Once Upon a Time in America


Once Upon a Time in America

Critics Consensus

Sergio Leone's epic crime drama is visually stunning, stylistically bold, and emotionally haunting, and filled with great performances from the likes of Robert De Niro and James Woods.



Total Count: 51


Audience Score

User Ratings: 74,787
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Movie Info

Though some viewers might be put off by its length, graphic violence, and absence of likable characters, Sergio Leone's final film is also a cinematic masterpiece. Spanning four decades, the film tells the story of David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and his Jewish pals, chronicling their childhoods on New York's Lower East Side in the 1920s, through their gangster careers in the 1930s, and culminating in Noodles' 1968 return to New York from self-imposed exile, at which time he learns the truth about the fate of his friends and again confronts the nightmare of his past. The acting, the re-creation of the time period, the cinematography, and the music are all superb. However, even more important is Leone's ability to make the film work on so many different levels: it's both a criticism of gangster-film mythology and a continuation of the director's exploration of the issues of time and history. Strange as it may seem, the violence and gore in the first half of the film turn into a sad elegy about wasted lives and lost love. The film's strengths emerge only in its full 229-minute version -- the 139-minute and other edited versions don't make nearly the same impact. ~ Yuri German, Rovi


Robert De Niro
as David "Noodles" Aaronson
Treat Williams
as Jimmy O'Donnell
Joe Pesci
as Frankie
Danny Aiello
as Police Chief Aiello
Larry Rapp
as Fat Moe
Dutch Miller
as Van Linden
Amy Ryder
as Peggy
Richard Bright
as Chicken Joe
Gerard Murphy
as Crowning
Olga Karlatos
as Woman in the Puppet Theater
Ray Dittrich
as Trigger
Frank Gio
as Beefy
Karen Shallo
as Mrs. Aiello
Angelo Florio
as Willie the Ape
Scott Tiler
as Young Noodles
Rusty Jacobs
as Young Max/David
Brian Bloom
as Young Patsy
Adrian Curran
as Young Cockeye
Mike Monezzi
as Young Fat Moe
Jennifer Connelly
as Young Deborah
Noah Moazezi
as Dominic
Frankie Caserta
as Bugsy's Gang
Joseph Marzella
as Bugsy's Gang
Clem Caserta
as Al Capuano
Frank Sisto
as Fred Capuano
Jerry Strivelli
as Johnny Capuano
Julie Cohen
as Young Peggy
Marvin Scott
as Interviewer
Mike Gendel
as Irving Gold
Ann Neville
as Girl in Coffin
Joey Faye
as Adorable Old Man
Linda Ipanema
as Nurse Thompson
Tandy Cronyn
as Reporter
Richard Zobel
as Reporter
Baxter Harris
as Reporter
Arnon Milchan
as Chauffeur
Marty Licata
as Cemetery Caretaker
Marcia Jean Kurtz
as Max's Mother
Estelle Harris
as Peggy's Mother
Sergio Leone
as Ticket Agent
Alexander Godfrey
as Newstand Man
Cliff Cudney
as Mounted Policeman
Paul Farentino
as 2nd Mounted Policeman
Bruce Bahrenburg
as Sgt. P. Halloran
Mort Freeman
as Street Singer
Sandra Solberg
as Friend of Young Deborah
Massimo Liti
as Young Macrò
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Critic Reviews for Once Upon a Time in America

All Critics (51) | Top Critics (13) | Fresh (44) | Rotten (7)

  • The movie's four hours long, but no one had the time to write a single real character.

    Jan 4, 2018 | Full Review…
  • This would-be epic schlep, dragging almost 50 years of chronology over a sluggish 140 minutes, is far too slight of text and ponderous of presentation to sustain more than nodding-off dramatic interest.

    May 5, 2017 | Full Review…
  • Adding 22 minutes only enhances Leone's brilliant saga of guilt and betrayal

    Apr 11, 2015 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…
  • Sergio Leone's languid, lovely and lengthy ode to Lower East Side mobsters (more specifically, mobster films) ...

    Nov 20, 2012 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…

    David Fear

    Time Out
    Top Critic
  • Leone is less interested in arousing an audience's easier emotions than in presenting, at a dispassionate distance, the horror of two men warily walking toward each other on a tightrope suspended above the snake pit of their , deepest compulsions.

    Apr 12, 2011 | Full Review…
  • Every gesture is immediate, and every gesture seems eternal.

    Apr 12, 2011 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Once Upon a Time in America

  • Jan 06, 2019
    The lengthy running time is the movie's greatest asset. No amount of sex, violence or money can stop the inevitable decay of time and death for these characters.
    Alec B Super Reviewer
  • Jul 20, 2017
    21/7/2017 - Started off great, but some questionable plot choices later on ensure this gangster film falls well short of being a masterpiece.
    Peter B Super Reviewer
  • Aug 27, 2012
    While shooting this film, Sergio Leone wanted rain to start during a scene so he waited for god to start filming, and when he did it did rain. This is visionary piece of film making by an artist who knows what he wants to achieve, which is the unachievable scale of American social history. Leone has crafted every scene that was so distinctly storyboarded in his mind that it transfers to the screen like the fruits of the most beautiful apple tree. But every apple is rotten, infected with worms and stinking with a rich odour, but Leone captivates you so much that you want to pick every apple and check if has at least one good bite. There are no likeable characters, and some of their actions are so vile but you are engrossed in their story for the entire 4 hours run time. Without giving anything away, he takes such incredibly bold steps in narrative, only such an established and invested director could achieve. The non-linear format is marvellous, and it flows in wonderful transitions and even if you're not always up to speed you huff and puff until you catch up. That is just the way the film has been created, let alone the magnificent performances through the whole cast with Robert De Niro the mesmerizing nucleus. The only nit picks I do have is that I sometimes got lost in it's scale and characters but it just makes me want to watch it again. It is a true artistic epic cinema and is a tragic story that it was completely destroyed by producers on it's initial American release.
    Hassan V Super Reviewer
  • May 20, 2012
    I can't tell if this was Sergio Leone making up for not doing "The Godfather" (Wow, and if you though Coppola's version was long enough) or deciding to take such a departure from formula that he not only left the western genre, but didn't focus quite as much on Italians. If he was gunning for the latter, then maybe he could have done a better job when it came to deciding on which other ethnicity to focus more on, because in New York and a couple of other areas, the differences between Jews and Italians are so scarce that I'm kind of against religious compromise, because if the Italian Catholics and Jews were to form a single religion and shake hands, then the universe would probably collapse in on itself from a paradox spawned from two totally tantamount forces colliding. Anyways, mine and I'd imagine Hutton Gibson's crazy theories aside, Leone's supposed departure from Italian over-focus isn't helped by the fact that he decided to make the lead Robert De Niro, and I'm not just saying that because De Niro actually is, well, come on, just look at the name, but because, from the '70s to '80s, if you had a sprawling crime epic that was specifically about "Italians", then you better believe that De Niro was probably somewhere in there. Other than that, and the fact that it was actually produced in Italy and features an Italian-sounding score and a crew of mostly Italians, this film is about as American as pasta and pizza in New York, a location where food like that really is as American as Taco Bell, and it doesn't get any more American than that. It figures that the first time Leone submits and goes full-fleged 'Merican, we go behind his back and give his ultimate passion project a dumbed-down, radically shorter theatrical recut that was apparently so bad that it almost destroyed his faith in film. Granted, he did die five years later, so it's not like we would have missed all that much if he did quit, especially when you consider that this film takes about five years to watch, but hey, if Leone was gonna bail, then he may as well have gone out on a high note (Yeah, because all of the films he did before were so not all that good and wouldn't have given him notoriety), and make no mistake, this was the highest note he had ever hit. Still, not only did this film peak for Leone, in terms of quality, but it also peaked for him, in terms of runtime, because this was by far his longest film, and boy, does he not let you forget. The film's slow spots are inexplicably quite less tedious than the slow spots in Leone's own similarly titled "Once Upon a Time in the West", and the reason why that's so inexplicable is because, although this film isn't as dull as "In the West", there are many points where the film is just as do-nothing and quiet as "In the West", and it doesn't get much more do-nothing and quiet than that. The reason why this film is considerably less dull might very well be because it, while over an hour longer, or over 100 minutes longer, in the case of the newly rediscovered "Redux" (Those poor movie buffs trapped watching the screening of a movie this slow for four-and-a-half hours at Cannes), is more justified in its mammoth runtime. Still, just because this film's runtime feels more fitting than the runtime on "In the West", that doesn't mean that the sprawling runtime is completely justified, as the film, much like "In the West", finds itself padded by many a gratuitously overlong period of total nothingness, as well as much repetition during actual moments of substance. To make matters worse, the film's focus, as well as its storytelling themes, seem inconsistent, for there are many layers to this tale, yet the transitions between those layers feel hurried and a smidge inorganic, partially because of the film's bumpy jumps between being a surrealistically stylized meditative film to a simple steady drama drive inconsistency into the film's storytelling themes, rendering the final product often offputting in its progression and leaving steam to go dead here and there. I joke about this pretty much being Leone's compensating for his fans for not doing "The Godfather", but this pretty much is the Jewish (Or still Italian, I can't tell) "Godfather", "The Godfadda" (*drum snare*), only it's held back from reaching its high aspirations, due to its unfortunate thematic inconsistencies and dullness consistency. However, at the end of the day, whether it be his passion behind it or what, Leone had crafted what is, to me, quite decidedly his finest film. True, the product's full potential of greatness ultimately goes squandered by its being overambitious and much too flawed, yet you'd still be hard pressed to not be engaged by the film, even with its mammoth length, being secured in by, if nothing else, fine style. I joke about the score sounding too Italian, but if your an Italian score composer, it's gonna be hard to drop that sound, yet that doesn't make Ennio Morricone's score anymore impressive, which isn't to say that it's quite as stellar as the work he did with Leone where he really did just give up and go Italian with his music, yet it's still very sobering and graceful, with a gorgeous tune to both engage the audience and supplement the spirit of the film. The spirit of the film goes further brought to life by the lively production designs, which bring both the hustle and bustle and broadness of '20s, '30s and '60s New York with classy scope, made all the more attractive by the sweeping observations of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. Based on style alone, this film is engaging, yet what truly enthralls is simply the story, which may not be the most original you can find among the gangster genre, but remains layered and pumped with depth, carried by across-the-board strong performances. From the young talents who capture the thrills of adolescence and pain of early maturity, to the effectively brutal criminal performers and always worthwhile Robert De Niro and James Wood - both of whom adopt a stern, yet humanly emotional presence of layered experience, married with pain that you can neither ever get used to or forget -, the performances ring true and help in capturing the soul and depth of this epic drama, especially when they form electric chemistry between the performers, yet also remain mere supplements to the effectiveness forged from the efforts and passion of the film's true star performer: the one offscreen, Sergio Leone. Leone was never the strongest storyteller, and even here, his faults as storyteller prove detrimental to the final product's quality, yet his inspiration for this project remains palpable, for the less urgent moments of the film go riddled with a sense of human liveliness and charm, while the more intense moments go pumped with unrelenting intrigue and sometime razor-sharp tension, made all the sharper by Leone's fine taste in action being used less for spectacle and more for substance, with impactingly not-so gratuitous-feeling violence making the hit harder. Still, what remains constant about Leone atmosphere is subtle depth, which is often too subtle to the point of slowing down the film or even giving it the occasional touch of pretension, yet is more often than not winning, giving the film a somber elegance and consistent intrigue that intensifies the effectiveness aforementioned tones captured so well by Leone and gives the film emotional weight. The film is brutal and unflinching when it's not soulful and deep, and Leone, with inspiration and sobering depth, graces the film with subtlety and ever-engaging intrigue that could have made this film truly brilliant, were it's major missteps cut back, if not cut off, yet makes it an ultimately emotionally and aesthetically rewarding stands, as it stands, making it both Leone's finest accomplishment and his satisfying fond farewell. At the end of the day and, by extension, the end of the film, slowness and many a long period of nothingness, if not repetition, plagues the film about as thoroughly as its thematic and narrative focus unevenness, rendering its potential squandered, yet still delivered upon enough for the film to really hit, being charged by gripping style and a slew of strong, layered performances, teathered together by across-the-board effective chemistry, while Sergio Leone's inspired and subtley graceful execution of the grit of the subject matter, as well as the charm and rather haunting emotional depth of the human aspects does the most to carry his passion project, ultimately leaving "The Godfadda"-I mean, "Once Upon a Time in America" to stand as a deeply enjoyable and impacting epic that Leone's legendary career had justifiably been building to. 3/5 - Good
    Cameron J Super Reviewer

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