Great Films: Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984, Italy / USA)


Sergio Leone’s final film is a tangle of contradictions; at once both unflinchingly violent and wistfully nostalgic, a sweeping epic that is intensely personal. It is perhaps unfortunate that it is often referred to as a poor relative of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, given that although the settings of the two films may be similar, they are radically different in thematic content and ambitions. Once Upon A Time in America deserves to be recognised as a classic in its own right, and on its own merits, rather than in the shade of that other gangster epic.

Epic is indeed the word to describe the film in terms of length; the original cut shown at Cannes runs to 229 minutes, just shy of four hours. While this is still short of something like Bernardo Bertolucci’s ridiculously long Novecento (1976), which weighs in at five-and-a-quarter hours, this is still in the realms of a very long piece of work. Far too long, it was deemed, for an American audience, who were instead presented with a butchered 139 minute cut which destroyed the non-chronological order of the original film, a cut which Roger Ebert quite rightly described as ‘a travesty’ on its release. The structure of the film is absolutely crucial to the film’s integrity.

In describing this structure, it must first be emphasized that this is by no means a film which can be understood by conventional analysis, since the viewer’s reference timeframe is frequently changed. The film presents three separate timeframes: the protagonists’ childhood of the 1920s, their adulthood in Prohibition-era 1930s, and a much later late-1960s setting. Leone was always a director keen to subvert audience expectations, and what he does here is play with the viewer’s perception of which of these three is effectively the ‘here and now’. While a conventional drama would have the later of the timeframes as the reference, thus rendering the other two as flashbacks, there are times when the middle frame feels like the reference, making the last frame a kind of a ‘flash-forward’.

The idea of a ‘flash-forward’ raises serious problems, and has generated wildly differing interpretations of the film’s closing scene, some believing that the 1960s timeframe is merely a construct of Noodles’ opium-stoned imagination. For me, there are too many signposts which can discredit this theory: anachronisms such as the use of Paul McCartney’s Yesterday, and the presence of televisions, jet aircraft and even frisbees cannot, for me, be explained as a psychic prediction of the future by a pot-smoking Noodles in the 1930s. Nevertheless, it is a debate that will certainly rage on, much like the endless bickering between Shadean and Kinbotean readers of Vladimir Nabokov’s similarly enigmatic Pale Fire.

The purpose of this construction is more than just Leone mind-games; one of the key themes of the film is the passing of time, and its effects on relationships, friendships and the way society changes. Regardless of one’s own interpretation of the film’s structure, the core of the film is ultimately centred on an old friendship which is betrayed out of one character’s love for the other, despite the life-changing consequences of his actions, and also how friendships, partnerships and politics are affected by power, greed and corruption. What we don’t get, however, is catharsis or any happy endings, instead the film leaving a more melancholy sense of change and loss.

Accompanying these personal changes is one of the true stars of the film: the city of New York. Whilst the Vito Corleone segments of The Godfather, Part 2 wonderfully evoked the city’s Little Italy, Once Upon a Time in America does a similarly brilliant job with the Jewish ghetto in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. The costumes, music, cars and buildings of 1920s and 1930s America are superbly reproduced; it has often been called the greatest film reproduction of the Prohibition era, a not unimpressive feat.

A word about the music: it may seem heathen to even suggest it, but on first viewing I found the Ennio Morricone score a little too sentimental at times, perhaps more befitting the saccharine dewy-eyed romanticism of a film such as Cinema Paradiso. However, on later watches I came to understand why it is considered his best work, and in fact how crucial it is to framing the structure of the film.

Leone’s choice of aspect ratio is also noteworthy: the Spaghetti Westerns for which he is so synonymous with were shot in 2.35:1, giving them their sparse, epic feel. With America, he shot 1.85:1, making the film feel a touch less dynamic, but more personal. His camerawork is also much more restrained here, there is not much of the mesmeric style he had cultivated in his prior films, up to and including the peerless C’era Una Volta Il West.

Once Upon a Time in America took up seventeen years of Sergio Leone’s life in its creation, during which time he turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather. It would be his final film, and in many ways it is an exception to the films he had directed up until then, but it is also a wonderful culmination of his filmmaking talents. Sometimes, directors end up making too many films, ending their careers long after making their great works; others, perhaps, never reach a satifactory conclusion. Leone, though, managed to finish his career with a defining work: a meditation on life and loss, on the importance of friendships, and the interchangeabilty of past, present and future.

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