ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA directed by Sergio Leone (Italy/USA, 1984)
Set in the criminal world during the era of prohibition, the full version of this movie stands up besides Martin Scorsese’s great works of the 70s and 80s and is often regarded, a little misleadingly, as a companion piece to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy.
Yet the fact that the film required eight official screenwriters (including Leone who didn’t speak English!) is illustrative of its troubled birth and the problems persisted long after it was completed.
Given his esteemed track record, it is astonishing that Sergio Leone didn’t have full control of his work. The bum deal he signed meant that he could do nothing about the savage cuts to his original 229-minute version.
The producers decreed in their infinite lack of wisdom that a convoluted plot spanning four decades was a non starter in commercial terms.
Probably the absence of respect for this great Italian director was partly due to the fact that his ‘spaghetti westerns’ were not taken seriously. Even Robert De Niro admitted he wasn’t familiar with these movies when he was first approached to play the lead role as David “Noodles” Aaronson.
In other words, it was De Niro’s name, rather than Leone’s, that really got the project off the ground and ensured a stellar supporting cast headed by the then largely unknown James Woods. Understandably so, because the movie shows De Niro was at the peak of his powers – filling the screen and being totally believable both as a brutal hoodlum and as a more reflective older man.
The no holds barred violence is in contrast with the majestic score by Ennio Morricone which brings out the film’s elegiac tones.
The enigmatic closing scenes prove that even after well over three hours, Leone still wanted to keep viewers guessing. This is not a strategy that goes down well with producers, who prefer closure, but substantially increased the chances of it being a perennial favourite among critics and movie buffs everywhere.
That said, it is a movie that doesn’t easily endear itself to a female audience. The women in Leone’s films usually get a raw deal and Once Upon A Time In America is no exception. They are shot, raped and generally regarded as objects of lust rather than being treated with any tenderness and affection.
There’s never any doubt that this is a depiction of ruthless, dog-eat-dog macho-centric world. The director’s statement that Noodles’ violation of his childhood sweetheart was “an act of love by a man who has lost the only thing he ever wanted” is not the point of view of a man who take’s women’s feelings too seriously.
With the benefit of hindsight, the movie might have fared better in the U.S. (where it flopped at the box office) if it had been released in two parts. Instead the studio attempted to salvage what they regarded as damaged goods by employing Zach Staenberg (the editor of Police Academy!) to cut it by an hour and a half. This hack job replaced the flashback sequences and complex time structure with a linear narrative which all but destroyed the story’s dramatic impact.
Leone went to his grave (aged 60) believing that his beloved project had been permanently destroyed. The posthumous reprieve at least allows audiences to see the full cut, which has rightly been acclaimed as a masterpiece.