#1 in my ranking of Sergio Leone’s films.
Taking over a decade to make after his previous film, Leone adapted The Hoods by Harry Grey into a six-hour film that he needed to cut down to four. The luxurious running time allows Leone to explore moments in similar ways as he had always done, but there’s a greater focus on storytelling, character, and an overall sense of melancholy at times long gone that gives Once Upon a Time in America a maturity, confidence, and depth of feeling that Leone never matched in his career.
It’s the story of a hood, Noodles (Robert de Niro) returning home to the Jewish section of New York City after 35 years away. The particularities of his departure are covered by the bulk of the film, but at the beginning all we know is that the local gangland authorities blame him for something, for giving up some of his friends, leading to their deaths. It almost feels like fractured memories coming together at a certain point, almost like something from Tarkovsky’s Mirror over anything else Leone had made up to his career. For all the affection I have for Leone’s films up to this point, there’s a certain quantum leap in how much more intricate, assured, and delicate the filmmaking here is.
Chronologically, the story begins in the 1910s when Noodles was about 13 years old. He and his group of ruffian friends fill their days by dreaming of becoming hoods like Bugsy (James Russo) and buying sweat treats to exchange for sexual favors from Peggy (Julie Cohen as a young woman and Amy Ryder when all grown up). When they catch the policeman on their beat with Peggy (a minor, by the way), they blackmail him into helping them like he helps Bugsy. Around the same time comes Max (Rusty Jacobs/James Woods), a tall Jewish boy from the Bronx who moves to the neighborhood with his family. Max and Noodles butt heads at first, but they are soon fast friends, bound into the life of crime they have set out for themselves. Their actions lead to Bugsy targeting them, and Noodles kills Bugsy in the street, landing him in prison for several years.
When he’s out, everyone’s all grown up and Max has led their gang to profitability on the back of bootlegging during the time of Prohibition. Their speakeasy is booming with business, and they are expanding in every direction they can. Along the ride with the men are the women of the story. First is Peggy who runs a whorehouse for Max, but there’s also the childhood crush of Noodles, Deborah (Jennifer Connelly /Elizabeth McGovern) and the sadomasochistic Carol (Tuesday Weld). Leone has pushed forward one woman as anything approaching a main character in his film once in Once Upon a Time in the West. There were others here and there, but they never had any sort of real prominence or status as anything other than glorified MacGuffins. With a few women to use, Leone shows that the Madonna/Whore concept of women actually fits much more firmly with his filmography than with Fellini’s. Fellini’s films dealt in the concept in a grayer sense, no one woman being completely one or the other, but Peggy and Carol are definitely one and Deborah is definitely the other. There’s no nuance to it. They are mainly there to act in support to Noodles’ story, though.
And Noodles is not a very good person. It’s interesting to watch a film with a main character who is so thoroughly unredeemable. He’s a thug, a rapist, and a murderer, and he expresses no remorse for it in his scenes in the 1930s. What happens is that his life ends up falling apart, mostly because of Max. Max becomes increasingly erratic in his actions. He’s quick to kill rivals, abuse Carol, and with the end of Prohibition, there’s something going wrong with Max, and Noodles needs to do something about it.
One of the ways this film feels more maturely assembled is how a key telephone call it handled. The movie begins with Noodles, on the night of Prohibition’s end, laying in an opium den with the piercing sound of a telephone ringing, and we know it has something to do with his state of mind, just not the details. The bulk of the next three hours of the film is giving that detail, leading up to Noodles picking up the phone and calling in Max’s planned final bootleg run into the police, showing that he did betray his friends.
Throughout the film, there’s been intercutting of Noodles’ past with his return to New York 35 years later, beginning with showing up at the bar of his old friend Fat Moe (Larry Rapp) and going through a round of past sights and the graves of his friends, including Max. He’s an old man filled with regret, far removed from the horrible young man he was, and yet he carries the weight of his own actions heavily. He’s been drawn back to New York after a mysterious letter showed up implicitly calling him back. He knows it’s someone with ties to his past, but he has no idea. He could just live out the rest of his life alone in Buffalo, avoiding whatever danger may be coming, but his curiosity is too great.
The ending to the film is great, and another example of how Leone had grown as a filmmaker. His endings were usually standoffs between enemies with guns, editing drawing out moments of great tension until someone shot someone else. The ending here is similar, but far more muted and works on an emotional level that he had rarely ever tried to achieve before. When Noodles’ finds out who was behind the letter, and the request becomes explicit in an office removed from a swanky party, it should be the kind of moment where we wait with baited breath for a gun to get drawn and fired. And yet, Noodles’ is just too melancholy, tied to his own past sins, and removed from the hurts of others to actually take up a weapon.
In some ways, this reminds me of de Niro’s later work with Scorsese in The Irishman, another story of an old man tied to organized crime looking back on his life, but the melancholic aspect is decidedly different in each. In Scorsese’s movie, it’s about an old man finding out that he has nothing, but in this, it’s about an old man finding out that he can let go of his own past.
It’s also Leone’s best looking film, using massive sets to recreate Prohibition era New York, Leone knows to pull the camera back and let the setting become a character on its own. One of my favorite shots in all of cinema is here as well, the famous one on the poster of the boys walking down the street with the Brooklyn Bridge high up in the background. It represents a complex image of movement and depth as the boys move from left to right while the bridge remains towering in the background. It’s one of the best shots to simply take in visually.
A director well known for genre thrills in one particular genre, the Western, enters another, the gangster land epic, and knocks it out of the park. The extended lead up to production, the long filming period, and the extended running time of the film allows for a depth of emotion that is really rather remarkable. This is the crown jewel of Leone’s body of work, a film of maturity that builds off of the director’s greatest strengths while leaving behind all of his weaknesses.