Film Review: Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Also known as: C’era una volta in America (original Italian title)
Release Date: May 20th, 1984 (Cannes)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Written by: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey
Music by: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Jennifer Connelly, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, Darlanne Fluegel, Mario Brega, Estelle Harris, Louise Fletcher (only in 2012 restoration)

The Ladd Company, Embassy International Pictures, PSO Enterprises, Rafran Cinematografic, Warner Bros., Titanus, 229 Minutes (original), 139 Minutes (original US release)

Review:

“Age can wither me, Noodles. We’re both getting old. All that we have left now are our memories. If you go to that party on Saturday night, you won’t have those anymore. Tear up that invitation.” – Deborah Gelly

I tried watching this about fifteen years ago but if I’m being completely honest, it bored me to tears. And I’m speaking as a guy that has a deep love for the films of Sergio Leone, a man who sits among the best in my Holy Trinity of Motion Picture Directors. The other two being Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick, naturally.

So years later, I felt that I really needed to revisit this, as maybe I wasn’t in the right head space and because I generally have a hard time sitting through movies that feel like they could take up an entire day. Well, this took up an entire afternoon and I did have to take a halftime break and make a ribeye.

But regardless of that, I really enjoyed this picture and I can’t deny that it is one of Leone’s best. In fact, I may have to edit my rankings of his films, as I would now put this third behind The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In the West.

What’s interesting, is that this movie has more in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy than Leone’s own pictures, which were mostly top tier spaghetti westerns. But like his westerns, he also employs the talents of musical maestro Ennio Morricone, who gives real life to the motion picture full of mostly understated performances.

This movie is incredibly slow paced but it’s that kind of slow pace that is more like a slow simmering stew of perfection than the chef accidentally setting the burner too low and walking away.

As far as the acting goes, this is a superb film. Robert De Niro and James Woods own every scene that they’re in. However, the supporting cast is also stupendous, especially the child actors, who play the main characters in lengthy flashback sequences.

This is also compelling in that it is full of unlikable, despicable characters yet you are lured into their world and you do find yourself caring where this is all going and how life will play out for these characters. You never like them but that’s kind of what makes this story so intriguing. With The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, there were things you could connect with and respect about the man, despite his crimes. In Once Upon A Time In America, you don’t really have moments with these characters that humanizes them all that much, in fact it does just the opposite of that. I can see where that might be bothersome to some people but we also live in a world where people saw Walter White from Breaking Bad as some sort of hero.

Once Upon A Time In America also shines in regard to its visual components. It’s a period piece that covers different periods, all of which come off as authentic, even if the city sometimes looks more like it was shot in Europe (some of it was) than truly being Depression Era New York City. But the sets and the location shooting all worked well and this picture boasts some incredible cinematography. It should be very apparent to fans of Leone that he’s taken what he’s learned making fabulous movies and found a way to perfect it, in a visual sense, even more with this, his final picture.

There’s not a whole lot I can pick apart about the movie, other than the pacing being slow. But again, it’s not a painful slow and it certainly isn’t full of pointless filler and exposition. Every frame of this movie needs to exist. But maybe take some breaks or just approach the film like you’re binge watching a short season of a TV show.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Sergio Leone’s other films but this has a lot in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films.

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