"Once Upon a Time in America" is a film set free of time; it spans many different years and, like "Citizen Kane," never tells the audience where it is. As many times as I watch it, I can never guess what is going to happen next.
And watching "Once Upon a Time in America" on the new extended DVD is like revisiting an old friend, finally seeing a masterpiece in its entirety. Many people complained of the choppiness in the three-hour-version of the film originally released in 1984 - and the new four hour version puts all the pieces together and is truly marvelous to behold.
This is the dirty, gritty version of "The Godfather." It has an incredible amount of violence, especially for a film made almost twenty years ago. I'm not sure how much violence, sexual content and so on was in the original cut, but this extended version is pretty close to an NC-17 rating.
The film stars Robert De Niro in one of his most memorable yet forgotten roles. He plays Noodles, a gangster operating sometime during the 1930s. Noodles grew up during the early 1900s, and on the streets he and four other kids started their own crime operation. After a local crime lord named Bugsy gets jealous and murders the youngest member of Noodles' operation, Noodles returns the favor and kills Bugsy. Apprehended by police, Noodles is sent to jail for years.
Sometime, years later, Noodles is released into the free world. He isn't a changed man, either. His old crime buddy Max (James Woods) picks him up and introduces him to the old gang members. Soon they are back in business, working for Frankie (Joe Pesci).
This is the truest definition of an epic. "Once Upon a Time in America" is one of the most forgotten gangster films, and yet it is ironically one of the best. It took director Sergio Leone almost ten years to get this motion picture to the screen. Sergio's original script treatment - the outline for the story - was 200 pages long. Just the outline. Soon he employed numerous writers to redo the script, and they bounced it up to 400 pages. There is a saying that for every page in a film script, there is one minute of screen-time. You do the math.
After the long scriptwriting process, they then had to get permission to film the movie, from the author of the novel this film is based upon. Then, after that struggle, there came the film itself. How to turn such a bold narrative into a compelling film? What techniques should be used? Where to start?
The beginning of the film opens up during the 1930s or sometime around then, fast-forwards to the 1960s, then flashbacks to the early 1900s. It skips around a lot. This makes the viewer active, trying to figure out where and when they are. It is an element that gives a film rewatchability. Roger Ebert pointed out that "Citizen Kane" is set free of chronology, and the same goes for "Once Upon a Time in America."
Sergio Leone is the master of extreme close-ups and wide frame shots, seen in "Fistful of Dollars" and here with wide shots of busy streets. In one scene a young girl (pre-stardom Jennifer Connelly) walks along a street, and Leone pulls the camera up, up, up and back, back, back, revealing the entire street. Soon she is lost in the crowd. The same thing is done with De Niro's character as a child, and we lose image of him in the crowd, but then Sergio uses an almost invisible dissolve and we come back upon him.
The acting by De Niro is superb. His character, Noodles, is probably the character in this film who is most in-touch with his feelings. We often feel for him, but numerous times in the film he does things disturbing and sickening and we are repulsed. One scene extended in the DVD is the controversial rape scene between De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern. After it is all over, Noodles climbs out of the back seat of the car and walks to the side of the road, standing there, looking into the distance. Many people say this is guilt because he knows what he has done and is ashamed. I don't think so. During the film he rapes numerous women and doesn't seem to mind at all. I think the point Leone was trying to make is that De Niro's character has no idea how to treat or respect women. His entire life he grew up around women who were treated as objects (such as the young prostitute who lived in his apartment complex). So when Noodles stands by the side of the road, this is not from the guilt of what he has done - it is from the guilt of not knowing how to treat a woman, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do. Not knowing how to respect her. His entire life he was taught that women were just there for pleasure, but when he stands by the road this is a sign that Noodles is starting to think this may all be wrong. It is the guilt of naivety, not self-awareness.
"Once Upon a Time" is the master of gangster flicks. Two other tremendous gangster flicks, "The Godfather" and "Goodfellas," have gotten the respect they rightfully deserve over the years - but "Once Upon a Time in America" has been seemingly ignored - up until know. I hope that this DVD sparks a newfound interest in the film, because no one should go a lifetime without seeing this moving motion picture.