Overview: After years of solitude, an ex-gangster reflects on his long and tumultuous career when he returns to his old stomping grounds in Manhattan. 1984; Warner Bros. Pictures; Rated R; 229 minutes.
Time Is An Ocean: Once Upon A Time In America is predominantly told through flashbacks. The past we are witnessing is the past as remembered by Robert De Niro’s character, David “Noodles” Aaronson. Filtered through tears and cataract-stricken eyes, it is displayed in a fragmented manner, cutting back and forth and not always showing the whole story until the end. The film weaves in and out of time, like wind through a wheat field. World War II becomes Vietnam. Friends become enemies. The living become the dead. January becomes November. Sergio Leone sees time as if it’s liquid. Nothing is truly in grasp of the characters, it is all sand, slipping slowly away. Through the whole four hour run time, we meet people and form relationships as if they were real. Watching this is like slipping into someone’s life for a time. It is not always pretty, but it is honest. Everything is real. We are all right alongside Noodles and his friends as they grow. Their pains become ours. It all flows together.
“Where Do You Want to Go?”: The main strength of this film is Leone’s direction. The script has some occasional faults and missteps, but Leone strings it all together in the most beautiful fashion. His camera floats around scenes like a sheet in the wind. Leone is almost the antithesis of his contemporary, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese is fast and kinetic, utilizing quick cuts and dolly shots. Scorsese is a true master, but his style of direction would not work in a film like this. Leone takes his time. He stops and watches the smoke rise out of manholes like spirits leaving New York for something better. Only loneliness and aching are left in place. His camera pushes in slowly on the faces of characters, revealing their pain and anger better than any dialogue could. Leone lets us know that these people were born in the bottom, they are hoods. Crime is all they know, and they have tried to make something out of it. Something good. Prohibition is the best thing that happened to them. But after that? In Leone’s classic westerns, the bandits and cowboys were often left in the literal dust as railroads and civilization encroached further. The gangsters in Once Upon a Time in America are just modern day bandits, made obsolete by the end of Prohibition and Vietnam, left only to reflect on their past.
Score: Resounding through the film is Ennio Morricone;s wistful evocative score. It’s almost a character in and of itself. Every moment is guided by the long and aching melody. Without the soundtrack, this movie would not be complete, and I don’t mean that as a slight.
Overall: Despite some lesser moments and occasional faults in dialogue, Once Upon a Time in America is an incredible film with a grand emotional sweep that is unmatched by anything I have seen. This is not Leone’s best work, but it is his most thematically rich and fully realized. It’s a bit of a time commitment, but if you can make the trip, it’s all worth it.