Saturday 19 March 2016

Movie Review: Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

A New York gangster epic spanning 35 years in the life of two friends, Once Upon A Time In America is Sergio Leone's final film, and a masterpiece of provocative storytelling. The extended director's cut (with restored footage) clocks in at a mammoth 251 minutes, and it's a fascinating viewing experienced, reminiscent of a complex ancient tragedy with central characters both heroic and deeply flawed.

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.

The lanky Max moves into the neighbourhood from Brooklyn, and becomes quick friends with Noodles. Together they plot a path for their ragtag bunch to gain more influence, which results in confrontations with older and more established street thugs. After one such skirmish, Noodles is caught and imprisoned for 12 years. The grown up Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe) and Patsy (James Hayden) welcome back Noodles when he is released in 1931. Max has forged the young men into a slick group of criminals, profiting from the illegal alcohol trade as well as prostitution and assorted other criminal activity.

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.

Based on the autobiographical book The Hoods by Harry Grey, Once Upon A Time In America is Leone's ode to the American dream through the lens of friendship, social turmoil, violence, crime and a shrouded mystery that will serve as a final punctuation mark. The film had a troubled release history, with an initial studio-butchered 139 minute North American version rendering the film incomprehensible. The initial 229 minute European release was Leone's original vision. Some 30 years later, the painstaking restoration of 22 essential minutes for the extended director's cut further elevates a masterpiece of grandiose filmmaking.

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 pace is slow and deliberate, but the movie never fades. This is effectively three rich films in one viewing experience, and by presenting the story in non-chronological order, Leone reveals the ties that bind across the decades. Scenes rarely linger for too long, and when they do, there is good reason: young Patsy confronting a cupcake on a staircase and carefully weighing the benefits of an expensive dessert against sex is a dazzling reminder of the crevasse between childhood reality and adulthood aspirations.

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.

Robert De Niro and James Woods create an enduring pair, both actors at the top of their form and delivering seminal performances. Woods holds back just enough of his intensity to create the undercurrent of menace that drives his character's brashness. De Niro finds the space where a kid turns to crime to climb out of his low status, but has no social skills to thrive in middle class domesticity and no desire to go looking for anything more.

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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