With the possible exception of Sam Peckinpah and John Ford, few filmmakers have left as indelible an impact on a film genre than Sergio Leone has had on westerns. Inspired by Akria Kurosawa's gritty samurai film Yojimbo, Leone used to his trademark visual style and European flare to create a masterful western adaptation called A Fistful Of Dollars. So successful it spawned two sequels (For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), the Dollars Trilogy broke new ground with it's cynical and gritty take on the American west and redefined a genre. Not to mention making it's gaunt, pancho clad star Clint Eastwood an icon.
While Leone's efforts to reinvent the western proved to be wildly successful, his attempt to do the same with another traditionally American story, the gangster epic, did not end nearly as well. At least on paper Once Upon A Time In America seems like a sure thing. You had a director who was devoted to the project. Leone spent years trying to get the script to screen and turned down a chance to direct The Godfather, just to work on it. You had a talented and diverse cast which featured such notables as an in his prime Robert De Niro and James Woods. On top of that Leone also had an army of extras and some of the most beautiful sets in cinematic history at his disposal with which to lovingly recreate four decades worth of the Big Apple. Theoretically, combining all those factors together should have produced a film whose quality was beyond question. However Leone had failed to take into account his distributors, who chose to discard the director's lengthy final cut. In its place they released 139 minute cut which was widely panned. Leone would die five years after the film's 1984 release. He would never complete another.
However like the similarly mauled 1982 classic Blade Runner, Once Upon A Time In America has found new life thanks to home release. Restored to a three hour and forty minute running time, the film can now be seen in a form far closer to what Leone originally intended. Centred around David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro as an adult, Scott Tiler as a youth), a Jewish boy living in the 1920s Lower East Side of Manhattan, the film follows his life as he and his friend Max (James Woods/Rusty Jacobs) are drawn into life of crime thanks to ambition and poverty. While the money is good the boys and their small gang of friends also learn a hard lesson about their chosen profession when a local thug shoots the gang's youngest member and Noodles is jailed for stabbing him in revenge. Picking up in the 1930s, Noodles leaves jail to find his gang has found more illicit success thanks to Prohibition. Noodles quickly returns to crime and enjoys the life of excess until Max's ambitions and his own uncertainties begin to get the better of him. In an effort to stop Max and escape a life he has come to regret, Noodles turns rat. With his friends shot dead by the police thanks to his tip and angry thugs hunting him down, Noodles flees into hiding for thirty years until a mysterious letter draws him home to New York and back into danger.
Once Upon A Time In America is without a doubt one of the most beautifully shot and stylistic gangster epics an audience is ever likely to see. Few other directors can move from tense close-ups to monumental wide shots with such grace as Leone. The cast all turn in excellent performances, especially Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs whose chemistry together carries half the film on their young shoulders. Chemistry which their older counterparts De Niro and Woods share and build upon. Even a twelve year old Jennifer Connelly proves her worth playing the precocious younger version of Noodles' love interest Deborah. Spanning from the 1920s to 1968, Leone tells the story in a non-chronological format. Flashing back and forward either as characters are reminded of something from their past or encounter something that echoes in their future. Some of these transitions even assume a dreamlike or hallucinatory quality as the 1930s version of Noodles spends much of the movie in an opium den, high off his gourd and dreaming about the past. This approach allows Leone to move fluidly between different eras in a way that Godfather II's two interconnected but separate time lines could not. Of course this ambitious rotating time frame would not have been possible without the truly astounding efforts of Art Designer Carlo Simi and Costumer Gabriella Pesucci, who won an Oscar for her efforts.
Unfortunately the same thing which makes Once Upon A Time In America an artistic achievement also prevents it from being a truly effective film: Sergio Leone. While undeniably beautiful, Leone's version also saddles Once Upon A Time In America with a pace that can best be described as glacial and a length which you feel the entire way. Likewise Leone's trademark visuals are a double edged sword. Long running wide or distant shots, effective for showing the hostility of a wild west landscape or the scope of New York City panorama, have a nasty habit of spoiling the intimacy of interior scenes. Not to mention that Leone's love of long montages or whole sequences with almost no dialogue and little character interaction, will likely fall flat for audiences used to far more wordy gangster films like Goodfellas or Casino. The script, which was co-authored by Leone, is well written but not the most original gangster story ever told. Though he does deserve credit for exploring Jewish organized crime as opposed to the more familiar Irish or Italian mob stories. Leone also has a habit of turning many of his characters into nearly-irredeemable bastards in order to achieve moral complexity. While most audiences will generally forgive the protagonist for inflicting pain during the course of a gangster film, some may find some of Noodles' other sins harder to brush aside. Even though Noodles is truly regretful and tries to atone, Leone consciously undermines him yet again by spending a good deal of screen time exploring the long lasting and far ranging damage his actions have done. Which in my opinion, is more important for a film about crime than audience sympathy.
Final Verdict: A gorgeous and unique approach to the gangster film despite the director's eccentricities.
4 out of 5