspring born in the USA. Personally, I think America needs a change in its immigration policy. We can keep taking in the "poor", because someone has to drive our cabs and pour our Slurpees. We can keep "the huddled masses", because without them we can't maintain our soccer leagues. But we have to stop welcoming the "tired". For one thing, the tired are so damned irritable from lack of sleep. I mean, if they're so goddamned tired, let them stay in their own countries and take a nap before coming here. Our American napping infrastructure is already stretched to the limit, and I don't think it is fair to ask the American taxpayers to pay for additional cots and hammocks.

But that's just my opinion.

Oh, yeah … the movie.

I have seen three versions of this film. The two U.S. releases (139 minutes and 227 minutes) were shown on HBO. The DVD almost has the complete 238 minute version shown in Europe, which is essentially the same as the 227 minute version, except with four violent scenes restored (including two graphic rapes). If you read my comments regularly, you know that I almost always argue that films should be trimmed to achieve better pacing. Not this film. I just don't know how you could cut any of it. In fact, after watching it again today, I wish I could see the six hour version, and even the ten hours in the first cut. If that footage still exists, please, somebody find it, restore it and issue it on DVD.

 

This was Sergio Leone's last film. He died in 1989, still only 60. I wonder if he should be considered the greatest genre filmmaker of all time. Of course, the competition is stiff (Hitchcock and John Ford, e.g.), but Leone has made this gangster picture rated 8.1 at IMDb, #145 of all time; and he has made a Western (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) rated an astronomical 8.7 at IMDb, #25 of all time; and another Western (Once Upon a Time in the West) rated 8.6 at IMDb, #53 of all time. Although Leone never received the prestige that was accorded to his Italian contemporaries like DeSica, Fellini, Antonioni, and Visconti, he is the equal or better of any of them as a filmmaker. Those other four directors are often considered to be more artistic than Leone, but I think that evaluation tends to downplay Leone's artistic filmmaking brilliance because he made comprehensible films, or because he made genre films, or both. Once Upon a Time in America is conceived, edited, written, researched, and filmed brilliantly - an achievement far superior to anything in Antonioni's catalogue, for example, and it is actually the work of a coherent mind as well, placing him far above Antonioni when it comes to a sense of narrative.

... well, unless you watch the chopped-up 139 minute American version of this film, which makes no sense at all, and would thus make a perfect Antonioni film. 

NUDITY REPORT

         Tuesday Weld wears a see-through blouse.

         Elizabeth McGovern shows her breasts and even a brief gyno shot in the rape scene.

         Margherita Pace shows her buns as the body double for Jennifer Connelly.

         Richard Foronjy shows his butt in a sex scene.

         Ann Neville does a full-frontal nude scene as the girl in the coffin.

         Olga Karlatos shows a breast as the woman in the puppet theater.

 

DVD info from Amazon

         see the comments to the right

The transfer on the DVD is magnificent. When I saw this film on HBO, I thought the story and editing were brilliant, but I previously had no clue just how brilliant the visuals are. The only thing that needs to be said is that you must see this. It is crisp, there is no sign of aging, the cinematography is top-drawer in both art and technology, and the colors are rendered perfectly. It looks absolutely brand new in a flawless 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer.

There is a full-length commentary by critic Richard Schickel, some excerpts from a full length documentary about the making of this film, and some backstage B&W stills.

TUNA's THOUGHTS

I had never seen the film before today, and was somewhat skeptical of Scoop's near love affair with this film.

If anything, he understated how good it really is.

What a shame that it was desecrated for its American release. Not was it cut by more than 50%, but they changed the time line into a linear progression, thus destroying all possible meaning, and didn't even bother with the Ennio Morricone score, which would have been a sure Oscar nominee. The DVD version is very close to the "director's cut," but is missing a few minor scene snippets, because they were never looped in English.

I am a very visual person, and the visuals in this film are amazing. The period detail is perfect, and the camera creates mood without calling attention to itself. Perhaps what I like best about this character-driven crime drama is that Leone shows me the story, rather than telling me. I believe you could understand most of the film without speaking a single word of English.

Reader Mail

I recently cheered the DVD release of Once Upon a Time in America. I envy people who have never seen it, since I remember the awe I felt the first time I saw it. I happened upon your review via IMDB, and I very much enjoyed what you had to say. I hope it convinces other "virgins" to see it for the first time.
 
I finally hunted down a copy of the 1952 novel, "The Hoods", upon which the film was based. It is a clunky 50's pot-boiler, but at the same time makes some very insightful observations about the characters. Having read it, I was even more impressed by the film's ability to convey the characters while widely veering from the original story.
 
It is nice to find someone who obviously loves the film as much as I do.

 ... H.S. Bronx, New York

 

The Critics Vote

         no major graded reviews

         Rotten Tomatoes summary. 100% positive. Geez, I should hope so.

         movie review query engine. 15 reviews on file

The People Vote ...

  • It was budgeted at $30 million for production, and it looks "big". It did only about five million at the domestic box office.

 

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "I don't know whether this film is an A+ or a C+, because I don't know how many people can make it through a four hour epic, no matter how good it is. If we did a four star system like Ebert, I would certainly give it all four. I wish the four hour version were longer, and if you know me at all, you know how incredible that is. I think it is one of the best movies ever made, and even though it is rated in the Top #150 of all time at IMDb, it is probably still underrated. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are rated number one and three of all time at IMDB. I would say this film is roughly equivalent to watching both Godfather movies together, possibly even a little better - more atmospheric, more artistic, and with more realistic characterizations. As good as both Godfathers put together? That is pretty good. Pretty damned good."  Tuna says, "Scoop had trouble deciding between a C+ and an A. I don't understand how anyone who likes film could not love this one, making it a clear A. I normally wouldn't gladly sit through a film this long, and crime drama is not my favorite genre, but I was entranced beginning to end."

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