Friday, January 7, 2011

Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time is Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone's final film, and one of his only works that isn't a western. It is beautiful, violent, poignant, and disturbing all at once, and it would be an easy contender for best crime epic of all time if it weren't for those pesky Godfather movies. It tells the story of a Jewish gang of bootleggers in Prohibition-era New York, focusing on Robert De Niro's character of Noodles, and James Woods' Max to a lesser extent. It starts in the middle of Noodles' life, with his friends getting killed and him barely escaping himself. It then jumps to him as a much older man, revisiting his old haunts after something has called him back, which serves as a way to frame the events that came before. It cuts back to the gang as a group of kids, including a very young Jennifer Connelly as the kid version of a dancer he falls in love with, and then shows the events that eventually lead to the film's beginning.

I make specific mention of the interesting structure of the story's timeline because of how thoroughly it was butchered in the original American release of the movie. The film in its intended form is almost excessively long at about three hours and forty minutes, but it uses all of that time for a reason. I can understand why a studio would want to cut down a movie's length for commercial considerations, and a few minutes here or there is usually acceptable. But they basically cut this movie in half, including a lot of the childhood scenes which are vital to setting up the character relationships that would carry the entire emotional weight of the story, and on top of that reedited the whole thing into chronological order, removing something that was important to the way the whole thing was told. At that point you're not even watching the same film anymore. I haven't actually seen this cut so I can't really comment on it, but all accounts are it takes a good piece of work and destroys it, and Leone was so hurt by what they did that he never made another movie before he died. It's really a shame, because America is probably his masterpiece and the original release prevented it from ever really taking off, preventing it from being put in the annals along with The Godfather and Goodfellas and turning it into something film buffs whisper about.

But I guess I should get back to talking about the actual movie. Leone learned while making his Spaghetti Westerns how to combine a stately, visually-focused film style with violent subject matter to elevate it above simple crass entertainment, and that translates very well over to mob movies. There's some absolutely wonderful imagery here, and the way it is combined with some really conceptually ugly scenes lends the whole thing a certain dark beauty. People get killed quickly and for little reason, and sexuality is depicted with a shocking frankness, and the main characters are most certainly not good people, as they make sure to show you repeatedly. But you still manage to find some measure of sympathy for them, in part because the time jumping shows how a youth of recklessness and crime can end with a broken old man filled with guilt and regret. It's the kind of thing you lose when, say, you reedit the entire film into chronological order.

Performance-wise, the movie is quite good. De Niro was sort of out of his period as a true genius of the craft, but he's still solid in both time periods. Woods is pretty excellent, managing the balance of a character who the protagonist both loves and is persistently troubled by, and he mostly manages to sell an ending that I otherwise thought was out of step with what I had come to expect from the story. William Forsythe is another of the game, and his gap-toothed grin and droopy eyelids add a little something to every scene he's in. Both women who play Deborah have the ability to make you believe a guy who could have almost any girl he wants would want her instead. Joe Pesci has a very small role, probably as a favor to De Niro, and he's as restrained as I've ever seen him. He and Burt Young are both good in a pivotal part of the plot that doesn't take up much time, but is still pretty essential to bridging the gaps in the story. There isn't quite the expansive cast of colorful characters you might see in another take on the same idea, but all of the ones who are important are very well drawn. It's not a perfect movie, and it really is just a bit too long in some areas. But it's the kind of work that really should be seen by more people, the way it was intended.

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