Film Fest 8: 'Once Upon A Time In America(1984)
By Lily Ratcliff
When most people hear of the film, Once Upon A Time In America, they generally remark about the duration of the film being so incredibly long (3 hours and 49 minutes to be exact), which understandably, for some people, may be a tad excessive; however, you must prevail and watch this movie as it is both unique and breathtaking! Anyone who has watched this film, in its entirety, would definitely agree that it is a cinematic dream; from the soundtrack to the actors, to its very complex plot, which, still to this day, having watched the film probably dozens of times, leaves me mystified. It is absolutely unlike any other film that I have seen, particularly in its use of the metaphor of time to present a narrative that is driven by memory, rather than actuality, ultimately raising questions about the function of time and the effects that one variable can have on the rest.
The legendary Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, also responsible for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and many other great Spaghetti Westerns, directed the film shortly before his death – making it his last and most thought-provoking. In 1984, the initial release was mercilessly edited at the request of the studio, so much so in fact that it was a completely different film from the near-four hour version that Leone had originally intended. However, for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival it was announced that Leone’s original was going to be restored, thanks to funding and support from the film festival, Gucci and Film Foundation (managed by Martin Scorsese), Robert De Niro and the original cast. With this, the original version was only accessibly released and recognized as seminal cinematic landmark of the 20th century.
Spanning over 50 years, the narrative is divided into three main sections which are visited rather sporadically and in a non-chronological order. There is then, no linear way to describe the plot in its entirety, as it demands a fully immersive sensory experience. I will try though, to describe in brief terms the film’s opening, to offer a taster of the complexity of the narrative and introduce the main characters. Once Upon A Time In America follows the protagonist, David ‘Noodles’ Araonson (Robert De Niro), a street-rat, pick-pocket, bully, murderer, rapist and a ruthless nobody who uses crime to fuel a sense of identity, self-worth and direction – all the while struggling with the corruption and immorality that haunts him. Opening in 1920s Brooklyn, a younger Noodles, is awakened in an opium den by the sound of a phone ringing. We then discover he is escaping a crime he committed with all his friends: Max (played superbly by James Woods), Cockeye and Patsy- who are all now dead. Time swiftly moves to circa 1960s Brooklyn, where Noodles arrives as an old man, detached from the modern world he sees around him, and he revisits his home neighbourhood and his friend, Fat Moe at his bar. This bar setting is crucial to the plot, as it’s the place where Noodles spent most of his childhood staring in awe at Deborah (played by Jennifer Connelly and Elizabeth McGovern) through a crack the wall. Deborah embodies everything that Noodles wants; she is sophisticated, intelligent, and desperate to rise above the poverty and traditional background they have both been born into. Sadly, Noodles can never be with her because he cannot escape his own immorality or faults. The following scene is Noodles’ realization of this, in a flashback of Deborah practicing ballet and reading aloud, fully knowing Noodles’ watching her:
[Deborah to Noodles, reading the Torah] ‘"My beloved is white and ruddy. His skin is as the most fine gold. His cheeks are as a bed of spices." Even though he hasn't washed since last December. "His eyes are as the eyes of doves. His body is as bright ivory. His legs are as pillars of marble." In pants so dirty they stand by themselves. "He is altogether lovable." But he'll always be a two-bit punk... so he'll never be my beloved. What a shame.’
On his visit to Fat Moe’s, Noodles decides to revisit the hole in the wall, where he would stand and gaze at the Deborah, and beautifully the cinematography transports the viewer through a perfect match-cut back to his childhood (1910s Brooklyn); by aligning the eye of the older Noodles to the memory of Deborah as a girl dancing, and then back to the eyes of him as young boy. From this moment, the narrative takes off and the viewer is swept into a world of violence, love, brutality and betrayal.
While this may sound rather haphazard and perhaps even stilted, it is visually synchronized and presented with fluidity and understanding. In addition, Leone asked the musical genius Ennio Morricone to create the film’s soundtrack, which was to become its defining feature. From the theme Poverty, emulating the hardships of immigrant life during The Great Depression, to the heartbreaking and haunting Deborah’s Theme which weaves its way throughout the film; the soundtrack, captures the not only the nostalgic tone but Noodles’ desperate longing for Deborah, and the claustrophobic nature of the film’s illegal underworld.
Noodles is aware of his own faults, because he is a hateful character, both hating himself and hated by the audience; he is the one factor that ruins his own life and nothing can change that. There are multiple points in the film where all the viewer wants is for Noodles to love Deborah, instead of simply desiring her. I think, throughout the film Leone tries to establish the idea that not all protagonists, not all humans, are good, but actually some are corrupt, cruel and unfixable and this cannot be changed no matter how much we want things to be different. Thus, Once Upon A Time In America, has a very pre-destined ambiance embedded within its narrative, which, in itself, is also more like a nostalgic dream sequence.
If you watch this film, which I passionately encourage that you do (even though it is quite lengthy and probably sounds slightly confusing), you will see that the world of Once Upon A Time In America isn’t perfection. It is a place where love and violence can never co-exist, where betrayal between best friends lurks around every corner, and it is set in a time where one thing can dramatically impact another. It is the exploration of all of these realistic features, analysed through music, cinematography, and the acting of an incredible cast, that make Once Upon A Time In America so original, memorable and evocative.
Check out the original 1984 trailer below and a recent interview with Robert De Niro explaining the production and release of Once Upon A Time In America.
(All image stills taken from Once Upon A Time In America DVD)