Once Upon a Time in America

(USA - 1984)

by Vanes Naldi & Mike Lorefice

Cast: Robert DeNiro, James Woods, Joe Pesci, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Burt Young, William Forsythe, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, James Russo, Jennifer Connelly
Genre: Crime
Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Leonardo Benvenuti, Sergio Leone, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 236 minutes

"He is altogether loveable, but he'll always be a two-bit punk, so he'll never be my beloved. What a shame" - (Young) Deborah

Vanes: This is Leone's last movie, and it's one of the most touching and emotional movies I've ever seen. This is, in my opinion, the best gangster movie ever (granted, I've missed quite a few in the '40-60's), and yet the story is not about murder, not about shootings, but instead about love, betrayal, regret and redemption.

Mike: It should be noted that Leone turned down directing the supposed best gangster movie, The Godfather, and instead worked on this dream project which wasn't realized until many years later. Imagine how much better Godfather would have been with Leone's incredible creativity and production values rather than the stagnant and static production we got from Francis. Leone captures the story in many ways, while Coppola leaves the camera unmanned and relies upon a great script and his awesome actors. It's ironic that many Godfather fans complain this film is too long considering The Godfather is a trilogy, and taken as a whole it's much longer. Although Once Upon A Time In America is a worth inclusion on the gangster movies better than The Godfather list, Goodfellas is simply the most amazing gangster movie ever made. It's one of those incredibly rare movies where everything; writing, directing, cinematography, music, editing, acting, just totally comes together into this great big whole where one only serves to enhance the other.

Vanes: I haven't seen Goodfellas in English, and the last time in Italian was quite a few years ago. I don't feel comfortable comparing the two because I missed such an important tool, the real dialogue. Certainly, these are two masterpieces, and while I really liked Godfather for other reasons (great acting as you said, but also beautiful depiction of rural southern Italy, its habits, colors and sounds) this is way more powerful and fascinating.

Mike: I haven't seen Goodfellas since I wrote a paper about aesthetic value in Scorsese films for my horrible aesthetics class (the teacher was interested in hearing his own unintelligible words that he never noticed the guy in the front row make his escape within 5 minutes of the start of each class) about 5 years ago. If it wasn't for Scorsese, I believe I would not have made it through all my schooling without failing a class. Goodfellas is one of the few movies I remember like I watched it last week. That so many scenes have stayed with me is a testament to the power and brilliance of the film. We both like the original soundtracks, but Scorsese's use of popular music cannot be understated. Every time I hear a song Scorsese has used on the radio, I can picture the scene(s) he used it in. That's how well they fit his movies. The music defines that point in the characters lives, and for me the song becomes defined by it as well. Gimme Shelter & Layla are two of the more superbly used ones.

Vanes: For almost 4 hours, we're immersed in Noodles' life. With the use of several flashback layers, which might make the film confusing for some people, we see many happenings in his life. From the first time he blackmails a cop who gets caught entertaining himself with an underage prostitute and thus asks him to "close an eye" in exchange for silence to his meeting with Max, who at first was a rival, then became eventually his best friend. We see him in his first voyeuristic act spying on Deborah (the beautiful and excellent Jennifer Connelly, even at a very young age portraying her character in a great way) while she dances.

Mike: She was an 11-year-old model with no acting experience. Leone had her come in and dance, which she had no idea how to do. Needless to say, she claims she got the role as Young Deborah because her nose matched that of Elizabeth McGovern's (old Deborah). Okay, but what went wrong with the rest of McGovern when she grew up. ;) Ironically, around four years later Connelly returned to Italy for an obscure horror movie called Etoile where she's a ballet dancer. Anyway, getting Connelly into the cinema is one of the many great things Leone did over his illustrious career.

Vanes: The thing I was thinking about throughout the movie was that McGovern looked enough like Connelly, at least her face, not the other way ;)

Mike: All comparisons between the two are pretty bleak for McGovern. She was the better actress AT THE TIME, but what else can we say in her favor?

Vanes: We see his first shooting, where his friend Dominique dies in his hands. From there, with the use of flashback, we find out how SOME of these happenings evolve, change Noodles life. The beauty of this movie is that like in real life we don't find out everything that happened to Noodles. We might suppose something, but we're only told a certain amount of things. This is a look at how Noodles changes, becomes a man without emotions because of what he's seen and done in his life. His life is one of constant regret, until he finds inner peace 35 years later.

After years in prison, the ambient is changed. Max has become a man full of ambition, perhaps too full. He finds himself like a stranger when presented to his new "partner" (played by Joe Pesci). In a scene that I consider a masterpiece in its own, Noodles takes a cup of tea. While he keeps circling the spoon to dissolve the sugar, Leone focuses on everyone's facial expression, with silence. We come to understand that something is going on; that everything is changed from the old gang of Noodles' childhood.

Too many things happen in this movie to mention, and going ahead citing the story would just ruin the enjoyment of the movie.

Mike: The problem some people have with the movie is the tidy, predictable, formulaic structuring of American cinema has ruined them. This movie spans several decades, but unlike The Godfather, it's not totally linear like many people automatically expect a movie to be. You actually have to pay close attention (although as far as the time cuts go, each has it's cue) and think because things don't necessarily come together or even make sense when we first see them. In some cases, they don't ever come together, but everything doesn't need to here because it's segments of a life. This makes the movie more fascinating, frustrating, or a combination of both depending on where you are coming from. For me it's the former, but I'll admit this is the kind of film that probably requires a second viewing.

Vanes: A small comparison could be made to "Time Regained." While the "confusion" there was generated by the fact that memory is misleading, many facts here are hidden, confusing or hard to understand because such is life. Not everything comes to an end, is perfectly understandable or stands out in your memory. We see through the eyes of Noodles, but we don't see everything. There isn't a bullshit Hollywood payoff, which makes this movie even better.

Mike: This was not some masturbatory technique employed by Leone; it makes sense to do the movie this way because it explores the heart and soul of its main character, a main character who is waging a war with himself. It s not the fault of Leone if your attention span isn't great enough for his masterwork. He does everything he can to keep us interested without compromising his work for any reason.

Vanes: They actually were smart to show this in two parts, on consecutive nights. It's not easy to hold your attention for almost 4 hours and remember everything, connect the pieces. This "break" helped me focus on what happened in the first part way better, thus I didn't need a second viewing because what had to be clear became clear, and what didn't, was intended to be that way.

Mike: I'd much rather see it straight through if that's what was intended because the film has its rhythm and flow. Something is lost when you start disjointing it. I don't think a film ever has the same impact when it gets split up. That's one reason I won't watch a movie with commercials; it starts becoming 10-minute scenes rather than pieces of a whole.

Vanes: This, as I said, is not a typical gangster movie with tons of shootings, murders, and "action."

Mike: The rap against gangster movies is that everyone is enticed by the crime. They long to be able to do whatever they please like these guys, and they want to be entertained by the bloody, gangland violence. While I admit I'll never forget Pesci crushing a poor saps head in a vice in Casino, and don't disagree that these comments are true about a certain segment of the population, it's frustrating to be wrongly pigeonholed by people who don't take the time to figure out what is good about something. Hell, I doubt most of these people watch more than cleverly packaged clips about whatever evils they are crusading against. By all means, this is a violent film, but it's not any kind of an action film, it's a thinking man's film.

Vanes: When violence, nudity, language, etc. all have a meaning, I don't see why people should hide behind masturbatory "politically correct" censorship or consider something bad or morally offensive. It's when is gratuitous violence just for the hell of it that those things lose their  meaning and are just there to please the audience (see Halle Berry and her "breast enhanced" cachet for Swordfish)

Mike: If there must be censorship, it should be based on the intent and merit of the piece. What we get in the US is always based on the sheer number of "offensive" material and how conventional the material is. It doesn't even matter if the movie is a cautionary tale against the excesses it's presenting. You get drug use marked against you whether you portray it as cool or deadly, which quite frankly is a joke. If you look over the short list of NC-17 movies, you'll notice that it's not a collection of whatever Jacqueline Lovell or Julie Strain movies made it to a theatre, it's loaded with top notch directors. I'm talking about people like Bertolucci, Oshima, Ferrara, Greenaway, Cronenberg, Kaufman, Aronofsky, Jodorowsky, & Almodovar. These guys aren't making exploitation flicks, and sadly if they were they probably could get the R. They have something to say and aren't going to compromise their vision for some rater that doesn't pay attention to it in the first place. Unfortunately, this rating is very prohibitive of their messages finding a wide audience, and that's the real problem with the system. I don't disagree that some of them should only be seen by 17 and up, but the problem is most theatres won't show an NC-17 movie because that would mean they'd actually have to turn people away. In my area, if I want to see an NC-17 or unrated movie, I have to either buy it or hope one of the lame video stores will stock one measly copy of it rather than a 40th copy of Battlefield Earth, Charlie's Angels, or Coyote Ugly. The rating, or lack there of, doesn't so much prevent kids from seeing the movie, it prevents most adults from seeing the movie.

It's not even so much of a gangster film in the sense that the gangsters are definitive of American capitalism. For the non-vampires, what makes gangster movies, as well as The Sopranos, some of the best is the character development. Even though we don't agree with their actions, we feel like we know these people. We care about them even after seeing them do some of the most horrific deeds. We wish they weren't in the situation they are in, but we know they've gone too far to get out alive. When other genres match the best gangster stuff for writing, we enjoy them too even if we don't get a body count.

Vanes: Exactly. The character development makes Tony Soprano and Noodles two "sympathetic," if not likable, characters because we at least understand the things they're going through. They might not be conventional "good guys," but they have a certain quality, a certain honesty, that makes you like them.

Mike: What makes the Sopranos stand out is the balance between the various aspects of Tony's life. His values are often so contradictory, and even though it's hard and his success is so varied, you see how he tries to do the right thing when it comes to his real family and his external family of mobsters. Getting back to Goodfellas, their powerful bonds of family and friendship are what makes us be able to consider them to kind of be good fellas. Even the outsiders like Lorraine Bracco's Karen Hill eventually become so absorbed in the lifestyle, in its ties and binds, that it defines not only her life but her illusion of it.

Vanes: Even though there's a lot of physical violence (a rape, for example), many people might be turned off by it and chalk it up as a "boring" movie. That would be the biggest mistake you could make.

Mike: The rape of Deborah is a substantial act considering Noodles loves and clearly sees the purity in his childhood sweetheart. It's horrific, but when he realizes what he's done, it actually results in a positive turning point in his life.

Vanes: Sergio Leone fulfills your request for entertainment with style, with charm, with beautiful cinematography, and by letting the story evolve piece by piece. It's a slow-paced movie, but the length is required because everything, from big happenings to the smallest detail has a meaning, and Leone makes it mean something in the overall story. One thing l liked is that Max and Noodles first meet for a watch, and they meet for the last time with the same watch. That is style.

Now that we've taken care of Leone's masterful direction, some words must be spent on Tonino Delli Colli's awesome cinematography and the general look of the movie. There are several long shots, that make the scenes have more impact that they should, and also close-ups that reveal emotion (just like the last, beautiful image of this movie). It's a very 70's feel for the direction, and a staple of Leone.

Mike: One of the defining aspects of the movie is that the attention to detail is tremendous. The settings, which are of the utmost importance in a period piece like this, are so realistic. You'd only guess that much of the film was not shot on location because obviously the look of the locations has changed with time.

Vanes: Moving to another really important aspect of "Once Upon A Time In America," I can't forget Ennio Morricone's incredible soundtrack. As a "student of the game," I listened to and played many Morricone scores, but this is what I consider his best one (The Mission could be debatable as close second, trailed by the Spaghetti Western era soundtracks). This is the most moving, involving, and emotionally touching soundtrack I've ever experienced. The closest thing to this feeling happened to me with James Horner's "Glory." It conveys sadness, betrayal, happiness and love in such a great way. I don't think the movie would be the same without it. Just a masterpiece of musical art. This is right up there in the top 10 of all time with Herrmann's "Citizen Kane," Williams' "Star Wars," and Goldsmith's "Patton," among others.

Mike: Morricone's soundtrack is just so beautiful. It's one of those few soundtracks that just transcends. It should be something of a downer with so much longing and regret, but it's just so masterfully tinged that, while incredibly moving, you have to keep listening and are kind of uplifted at the same time just by being in the presence of great art. I'd like to take my usual jab at the Academy Awards, but the U.S. release was so half ass that they forgot to submit Morricone's work into the competition. To add insult to injury, this allowed one of those grating repetitive Maurice Jarre scores (A Passage to India) to win. Getting back to your point though, nothing Williams, Horner, or Goldsmith has ever done is near the level of Morricone's work here. Leone deserves some of the credit for the soundtrack because he described what he wanted to Morricone so well that 2/3 of the soundtrack was done before they started shooting and they were able to play it on the set. This is Morricone's best work, and arguably the best of all movie scores.

Vanes: The acting is obviously tremendous. De Niro is as perfect as he can be as Noodles, and James Woods plays his role in a very effective way. The supporting cast is excellent, from the aforementioned Jennifer Connelly to the great performance of Elizabeth McGovern. The rest of the cast is a who's who of performers, including Joe Pesci, Danny Aiello, & William Forsythe. This is not something for the average moviegoer because it doesn't have a "fulfilling" beginning-development-end structure. Many people might be left wondering what's really going on at the end. This is, though, a masterpiece because of the way Leone portrays the story, and the awesome acting, cinematography and soundtrack. One of my favorite movies of all time, and something that really touches you.  



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