Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

“No trouble. Kid stuff.”

★★★★★

Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Harry Grey (novel), Leonardo Benvenuti
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern

It’s hard not to think of Coppola’s The Godfather when watching Once Upon a Time in America. Both involve immigrant gangsters and span decades in the epic lives of complex and compelling characters drawn to a glorious, dangerous, and tragic take on the American Dream. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, however, peels off the superficial conventions of the traditional gangster genre in ways that are far grittier and more powerful than you might expect. Not only does Leone cover ambition, betrayal, and the moral ambiguity of criminality, but also examines the movements of time, memory, and emotion with the technical skill of a master. As Leone’s final film, it is arguably his finest.  

For young Jewish boys – David “Noodles” Aaronson (De Niro), Max (Woods), Patsy, and Cockeye- their childhood days growing up in New York is defined by a life of crime that has cemented the foundation to their unshakable friendship, sense of purpose, and happiness. Through the Prohibition era, the boys turned men dabble in murder, theft, bribery, blackmail, rape, and extortion with no real end to their greed. With continued success comes continued discontent, and it is in their inability to resist the desire and gratification of crime (beautifully depicted in the metaphorical act of young Patsy eating a cream cake initially intended for his love interest) that they find their own demise. Thirty five years later, Noodles returns to New York in response to a mysterious invitation that brings back reflections of his past and a chance to confront his demons.

The structure of Once Upon a Time in America is a complex one, navigated by the unpredictable twists of Noodles’ mind. Throughout the film, Leone uses music – from operatic classical music to familiar contemporary pop scores – like strands of memories that saturate visuals, bringing out specific atmospheric moments and emotions in ways that dialogue simply cannot. With the luxury of time (the film’s total running time being 227 minutes), Leone immerses every scene with rich imagery, masterful performances, and compelling drama. It might be one LONG movie, but you will be captivated every second of the way.

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