Articles/Movie Reviews/Other/Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Sergio Leone is well known for his epic series of "spaghetti westerns" that made Clint Eastwood famous. What he isn't so well known for is this film. And yet, he put an unbelievable amount of work into it, striving to bring to life an epic gangster film to rival "The Godfather".

After creating hours upon hours of film, he edited the film to his liking. However, the studios totally butchered his masterpiece and released it to theaters in very bad shape. As a result, the movie received bad reviews and a great deal of negative criticism due to its horrendous editing. Today, with the release of his director's cut, we are finally able to see the movie the way he intended it to be seen. This review covers this director's cut, not the garbage that the studios made Leone release to theaters.

I say that this film is epic, and it truly is. It covers the lives of four young Jewish boys who live in New York City in the early 1900s. They are from poor families and get involved in criminal activities, eventually becoming wealthy bootleggers during Prohibition. Therefore, this film is divided into several distinct parts, covering nearly their entire lives. We first see them as young boys, then as adults, and finally in old age when they are reunited.

The boys playing the gangsters in their youth are unknowns, but they did a great job of acting. They act the way we would expect mischievous young hoodlums to act, yet display an attachment to each other. The chemistry between the young boys sets the stage for their future as a tightly knit gang. Some of the things they do are quite shocking, such as committing violent acts and even hiring prostitutes, but with virtually no parental supervision it is easy to see why.

The four older men consist of Robert De Niro as David "Noodles" Aaronson, James Woods as Max Bercovicz, James Hayden as Patrick "Patsy" Goldberg, and William Forsythe as Philip "Cockeye" Stein. Other important characters include Noodles' love interest, Deborah Gelly, who is played by Elizabeth McGovern, and Treat Williams playing a socialist union leader named James Conway O'Donnel. Joe Pesci even makes a small appearance as Frankie Minaldi. The acting from this cast is great and really shows the intimacy we would expect from a group of lifelong friends.

The sets in the film seem to accurately show New York City as it was in the early 20th century, when immigration was still occurring at a rapid pace. We see no hints of modern civilization, except in parts of the film showing Noodles as an old man. After watching the movie, I felt a lot more familiar with the era and learned a lot about the culture at that time.

The music is almost all period music, although there is one modern song that is played during the modern era scenes. Most of what you hear is classical music and jazz, which was very popular during the early 20th century. My favorite piece is the main theme, which makes a frequent appearance throughout the film.

A lot of the camera angles in the film are pretty unique and help to keep the film interesting. Some decisions just ended up being annoying though. For example, there is a scene where the phone rings for a minute or two before being answered. I also found it hard to take the violent scenes seriously since the fake blood used in the film is more orangeish and looks very fake.

Despite the few shortcomings, this film is very good and features some excellent acting. The director's cut lasts nearly four hours in its entirety, but it does not become boring, rather it becomes more exciting as the film goes on. If you are a fan of crime films or Leone's work, I highly recommend that you check this overlooked gem out. I award it five stars in spite of the few issues I had with it.