Thursday, June 5, 2014

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Director: Sergio Leone
Writers:  Harry Grey (Novel), Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Franco Ferrini, Ernesto Gastaldi, Stuart M.Kaminsky, Sergio Leone, Enrico Medioli
Cast:       Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern

A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to the lower east side of Manhattan over thirty years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.

When it was done shooting, Leone had around nine hours of footage for a film that was supposed to be 165 minutes long. The script took years in making and the number of people credited for it is testament to that. The three hour forty nine minutes version that I saw is considered to be the director's cut and the one that was shown in Europe. It was well received at the Cannes. This version is not chronologically linear. The studio decided to release it in the US with a shorter bastardized chronologically correct version which was both a critical and commercial failure. If you make it in chronological order it wouldn't make much sense especially the Chinese theater scenes which makes or breaks theories about this film. 

Even the 3:49 version is short by 45 minutes of what Leone wanted it to be. The scenes that were cut involved: Explanation of mob-union relationship, Noodles-Eve relationship and Noodles-Carol old age meeting. I wish I could see with this 45 minutes added because the mob-union storyline is pretty weak as it is. Film is a an elaborate story of friendship and betrayal between Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods) and who betrayed whom would depend on your interpretation of the film. The first version would be the straight up interpretation where Max drove Noodles to call Police in all of them in order to kill his mob partners including Noodles who are holding him back and fake his own death so that he could start a new political career with their money. The second version would be that in the Police encounter, which happened due to Noodles tip, resulted in the death of all three of his business partners and the film is him imagining things on his opium den. I am leaning more towards the second interpretation especially because of the last shot of the film in which Noodles is seen laughing at the audience high on opium. Also the first scene of Noodles at the opium scene shows him clearly reminiscing the call he was about to make to the Police with the phone ringing at the Chinese theater also being heard to ring around 24 times. 

Film under this current version works more as a story about friendship and betrayal rather than a gangster storyline. We can add Deborah to the list along with Noodles and Max in this 'Menage e trois' of friendship and betrayal. There is a scene in which Carol suggests that they could make it a foursome which is also a suggestion to the audience that the film is about these four characters. It would make sense because Max cannot stand Deborah and Noodles cannot stand Carol and this is alluded by the characters twice in the film. The first time I watched it I didn't like parts of it especially their childhood scenes which I thought was poorly acted. This time round I found it to be alright and any problems I have with the film would be because of the editing they were forced to do to reduce the running time. Noodles raping Deborah could be seen as the pivotal scene of the film because the same night, Carol also entered into their fold. The greatness of the film is summed up by the driver during the rape scene which happened in a running car and was shot from inside the old Hollywood style in the way backgrounds move. Driver can be seen as a representative of us the audience with him showing an unsure disgust at Noodles. We are also unsure because we are more sympathetic towards Noodles and Deborah has been a prick tease for him all his life.

This was Sergio Leone's last film and he died without making the Leningrad siege film he was supposed to make. Ennio Morricone's background score is as usual a highlight of the film. It is now my second favorite Leone film after 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'.

Rating: 5/5