SUNDAY CLASSICS – ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984)

Sergio Leone's final film isn't perfect, but it is still an engrossing gangster film.

Review by J.T. Johnson

1972’s “The Godfather” is the best gangster film ever made. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks differently. Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” from 1990 is a definite second. Director Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” in 1984 is the top contender for third place.

Leone, a director known mostly for “The Man With No Name Trilogy” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”, made a more intimate gangster film than most. “The Godfather” follows the exploits of a crime family and their rise to the top of the food chain. “Goodfellas” is a more realistic portrayal of life in the mob as told by an enforcer that eventually turned into an informant.

“Once Upon a Time…” tells the story of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro), a man who starts out as a young poor thief in New York. He eventually meets and befriends Max Bercovicz (James Woods) and they form a gang, but Noodles is arrested after murdering a local gang leader and severely injuring a cop. When he gets out of prison 12 years later, Max and the rest of the gang have a thriving bootlegging business which is also meant to include Noodles.

The movie spans several decades from their youth all the way until Noodles returns to New York in the 1960s. The story is told in a nonlinear fashion as the older Noodles remembers the past while trying to figure out who discovered his new identity and why they’ve summoned him back to New York after so many years.

The reason that “Once Upon a Time in America” doesn’t work as much as “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” is due to the fact that Leone wants the film both ways. He wants to give us a more intimate look at this family of gang members yet he also wants to portray the violence in a more realistic fashion. This means that while he wants us to care about Noodles and the gang, they often do rather grisly things that make it hard for us to like them or, at the very least, relate to them.

What makes the film work ultimately are the performances and the film’s epic scope. De Niro is great as Noodles, a man who never quite left the streets even when he was at the height of his power. His friendship with Max is also genuine and tragic to watch. These are two friends that love each other like brothers yet you know from the start that it can’t end well.

The movie does contain several twists and turns, but if you have any senses, you’ll figure out where the story is going pretty fast. I mentioned earlier that the scope is pretty epic because Leone opens up his world in a huge way. The production value is high and you can feel the prohibition era of the 1920s as the kids grow up on the streets yet we also see a diverse tapestry of underground locations from roaring nightclubs to seedy opium dens.

Before I go, though, there is one more note. When the film was initially released in 1984, there was a two hour cut of the film made for the U.S. It was considered one of the worst films of the year but the European cut, standing at almost four hours, is the true cut of the film and this is the version that critics enjoy the most.

Gene Siskel from “Siskel & Ebert” even named it his best and worst film of 1984 as a result of the different cuts. Therefore, if you ever see the film in the wild and it states that the film is only a little over two hours, then you want to stay away as this is the bad version of the film.

It was the four hour original cut that I saw for this review and I can definitely say that it is an entertaining gangster film even if it isn’t as great as others that have come before or since. If you haven’t seen ti and you’re a fan of the gangster genre, then “Once Upon a Time in America” should definitely be on your viewing list.

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