SERGIO Leone’s 1984 film Once Upon A Time in America remains, in my opinion, one of the finest films ever made. Carried by a haunting soundtrack which is essentially four notes, great acting from James Woods, Robert de Niro, Elizabeth McGovern and Joe Pesci among others, and a story which ranks alongside F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Leone’s masterpiece stands the test of time.
The comparison to Fitzgerald’s classic novel stands up to scrutiny as both stories revolve around an unfulfilled hero with a questionable past, always failing to please the leading lady, the real love of their life. De Niro plays “Noodles”, a small-time crook that rises up through the food chain of the criminal underworld alongside Wood’s “Maxi”. Although their activities are deplorable in the eyes of the law, you find yourself drawn into the necessity of their deeds, having grown up in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in the era of the Wall Street crash. The characters are lovable in their flaws; “Noodles” is nearly eaten alive by his own loneliness and impulsive behaviour which ruins every relationship he ever built, apart from that with “Maxi”, to whom he stays loyal to the end.
Presented here with approximately eighteen extra minutes, which were once strewn across the cutting room floor, the added scenes add greater substance to the story, answering the enduring questions and exploring in depth the troubled mind of “Noodles” and his tragically unfulfilled life.
The film jumps from era to era through the lives of the characters from twenties to fifties to the present day of 1984, the year the film was made. Following the characters in such a way sews you into the rich tapestry of the film; you feel their every emotion, sympathise with their every hardship and wish them luck in their endeavours, criminal or otherwise. It makes their character development natural, due in part to the slow, undulating pace of the film.
The Arts Centre here in Aberystwyth took the move to screen the film with a fifteen-minute interval, as the film is four hours and eleven minutes long in this incarnation. Patience is a virtue with Once Upon A Time in America, as the audience travel along this epic journey with Leone at his pace. Like a fine wine, this film both gets better with age and should be sipped and savoured.
This cut was also re-mastered to give a better quality picture to the film. The scenes that were added in were obvious to see because the 4K pictures in the re-mastered version receded again to the authentic grainy nature of the original film. One could even compare it to the quality of The Zapruder Film. The effort of those working behind the scenes to make the extra scenes seamlessly slip in to the on-screen narrative was palpable. This was a film crafted, not built. The audience at this on-off screening actually laughed a little because the added scenes were so obvious to see. Not a ridiculing laughter, just the appreciative acknowledgement of the effort which has to be put in post-production to make the final product you see on screen. Alas, there is a longer version than this, with another eighteen minutes of film above and beyond the version shown here. That would make interesting viewing.
This review contains no spoilers, is void of the material which would spoil the viewing of those who choose to see Once Upon A Time In America on the back of reading these words. To do such a thing would simply be patently unfair. All that needs to be said is the following: This story of criminal behaviour, loyalty, friendship, love lost and love gained in a love letter to all which is good about the United States of America, is essential viewing for anybody interested in cinema. De Niro at the peak of his powers in the mid-1980s, James Woods a conniving, fierce and passionate crook that bounces off De Niro effortlessly throughout the film.
The communication between the pair is a master class in the subtlety of body language. There is not a lot of dialogue in the film, long periods in which not a word is uttered, periods into which Maserone’s striking soundtrack comes in its own. Words would be window dressing to the purity of the acting. It would be fascinating to read the original script and study the stage directions, “Maxi gives Noodles menacing glare” or “Noodles walks away, trilby hat in hand”, because what is added to this film without words makes the film. Woods and De Niro have never been better, they may have gone and made comparable films, but their partnership here is pure box office; a gesture here, a raised eyebrow there. A puff on a Cuban Cigar, a grin frozen on celluloid.
As a confessed sufferer of ‘Golden Age Syndrome’ (a condition of always believing things were better in bygone eras, a life spent believing the grass used to be greener), the thrill of being transported back to 1984 was wonderful. To watch a long film with a slowly developing story line, a film with a planned intermission, and to see once more De Niro, Pesci and Woods in their heyday did nothing to cure this disease. The solitary thing the Arts Centre did wrong was to show it only once. Once Upon A Time in Aberystwyth.