Once Upon a Time in America-1984
Starring-Robert De Niro, James Woods
Reviewed January 19, 2015
An epic film, close to four hours in length, Once Upon a Time in America is a film directed by Sergio Leone who also directed the masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West and numerous other westerns starring Clint Eastwood. This particular film is in a different vein- this time Leone explores the crime drama genre. The film tells the story of a group of Jewish friends who become involved in organized crime in 1920’s New York City. The main story is told via flashbacks as the central character, Noodles, played by Robert De Niro, returns to Brooklyn thirty years later to reunite with his former mobster friends. The film has been met with controversy since at the time of its release the film was butchered and over an hour of footage cut making the film largely uneven. Fortunately, the restored version is available for viewing.
Once Upon a Time in America is underappreciated and deserves mention as a very good crime epic drama. It has the same feel as does The Godfather and The Godfather Part II and the role De Niro plays is not too different from Vito Corleone in Part II. The film centers mainly on Noodles perspective as he enjoys youth in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he meets his group of lifelong friends. The focal point is his friendship with Max, the adult character played by James Woods, and his undying love for Deborah, played by Elizabeth McGovern as an adult. As kids they are worry free, but gradually fall in with a group of older mobsters, first doing their dirty work, followed by venturing out on their own.
The themes of the film are loyalty, childhood friendship, betrayal, and greed as all of the characters change (or die) in the time span that the film takes place. When a mysterious letter forces Noodles to resurface in Brooklyn, we begin to understand the back story and the history between the friends.
I found the film to drag slightly in the middle section, but the first part and last part are very well made and absorbing. Leone has a way of pacing the film that really works- it is methodical, nuanced, with wonderful set pieces and each period of time explored- 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1960’s seem equally as authentic as the next one does. I especially enjoyed the 1920’s art direction- it revealed such a state of genuineness and felt like truly being there in that time period.
The relationship between Noodles and Deborah is an interesting one worth mentioning. Falling in love as youngsters (when Deborah was played by a very young Jennifer Connelly) they had an innocent, puppy love relationship. As adults, due to a violent, disgraceful act, their tender relationship is subsequently ruined and one might argue one of the characters turned quite unsympathetic.
Once Upon a Time in America is a sprawling epic film sure to be enjoyed by fans of the crime epic drama genre and specifically Sergio Leone fans- an under appreciated gem.