Once Upon a Time in America
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
Lately, it seems as though I’m tackling my first reviews of works by some of the most renowned directors ever. I recently wrote my first pieces on Kurosawa and Woody Allen, so I suppose that today, I follow suit in writing my first piece about Leone. I’m not an enormous Leone fan. I find that I can appreciate him, but I tend not to have that feeling of “YES THIS IS AWESOME!” from his films. Once Upon a Time in America is no different. I liked it, it was fine, but I feel no compunction to ever watch it again.
The (rambling) story tells of David “Noodles” Aaronson (De Niro as an adult), a young man growing up in the world of organized crime in the early twentieth century Jewish ghettos of New York City. The film opens (and closes) with Noodles in a 1933 opium den. The film cuts between Noodles’ youth where he meets his friend and gangster co-conspirator Max (Woods as an adult) and falls for lovely aspiring dancer Deborah (McGovern as an adult), then to Noodles’ adult career where he and Max have graduated to serious gangster activities, and Noodles’ life in 1968 as an old man mysteriously called back to his old haunts.
This movie is more about people and mood and feeling than story. There’s very little plot; it’s much more a character study than a narrative. Where I felt Leone had some of his strongest moments were in the first half hour. These 30 minutes cut between all three timelines in the film, but there is a bare minimum of dialogue. We are introduced to several characters, we determine who they are, but this is done mostly through mute sequences. It reminded me of the opening ten minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West with the gunslingers at the train station. The opium den scene, which bookends the film, gives the feeling of a dopey, hazy high. Leone returns to this feeling several times at various points in the film; every now and then, a dreamy feeling starts to take over. Leone himself has said that interpreting the entire movie as Noodles’ recollections and dreams of the future while he’s at the opium den is not necessarily wrong. It’s certainly an interesting way to read the movie.
It wouldn’t be Leone without violence. I had some trouble with the violence in this one; it was a bit too brutal for me. Proportionally, there isn’t a ton of bloody scenes in the film, but the ones that were there made me turn away. I couldn’t watch all of them. I’m rather hypersensitive to violence in film, and this was a movie that pushed the wrong buttons for me. Leone fanatics will probably say that was on purpose; I say it made parts of the movie downright unpleasant.
The women in the film drove me nuts. I don’t know if Leone himself was actually a misogynist, but he does not like the women in his films. Like nearly every other Leone movie I have ever seen, all of the women in this film are either prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, or exhibitionists. All of them fall into one of those categories, even lovely Deborah, who is the most sympathetic female character. She made a few key decisions in the film (which I shall not give away) that I found rather unforgivable. She claims to snub her nose at the world of organized crime that Noodles is involved in, but she did not. Not really. And another note to filmmakers: I don’t enjoy watching rape. I really don’t. And you know what? Women don’t enjoy being raped, just FYI. I completely understand that this film is set in the world of organized crime, that this is a really nasty, seedy world, and that the men are hardly more redeemable than the women in this film, but I was still bothered by it. Significantly. Having a man think it’s okay to do that… no.
Scored, as you would expect, by Ennio Morricone (this IS a Leone film, after all), I found the main theme of the film haunting. The simple pan pipe melody, played with echo effects, is certainly evocative of a dreamy feeling of recollection. That fit the film very well. What didn’t fit was basically every other part of the score, which felt like a poor reimagining of “Summer Breeze.” It was schmaltzy, sentimental, and unimaginative. I know that it’s illegal, apparently, to criticize anything Morricone wrote EVER, but I really felt as though he came up with a beautiful and unique theme to the film, then completely phoned in every other portion of the score.
Ultimately, I didn’t really care for any of the characters in this movie. I didn’t really want to spend time with them. I think Leone did a decent job, I can certainly see his fingerprints all over this movie, and setting it in the Jewish gangs rather than typical Italian gangs was something new. Fundamentally, though, I kept thinking to myself “If I want to watch a Prohibition-era gangster movie, I would much rather watch The Untouchables than this.” That’s what it boils down to for me. I guess I liked it. I know, I know, high praise! But, as I said at the beginning, I’m not a huge Leone fan. I don’t diss his work, it’s just… not for me. It was too misogynistic, too violent, with too many distasteful characters. I shan’t be watching this one again.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10. It’s alright.