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  • Post last modified:March 21, 2021

Once Upon a Time in America: On the Way to Ruin


Legendary director Sergio Leone’s final film is his most ambitious epic, routinely thought of as one of those great gangster movies. When I saw it the other night for the first time in many years I realized that all the mobster ingredients take a backseat to tragedy. This is in fact a very sad experience about people unable to stop themselves from ruining their lives.

Trying to impress Deborah
The film is divided into three sections set in different eras; the narrative jumps between them. In the early 1920s we follow the protagonists as kids, ten years later as young, increasingly successful mobsters and then in 1968 as old men. When we first meet David “Noodles” Aaronson in 1921, he spends his days in the Jewish part of Brooklyn, stealing things and trying to impress Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), a girl who wants to be a dancer. He gets to know Max Bercovicz who becomes his partner-in-crime. Together with other local kids they form a gang that challenges a young hoodlum called Bugsy; they’re inexperienced and the power struggle ends in tragedy. Noodles goes to prison for murder, even though he’s a kid, and isn’t released until a decade later. Max welcomes him back into the gang and Noodles learns that they have become prosperous. He also meets Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) again, who’s still trying to break through as an artist.

As Noodles, Max and the gang become more deeply involved in the world of organized crime, including working with unions, Noodles makes a final effort in wooing Deborah, but she rejects him, the romantic evening ends in horror and Deborah leaves him for Hollywood. In 1968, Noodles is contacted by an unknown person, leaves the place where he’s been hiding for 35 years and goes back to New York. As he tries to find out who contacted him, the memories overwhelm him.

An authentic feel
That’s just bits and pieces of the story. The film has an authentic feel, and it may have been inspired by the friendship between Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, but the script was not based on reality. Viewers are nevertheless likely to be drawn into this world and remain fairly captivated by it for four hours. The point of the film seems to show how attractive the Mafia appears when you’re a kid, how the work becomes bloodier when you’re all grown up, how the organization infiltrates various corners of the American society and how it is finally made respectable when you’re an old man – but engaging in it is also a sure way to destroy everything you hold dearly.

The tone of the film remains rather gloomy (not least thanks to Ennio Morricone’s outstanding, beautiful score); the relationships all have a touch of sadness. These are people who always are close to happiness and greatness but never manage to embrace them. The most tragic and moving ingredient is without a doubt the affair between Noodles and Deborah; the incident that drives them apart is a truly agonizing event and their reunion in 1968 only emphasizes what could have been.

Solid acting from everyone involved; this is a case where it is the entire cast as a whole that stands out. Director Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli create a few stunning visuals (even though they’ve opted not to use the widescreen format for once), including the iconic image of the kids walking by the huge Manhattan Bridge.

It has been suggested, including by Leone, that the whole story is an opium dream Noodles has. I don’t care. I can’t see how this great story would be even better were it a dream. But that possibility sure gives the film another layer.

Once Upon a Time in America 1984-U.S. 229 min. Color. Produced by Arnon Milchan. Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay: Sergio Leone, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini. Novel: Harry Grey (“The Hoods”). Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli. Music: Ennio Morricone. Art Direction: Carlo Simi. Costume Design: Gabriella Pescucci. Cast: Robert De Niro (David “Noodles” Aaronson), James Woods (Max Bercovicz), Elizabeth McGovern (Deborah Gelly), Tuesday Weld, Larry Rapp, William Forsythe… Treat Williams, Burt Young, Joe Pesci, Danny Aiello, Jennifer Connelly.

Trivia: Connelly’s film debut. The film originally premiered in the U.S. in a mutilated state, running 139 min; another version is 190 min. Gérard Depardieu and Richard Dreyfuss were allegedly considered for parts in the film.

BAFTA: Best Score, Costume Design.

Last word: “We began to procure rights to the cinematographic adaptation, which, however, was already in the hands of other film-world hombres. It wasn’t very easy, but we finally managed, with cleverness and many dollars, to rip off the rights from the legitimate holders. That was already the first sign of where things were heading. Then the infernal screenplay-writing season began. Nor­man Mailer was among the first to work on it. He barricaded himself in a Rome hotel room with a box of cigars, his typewriter, and a bottle of whiskey. But, I’m sorry to say, he only gave birth to a Mickey Mouse version. Mailer, at least to my eyes, the eyes of an old fan, is not a writer for movies.” (Leone, American Film)



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