Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, James Hayden, Joe Pesci, Larry Rapp, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Burt Young, Jennifer Connelly
Written by: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone, Stuart Kaminsky, based on "The Hoods" by Harry Grey
Directed by: Sergio Leone
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, sexual content, language and some drug use [short version]
Running Time: 229
Date: 02/17/1984

Once Upon a Time In America (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Noodling About

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the finest films of the 1980s, this final film by Sergio Leone was ten years in the making. Hugely complex, achingly sad and splendidly gorgeous, it hops backward and forward to different eras in an opium-induced haze. It's a true epic, a great, sprawling folly, filled with big and small moments, rage and regret, noise and quiet, pugnaciousness and poetry.

In Once Upon a Time in America, David 'Noodles' Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has to get out of town. He goes by a train station locker to retrieve what he thinks is a suitcase full of money, but the money is gone. In flashback, Noodles is a boy on the streets of New York. He falls in love with the pretty Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) and meets his lifelong friends, Max, "Cockeye," and "Patsy," with whom he embarks upon a life of crime.

After a tragic death he goes to prison; when he gets out, his gang has reached adulthood, and prospered through illegal booze during prohibition. Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) continue to do business while Noodles tries to win back the grown-up Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). When prohibition ends, Max begins to plan a big robbery. Noodles makes a hard choice, but years later, he receives a mysterious invitation. Who sent it, and whereever did the locker full of money go?

Although it's punctuated with scenes of brutal violence, including two hard-to-watch rape scenes, the movie is an overall slow burn with many sequences so quiet and reflective that they could be dreams. Many of Leone's touches, such as his use of silence to delay violence, are still here, but more refined for the urban landscape.

Ennio Morricone contributes a beautiful, melancholy score, led by a flute that Forsyth's character plays onscreen. The cast, also including Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Treat Williams, and many more, is uniformly excellent. (Louise Fletcher appears exclusively in restored footage.) Once Upon a Time in America is an essential entry in the gangster genre, worthy of mention alongside the Godfather films and GoodFellas.

Based on a novel by Harry Grey, Once Upon a Time in America was infamously chopped to pieces upon its original 1984 American release, and, after a disastrous reception, was restored to a 229-minute version by year's end. In 2012, it was further restored to 251 minutes (just a tad shy of Leone's preferred 269-minute version). As far as I know, that original butchered cut is almost impossible to see anymore.

Warner Home Video released the film on a DVD set in 2003. It's great to see such a clean, letterboxed print of this film, but the set is not without its drawbacks. Coded onto two discs, the film breaks at a shockingly weird spot and not at the natural intermission included in the film. And the extras leave a lot to be desired; they include an excerpt from a documentary on Leone, but not the whole documentary. Film critic Richard Schickel makes up for it with his commentary track. But the film's sheer glory and magnitude make it a must.

In 2011, the film was remastered for Blu-Ray, and a new DVD was issued as well. I only received the DVD, and though it says "remastered" on the cover, it looks to be about the same as the 2003 edition, including the same extras. In 2015, the longer, 251-minute version was released on Blu-ray.

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