Once Upon a Time in America

January 18, 2012

Because Once Upon a Time in America has been in various stages of planning for the last dozen years or so, a little history seems in order.

The Italian director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly—made a mint during the 1960s. When Leone got American backing in 1968 to do another Western, he seized the opportunity, and made a film that is, in many ways, the ultimate Western: Once Upon a Time in the West. The film shared the breathtaking cinematic invention of the other three Westerns, but it was a resounding flop—a situation that was not helped (as it never is) when Paramount Pictures lopped a half-hour or so out of the movie’s three-hour running time.

The screenplay for a crime movie called Once Upon a Time in America was written soon after that, but it bounced around for years—Leone couldn’t find the financing. In that time—and while Leone remained oddly inactive as a director—the project assumed legendary proportions. Would Leone ever get the film made?

It finally happened a couple of years ago, and so titanic was the scope of the film that it was announced it would be released in two parts. Then the news took an all-too-familiar turn: studio philistines had the scissors out, and the film was gradually being pared down.

When it opened last week, the final American version was 150 minutes long, and Leone’s flashback structure no longer intact. A couple of weeks ago, the European cut debuted at the Cannes Film Festival at 227 minutes.

We may see that version someday, but right now, the short cut must stand on its own. And as it is, it’s a disappointment. In the first hour or so, as we watch a group of teenage friends flirting with crime and girls on the streets of New York, a beautiful spell is cast. Every detail in their lives seems oddly meaningful, and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie.

One of them goes to jail and emerges a few years later as Robert De Niro. As adults, the gang (also including James Woods, William Forsythe, and James Hayden) has set up a smooth speakeasy operation during the 1920s. We see them become involved in bigger criminal activities, which coincide with the disintegration of the friendship.

De Niro can’t come to terms with his childhood sweetheart (Elizabeth McGovern) and is unable to consummate their relationship except through violence. He seems to be equally out of touch with the world around him—and wrongly regards the growing ambitions of his best friend Woods as a peculiarity rather than a warning.

The film ends in 1968, as an aged De Niro—in an evocative reversal of the revenge motif that spurred the plot of Once Upon a Time in the West—refuses to take vengeance on someone who betrayed him. By this time, we’re aware that some pretty substantial chunks have been taken from the film. There is clearly a story that more involved the Treat Williams character, but that plot seems to have been discarded.

The promise of the early scenes is not fulfilled—their detail and richness does not have counterpoint in the later adult scenes. The two-and-a-half hours of the movie sped by, but were ultimately not satisfying. I wanted more.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1984

The longer cut eventually came around, and what a vast improvement it was. But at the risk of sounding heretical, I have to say I’ve never truly felt strongly for Once Upon a Time in America, and it feels as though something at its very conceptual center is wrong, or at least severely flawed, despite all the impressive movie-making around it (and in the way that some film classics are blissfully well-cast, this one has a group of actors who remain stubbornly hard to get close to, De Niro included). I have to will myself to really get behind the movie, which I don’t want to do.