The first time I saw Once Upon A Time In America, I hated it. Not because it was a “bad” film at all, mind you. Hell, I was a mere 20 years old and not much of the older, wiser appreciator of film I’ve become (along with possibly being a little bit of a pompous ass about it), so going in at that age and “getting” all that director Sergio Leone intended was going to be way above my head. Actually, I’d read that the film was very heavily edited by the studio and that made me dislike what I saw more than any issues I had with Leone’s craft. Which was none, by the way.
That initial 139-minute release was so butchered as to render whole scenes meaningless or confusing upon my initial viewing, but there was no denying the compelling performances from the entire cast, Tonino Delli Colli’s absolutely gorgeous cinematography, Ennio Morricone’s epic, near-operatic score and Leone’s assured yet polarizing directorial choices that confused some in the theater I saw the film with who were expecting the third coming of The Godfather (a film Leone was picked to direct at one point). Yes, I “hated” the film, but I knew I had to see it again because there was enough there… no, more than enough that made it a truly great film that was chopped up and placed in what the studio felt was a proper order. I’d gather the powers that be assumed audiences weren’t patient enough to get into a film that was intentionally going to flip the crime genre on its head by being more than just a crime drama.
Flash forward thirty years and all the pieces (well, most of them) are in place, the film is back in my life (and more widely available thanks to a recent Blu-Ray version) in nearly its full glory and celebrated as a masterpiece. And yet, it’s still a properly vexing viewing experience if you go into it expecting what it’s not…
Like David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) staring through that shop window (and repeating other motions in near exact form throughout the film), there’s a sense of déjà vu when one revisits something and sees more in that viewing, even if it’s not fully understood. The linear American cut tells the straightforward story of Noodles and his loyal crew of would-be young gangsters as more of a real-life Our Gang short extended into a movie length Twilight Zone episode (and despite the editing, not a particularly coherent one). No one is very nice to anyone, there’s some shocking violence, all the women here get treated very badly, nearly every main character dies and seemingly important characters appear and have no dialog and/or vanish for no reason other than thanks to the editing, there’s no time to explain who these people were and why they’re integral to the plot. In the restored version, everyone is still as unlikable as before and the women only get a tiny bit more respect. But you see more of why these bad boys grow into worse young men and only a few make it to being older men who don’t necessarily enjoy the lives they’ve lead when we see them again.
As teens, Noodles and his crew manage to sock away some of their stolen money into a suitcase “bank” fund they plan to split at some point in the future. Things go a bit wrong, Noodles goes to jail for ten years and when he’s freed, he meets up with the remaining members of the gang: Max (James Woods), Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe) and they scheme up one last big job that should be the score of a lifetime, but Noodles declines to participate thanks to an allergy to the potential of adding a wee bit too much lead in his diet. Naturally, things go south when at the bequest of the Max’s girlfriend, Noodles rats out the gang and they’re all killed in the resulting shootout. Allegedly. A guilty Noodles scampers away to bury his guilt over the loss of his former pals in an opium den and it’s here where things get interesting… if you’ve seen both versions of the film.
Flashback to 1984, and I’m recalling the linear narrative seeing this moment at the end and hearing very distinct groaning from somewhere in the theater. I didn’t quite get what that was about, but I was a bit confused that after all that epic storytelling and less than epic studio hack job editing, the film closed with Noodles in a haze, as if he’d never gotten older and everything past that point was a weird dream. Amusingly enough, about a week or two later, I’m talking to a friend of a friend who saw the film and roared out loud with laughter when I mentioned the ending sequence. “Did you ever smoke opium?” he asked when he came up for air from his window-rattling laugh. I told him no and I had no interest in it, and he noted that he’d had a girlfriend who did just that because it made her have the craziest dreams, including some where she saw older and younger versions of herself as clear as day doing mundane as well as weird things.
I felt a bit cheated after that (and on a side note, the young Jennifer Connelly aging into Elizabeth Perkins made for a somewhat amusing in joke as the years passed), but I had to see the film again when it showed up on VHS (I actually bought a copy and owned it for over a decade) and when the laserdisc version arrived in 1985, I talked a friend who had one of those expensive players into buying himself a copy and showing up with some takeout food when he called to say he’d picked up the disc. Finally seeing the longer cut was a revelation unlike no other I’d had before when seeing two versions of a movie. Even though the narrative was more scattered, the story made MORE sense, characters who briefly appeared were more fleshed out and the sheer scope of Leone’s work was magnified (it was already a magnificent looking film in theaters, but somehow more impressive to me in the LD format). The film also tossed in plenty of questions about characters and scenes, but the opium dream angle made some transitions (such as the famous Frisbee shot and why another character disappears entirely as a truck passes) more impressive.
Trying to review this one like a standard film is deceptive, as there are layers of depth that require repeated viewings. I sat through the recently released blu-ray version four times over a month, each time finding something I’d missed or a new funny bit of business (for all the violence and grim tone here, this is a pretty amusing movie when it needs to be). Leone not only crafted his last great film, but one that’s going to appeal to those who love crime dramas as well as movies that test one’s capacity to see more than what’s on screen. Is the film only important up to Noodles’ opium induced vivid dreams? Or is it a message piece about the patterns we all take in life, be they good, bad or ugly? Maybe it’s both and maybe not.
Then again, I should have realized something was up when I first saw the movie poster in a subway station and later in a full-page ad in a newspaper. I got a good laugh at the otherwise beautiful image of those young kids under the Brooklyn Bride because if you looked at the background, you can clearly see modern buildings (including the World Trade Center) through the smudge pot haze. I thought it was a hilarious gaffe, but perhaps Leone KNEW this would get people who saw it and were more open-minded thinking when they saw the film about the time-jumping and hopefully they’d piece together things at the ending. At least that would have worked with his initial cut – the 139 minute version gives you that final shot and hopes you’ll figure it out. If you don’t, you’re left hanging in the wind and wanting your time back.
Leone was clearly making the film he wanted to make and I’m gathering the crushing disappointment of the studio snatching his baby away and giving it a nose job affected his desire to create as well as his health. he never made another film after that and died five years later at age 60, too early for a director who borrowed from the best and made better films while inspiring a legion of directors to swipe from his work even to this day. Now that I think about it, I was angry at the studio again when I heard Leone has passed away because it bought back memories of reading about how badly he probably felt that all his hard work never got to be seen in exactly the manner he’d intended it to. You should probably rectify that soon, I say. Take a nice slow day to watch this and be prepared to be pulled in and amazwd at the incredible final work of a director gone far too soon…
This post is part of the 1984-A-Thon held over at Forgotten Films, and in case you didn’t know, that particular year was pretty amazing for movies. Well, you’ll find out soon enough when you click on those links above and check out the long, long list of other reviews!