A tale of greed, deception, money, power, and murder occur between two best friends: a mafia enforcer and a casino executive, compete against each other over a gambling empire, and over a fast living and fast loving socialite.
A mentally unstable veteran works as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City, where the perceived decadence and sleaze fuels his urge for violent action by attempting to liberate a presidential campaign worker and an underage prostitute.
Robert De Niro,
A few days before the film's premier in 1984, Treat Williams found out the two-hour version, not the three hour and forty-nine minute version, would be shown in theaters. He was heard to have said that no one would understand the movie in the shortened version. Indeed, the film did not do well at theaters, and was shut out of the Oscars, and received no nominations. When the video cassette and DVD versions were released in the original three hour and forty-nine minute version, the film ultimately found commercial and critical success. See more »
In the very first scene, when the woman is shot, her shirt is covered in blood. When she is shot again, even more blood stains her shirt, but when she falls back, her shirt is completely free of blood. See more »
[In 1933, two goons rudely question a young woman]
Where is he? Where's he hiding?
I don't know... I've been looking for him since yesterday.
[second goon slaps her harshly; she falls onto the bed]
I'm gonna ask you for the last time: Where is he?
I don't know... What are you gonna do to him?
[Two shots are heard]
[to his partner]
Stay here in case that rat shows up...
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Once Upon a Time in America is Sergio Leone's epic tale of the lives of four Jewish gangsters in New York City. The period spans decades, ending in the 1970's, but focuses on three periods - the childhood of the gangsters on the Lower East Side, their young adulthood and the old age of the survivors.
The protagonist, in a manner of speaking, is Noodles (Robert DeNiro), who along with Max (James Woods) calls the shots for the gang. The story focuses on their odd friendship and their relationships with the other gangsters (William Forsythe and James Hayden), and with Fat Moe (John Rapp), a non-gangster friend from the neighborhood.
Watching Once Upon a Time in America is a very strange experience. Director Sergio Leone directs with the same eclectic, erratic style he employed in his better-known `spaghetti westerns' starring Clint Eastwood. The result is an exquisite, ridiculous movie.
At least it's a thing of beauty to look at, and this gets you half-way there. At times, the movie has overwhelming visual impact -- when Leone films the actors close-up, they look like portraits painted by the Great Masters, and in wider shots he frames the actors so that they interact electrically with the locations or sets. And the sets are themselves beautifully produced - his reconstruction of the Lower East Side, for instance, is vivid and incredibly detailed. It's all wonderful to see.
Leone also skillfully uses music to set the scene and convey emotion. True to form, his melancholy theme music is hard at work in the movie, and it performs yeoman service. Now and then he trips up, however -- his trademark use of pan-flute solos is even weirder here than in the spaghetti westerns, and, to be frank, when the Beetles song `Yesterday' popped up at one point, I laughed out loud, so out of place was it, so cloyingly sentimental. For the most part, though, Leone's characters are amazing to look at, set in vivid backgrounds and propelled forward by terrific music.
Unfortunately, the plot and the writing are terribly clumsy, and so the movie does not make it all the way to the status of a great film. It's a bridge half built, which can be more frustrating than no bridge at all.
Actually, the movie's premise is intriguing at first, and the fatuous dialogue doesn't get in the way too much. Noodles has been driven out of New York and has lived in exile, hiding for more than 30 years until he receives a mysterious invitation to return to New York for an unknown reason. But the screenplay itself is a toxic brew of histrionics and adolescent bravado, with an almost comically-exaggerated sense of its own gravitas. It was clearly written by a staff of writers, and what's even more clear is that all of them spoke English as a second language. The movie is reminiscent of a story written about adult life by a teenager -- it is not nearly as deep as it thinks it is.
Troopers all, the very talented actors weather the implausible situations and hokey dialogue as best they can. As the hours roll on (I watched the four-hour long `director's version'), and the story marches toward its unsurprising conclusion, the viewer begins bracing for this with a mixture of dread and relief. At the end, the disappointment is all the more palpable because the cast, sets and cinematography are so good, and some of the initial scenes held great promise.
The fact that the movie is itself mostly about rough people is absolutely no excuse for any of this, as Martin Scorcese's phenomenal Goodfellas readily proves. Likewise, the fact that the movie is set amidst a haze of opium at certain points is even less excuse for shoddy characterizations . The simple truth is that the movie is trite and makes little or no sense, long version or short.
Leone assembled an impressive cast of young talent to act out the story of Once Upon a Time in America. As mentioned, most of them try very hard to make the fatuous story float, and some - particularly Woods and Tuesday Weld as Max's sometimes-moll - are terrific. DeNiro himself is strangely out of place and not terribly convincing as a Jewish gangster, although he is good in his scenes from the 1970's. Elizabeth McGovern does what she can with the role of Deborah, but it's probably the worst-written role in the movie, and again her strongly-Celtic face doesn't exactly conjure images of a first-generation Jewish immigrant.
Received opinion has it that Once Upon a Time in America is a great movie, possibly because it is a very long gangster movie (like those other ones), or because it was an epic work of passion for Leone, or because DeNiro is in it (again, like those other gangster movies), or maybe it's a combination of those elements. But here, as is often the case, received opinion is mistaken. Once Upon a Time in America is a mess, though an often-beautiful one.
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