Once Upon a Time in America | Eastern North Carolina Now

Once Upon a Time in America, one of the three best films ever made about the crime gang motif, is equally outstanding as a surreal depiction of an immigrant's lot in 1920's America.

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Sergio Leone’s Classic Film Almost Died on the Cutting Room Floor

   As I mentioned in my forgotten review, Spring, 2009, of one of Sergio Leone’s best films: “Once Upon a Time in the West,” I wrote that I would eventually take a look at his next, even better film, “Once Upon a Time in America” in that same Forgotten Classics section of our Better Angels Now. And yes, as strange as it may seem, this film almost died a classic death on the cutting room floor, when it was released in theaters, in 1984, in the United States at 139 minutes of runtime.

   The film was intended, by Director Leone, to be much longer: It was 227 minutes when it was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival. Sadly, this was the only time that this version was shown on the big screen. Producer Arnon Milchan discovered, belatedly, that he knew nothing about correcting the telling of a story, when he cut this Sergio Leone masterpiece to the 139 minute version, and the film only made 5.3 million dollars of gross receipts at the box office in fairly wide distribution (894 theaters). Within a few weekends the buzz was out that this version was incomprehensible, and people stopped going to see what could have been a great film.

    Fortunately, in the previous decade, video on magnetic tape was nearly perfected, so when it came time to its release on VHS and Beta, “Once Upon a Time in America” was rediscovered by a curious public and vindicated as another fine film made by Sergio Leone. Film critics, who razed the film in the 139 minute version, clamored to praise the 227 minute version. Obviously, the extra 89 additional minutes made a substantial difference in the telling of this story about the fictional origination of a branch of the Jewish Mafia, shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Brooklyn, New York.

    Sadly, the film received no Oscar nominations in a year, 1984, when it should have won a number of the awards. Generally, I fault the Oscars for usually picking the wrong films. This year, with the Arnon Milchan’s hatchet job on Director Leone‘s intended edit, the film never had a chance.

    Its story, which was character driven and told in flashbacks and flashforwards, was one that clenched the attention of this member of its audience by being extremely well shot by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli of beautifully rendered sets designed by Leone and art director Carlo Simi. The softened tones and filtered long shots by Tonino drew me into the Jewish toughs, who survived those rough Brooklyn streets many decades earlier. These well honed characters, led by Robert De Niro as David “Noodles” Aaronson and James Woods as Maximilian “Max” Bercovicz as the central players, are locked into a somewhat complicated and subtly competitive partnership / friendship until the story’s conclusion.

    Nothing could come between them: not their business, not the whores, nor other opportunities. They were fast friends, true business partners - two tough Jews, who were the envy of the neighbor during prohibition. Just one problem: Noodles never knew the true Max until it was too late. This one constant was the variable that cast the inalterable path that was Noodles' inevitable future. It was a future that was little discussed in the film, but undeniably forced Noodles upon a life path that did not resemble that of his once close friend. Inevitably, they would be drawn together to resolve their unsettled past.

    All other characters in this tale ably serve this plot, and all have a past with the two leaders of this Jewish pack of thieves; where there is certainly a measure of honor - but to whom? Much of the film is based on the meting out of honorable exchanges of services for profit, and the certainty of comradeship, as these Jewish thugs rise from the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn. I know these kids are little criminals, but for the sake of sympathy, or possibly in some cases empathy, I rooted for these little thugs. Sergio Leone’s true talent as a director is to present the best picture possible, with long pauses at the most appropriate moments. His talent is to bring you, the audience, into the story through the magnificence of his beautiful scenes. At this, he is most proficient.

    The one ingredient that he is not proficient at is his construction of the subtleties within the stories regarding Americans. His characters have a quality of caricature, which lends a surreal nature to his stories, and eventually, they become capable accessories to the visual storytelling component within his wonderful set, and cinematography. It makes no difference how long the list of the Italian writers that construct his stories, they only ring true when his artful camera is rolling. Sergio Leone understands that it is more of the dramatic blend that he concocts, than the story that he builds upon the fictitious lives of real people.

    Regardless, he continues to communicate the best way he knows how - with his film. Sergio Leone was also brilliant, beyond his genius for picking a very talented cinematographer and set designer, in, once again, using the magnificently innovative and hugely talented Ennio Morricone to score this classic film, and man can this guy set the mood for a scene. Composer Morricone is one of the five greatest film composers since the inception of scoring, by hometown ragtime piano player, the one reel, 8 MM silent films of yesteryear. Morricone is such a great composer, Director Leone has been know to rework scripts to accentuate the synergies between his scenes and the intuitive and innovative scores of this musical genius.

    “Once Upon a Time in America” is as fine a film as Leone has ever made, and that is a fine thing, because it was his last as a director. Some say he was heartbroken when his truly great film, about his vision of the immigrants’ lot in this relatively new land, was ruined as it lay as littered trash on the cutting room floor. It was said, by some, that Leone wanted to expand the film to six hours to better explain his artful vision (more than enough film existed at one brief time), but when he got the backing to re-cut the film in the longer version, it is said that this precious film had vanished - not worth the space for the studio to place the salvaged film.

    His classic last film, of the sad beginnings of a poor gang of aspiring young Jews in a promising new land, is a fitting allegorical symbol of the what Sergio Leone endured to bring his art to life in his classic film, “Once Upon a Time in a America.” If you have three hours and forty-seven minutes to give to a truly classic film, you should see it. If you have seen it and did not understand it, try it again, but with an open mind. Back when this film was made, a narrow minded producer butchered the film, ruining its theatric debut, and hence, it never received its critical due. Take the opportunity to pay some respect to a great director, by enjoying his classic film.

    Rated R. Released in theaters June 1, 1984.

    This article provided courtesy of our sister site: Better Angels Now.

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