Once Upon a Time in America (Full Movie Review)

Once Upon a Time in America
Once Upon a Time in America

The Greatest Gangster Film Ever. I’m Not Kidding. I Seriously Think This Is Far Superior To The Godfather.

I’ve been sitting at my keyboard for approximately an hour, and I haven’t been able to type a single letter until now. I have recently re-watched what I consider to be possibly my favourite film of all time, Once Upon a Time in America. I have assigned myself with the nearly impossible task of reviewing the film. How can I even begin to express the strange beauty of the film? The nostalgia? The sadness of Ennio Morricone’s theme? How can I begin to explain how genius the story is?

When I first saw Once Upon a Time in America my incentive for watching the film, was to see it before Timothy85 did. We would have been thirteen at the time, and he had just left on vacation for a few weeks. He brought his DVD copy of Once Upon a Time in America with him, with plans to finally watch it. I was struck by an overwhelming urge to watch the film before Timothy did, so I got it from the library. At the time, it was a film I knew I was supposed to see, but not one I really wanted to. It had a 8.4 on IMDb, so I figured I would finally slide the DVD into my machine. I should also mention that I didn’t like Sergio Leone at the time. To this day, Once Upon a Time in America is the only film he ever made that I like more than three stars. Anyway, so I watched Once Upon a Time in America, and it ended around 11:30 pm since it was four hours in length. No film had ever surprised me and amazed me on the same level as Once Upon a Time in America, and so the next day when I woke up - I saw it again. And then I watched it again. And again. That was over the course of two days. Later on that summer, Timothy85 called me from where he was vacationing. At practically the same time we blurted out that we may have a new number one film. Oh, but I managed to see it before him. By one day.

Once Upon a Time in America’s plot compels us to understand everything that is happening before our eyes. Leone leaves the perfect amount of moments to make us truly guess the whole situation while perfectly tying in everything. The film is about an ex-gangster called Noodles (Robert De Niro) who returns to his old hometown after being away for 35 years. We don’t know everything about why he left- but we know that he ratted on his friends and he was being hunted down gangsters. Through possibly the greatest flashback scene ever filmed, we see him in his childhood with his childhood gang friends who remain his adulthood gangster friends. His closest friend is named Max (James Woods), and it is their friendship which drives the film to it’s very core. Anyway, Noodles returns to his old hometown of New York City to solve a little bit of a mystery. A “Secretary Bailey” has invited Noodles to his party. Noodles is determined to find out more about Secretary Bailey while we find out more about Noodles. Altogether, the grand scope of Once Upon a Time in America is one of the many things that drive it. Please-- don’t let any obnoxious users with cannot describe plot summaries drive you apart from watching this masterpiece.

I hadn’t seen Once Upon a Time in America in a fair bit, and after stating that this was De Niro’s greatest performance I returned to the film to see if I stand by such a statement. It most certainly is, and here’s why: in Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays a very disillusioned man, in Raging Bull, he plays a brute - but in Once Upon a Time in America, plays two versions of one character. He plays a very naive Noodles, and later a wise and mature Noodles. I tip my hat to the excellence of his portrayal. I would also like to credit James Woods. I have no clue why people like to poke fun at the man - he’s a perfectly fine actor. He was very good in both Videodrome and The Visitors, but neither of those film could prepare me for what he would go on to demonstrate in Once Upon a Time in America. He perfectly shows a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown at any moment. There’s so many genius moments within his acting - that I would call it a near-perfect performance. We also get a terrifically underrated performance by Tuesday Weld in Once Upon a Time in America. All of the women in this film are abused or thought of only as sexual object at one point in this film. Tuesday Weld plays the nymphomaniac/masochist, Carol. Her character says a lot more about the film than most people seem to think. The character in this film seem to have a disability to function around women. Max expects respect from everyone while he manipulates and abuses Carol, treating her like she is worthless. Yet she proceeds to love him. Tuesday Weld is practically perfect in this role and it is an utter shame that she didn’t ever get more big roles, aside a supporting role in the film, Falling Down. Elizabeth McGovern is the final actors I need to highlight in Once Upon a Time in America. I didn’t mention her role in the summary, but she plays Deborah - the woman Noodles has always been madly in love with, even from his childhood. Her character clearly faces complex emotions directed at Noodle, and Elizabeth McGovern is able to pull them off without the slightest bit of hesitation. Deborah is a character that show a completely different side to Noodles - and we require this character. I cannot begin to imagine what the film would be like without her.

THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN THE FILM. Once Upon a Time in America plays out just as much as it is a gangster film as it is a mystery film. The ending is as ambiguous as Inception. Was Max in the garbage truck? Why does Noodles smile? I focus more on the smile as opposed to the garbage truck. Leone himself came right out and stated that he believed it to have something to do with an opium dream. I refuse to believe such a complex and genius film can result in such a simplistic ending. Here’s how I see it: everything that happens after Noodles goes into the Chinese Theatre, didn’t actually occur. Noodles goes in, and he dreams of a second chance. He dreams of a moment where he can be given a second chance and do the right thing. He needs to escape his guilt for having killed his friends. If you pay attention to the “present” timeline, when Noodles returns to his hometown - it seems almost too good. Noodles as matured now, and he is able to do the right thing. Do these not sound as if they are the dreams of a man pleading for a second chance? Nonetheless, I adore how Leone asks us questions and how he makes sure everyone has separate theories on the ending of his film.

There is no “best part” to Once Upon a Time in America. But I strongly believe that one of the greatest moments not only in Once Upon a Time in America but in cinematic history, is the flashback to their childhood. Nostalgia fills the air as we lean back and witness some of the greatest child performances of all time. Scott Schutzman Tiler plays Young Noodles, and he doesn’t have half as much material as Robert De Niro, but he makes everything he does work. It’s a shame that Scott Schutzman Tiler never got another big part like that one again. Of course, Jennifer Connelly makes her debut performance with this film. Her screen time is short, but nonetheless great. She has such sadness in her eyes and melancholy in her voice. I also consider this to be her greatest performance. I think she was better in Once Upon a Time in America than she was in Requiem for a Dream.

Once Upon a Time in America is filled with a great deal of style that Sergio Leone knew perfectly how to execute. The reason I’m not the biggest fan of his work in general is because I’m not crazy about the western genre. There’s really only one moment in all of Once Upon a Time in America that even slightly resembles a western. That is when Noodles, Max, Dominik, Patsy and Cockeye are children and their walking down the street. Their ex-employer, Bugsy, comes out of a tunnel holding a gun. Dominik yells “BUGSY IS COMING!”, and we suddenly jump into slow motion as they turn around and run for cover. It is very much like a shot from some of Leone’s earlier work. Just the style of the depiction of New York City is so stylistic on it’s own. Here is a dark and dirty city that is perfectly shown through on the early 1980s Technicolor. The style of Once Upon a Time in America is seriously as close to perfection as any gangster film has ever come, in my opinion.

As I write this review, I’m listening to Ennio Morricone’s greatest film scores. It’s hard to compare what he did with Once Upon a Time in America with what he did with such films as The Man With No Name Trilogy and the Kill Bill films, but I would go as far as to call Once Upon a Time in America’s soundtrack superior. I listen to “Deborah’s Theme” and picture the scene of Deborah and Noodles lying on the grass and looking up into the sky. Then I listen to “Cockeye’s Song” and picture a completely opposite scene where they run down the street escaping the bullets of a revolver. What I’m trying to allude to is that Once Upon a Time in America’s demonstrates the best of both sides of Ennio Morricone’s masterful film score composing abilities.

I have never enjoyed a film for having a larger amount of violence than another. I have however, applauded a film for having realistic and gritty violence as opposed to having it look smooth and choreographed. Once Upon a Time in America is the definition of gritty in my opinion. From how the camera cuts constantly during the rape scene to the realistic shots of the blood spurts, I got what Leone was trying to tell us. There’s no entertainment in violence. I’m not saying it’s wrong to be thrilled by a great deal of violence in films. I’m saying that in reality, there is no beauty in cold-blooded murder. The point is to show the grittiness of the streets were, and to show Noodles’ guilt for what he has done. I would never have guessed the director of classic westerns, a genre none for graciousness of violence could go on to do something like this.

I’ve been reading posts on Once Upon a Time in America all morning. Some people seem to have the problem with it not being quotable and not being iconic, like Goodfellas and The Godfather. Once Upon a Time in America is plenty quotable! I’ve quoted it more times than I’ve quoted The Godfather and Goodfellas combined! But how does that make it a lesser film? How does it not being as iconic make it a lesser film? It only means it is a less popular film. I don’t understand how somebody can suggest that Once Upon a Time in America isn’t as good as The Godfather and Goodfellas because it’s not as popular.

People say that Leone must have been crazy to have turned down directing The Godfather to have made this film. I would never say such a thing. Here’s what I believe to be true: in maybe fifty years, people will credit Once Upon a Time in America higher than they will credit The Godfather. It will take time - but I honestly believe it will happen. This film is not perfect. No. I don’t consider any film to be perfect. But I think this is the closest any American film has ever come to the subjective concept of perfection. Well, as Noodles would say “that’s how I see things.”
Once Upon a Time in America (Full Movie Review) Once Upon a Time in America (Full Movie Review) Reviewed by David Stevens on 3:42 AM Rating: 5

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