Saturday, 19 March 2016
Movie Review: Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
The film unfolds in three different time periods concurrently: 1920, the early 1930s, and 1968. The narrative starts in 1932, with gangster Noodles (Robert De Niro) being hunted down after having seemingly betrayed his pals and long-time criminal associates. He evades capture, but is surprised to discover the gang's stash of $1 million in emergency cash missing. He buys a one-way ticket out of New York. Close to 35 years later, Noodles returns to the city, drawn back by mysterious messages suggesting there is unfinished business for him to attend to.
In flashbacks to the dusty streets of Lower East Side Manhattan in 1920, a group of Jewish kids are forming themselves into a gang consisting of the scrappy Noodles and his friends Cockeye, Patsy and the youngest Dominic. They pass their days committing petty crimes and evading policeman Aiello (Danny Aiello). Noodles has a crush on the relatively sophisticated girl-next-door Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), whose family runs the local diner where her brother Fat Moe works. In contrast to Deborah, the local slut-to-be is Peggy, and she affords the boys their first sexual experiences.
Noodles reconnects with Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), who is now a budding dancing star, and he also quickly reintegrates back into the gang as they get involved in a high stakes jewel theft with crime boss Frankie (Joe Pesci) and disgusting Detroit mobster Joe (Burt Young). Max and Noodles begin to clash over the gang's direction, with Noodles wanting to remain more independent while Max chases the riches afforded by association with powerful men like Frankie. Noodles stages an elaborate date with Deborah that starts well but ends in disaster, and finds some alternative comfort in the arms of the willing Eve (Darlanne Fleugel). Max embarks on a relationship with good time girl Carol (Tuesday Weld). When the end of Prohibition draws near, the schism between Noodles and Max grows dangerously wider.
Playing off the themes of his Dollars trilogy, Leone remains fascinated by the relationships that form between men on the wrong side of the law, where concepts of honour and trust are relative and friendships are created on the run and threatened by the shadow of the next big score. The core story is the bond between Noodles and Max, forged in childhood, finding a common ambition, surviving Noodles' stint in prison, and then hitting the rocks of unbridled greed.
For Max being a middling criminal with comfortable wealth is not enough, he wants to reach for the brass ring of unconstrained power and enormous riches. For the more grounded Noodles, winning the heart of Deborah is more important than all the money in the world, and when her love proves elusive, taking any more risks seems pointless. The relationship between the two men ruptures in the worst possible way, with judgement day for both awaiting more than 30 years later.
The movie carries a tone of sad nostalgia in each of its three eras, with the recreation of the bustling Lower East Side Jewish neighbourhood circa 1920 a particularly brilliant visual feat. The brooding Manhattan Bridge is used as a stunning backdrop to the ramshackle origins of Noodles and Max, while Ennio Morricone conjures up one of his best music scores, and it's all in the key of sad.
For all the human drama, this is a film about criminals, and when it's time for violence, Leone does not hold back. Characters are tortured, beaten senseless and summarily executed, there are stabbings, close-range shootings, and plenty of violence involving women and children. A prolonged, harrowing rape scene is physically painful to watch, emphasizing a criminal's hopelessly shallow understanding of the difference between romance and dominance.
The early formative scenes benefit from some terrific child performances, with the personalities of Noodles (Scott Tiler), Max (Rusty Jacobs), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), Patsy (Brian Bloom), Dominic (Noah Moazezi), Fat Moe (Mike Monetti), and Peggy (Julie Cohen) all created seemingly effortlessly by the young cast. And most impressive is Jennifer Connelly in her big screen debut at 14 years old, managing to outshine Elizabeth McGovern in defining young Deborah.
At over four hours long, there are bound to be some missteps. An essential sub-plot involving union boss Jimmy O'Donnell (Treat Williams) seems to have suffered most in the editing room, while Joe Pesci's Frankie is also a character who has undue influence compared to his limited screen time. But these are minor quibbles. Once Upon A Time In America is an audacious feat, a gangster film that manages to be both intimate and flamboyant, and easily among the most monumental achievements in the history of film.
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