Sergio Leone's last film may be one of his greatest works, but it's also frustrating for those wanting something that's set in a realistic world, if not a definitive gangster film that plays by genre rules.
A pet project since the director read an Italian translation of Harry Grey's novel, "The Hoods," in the late sixties, Leone went though multiple writers over the years (including Norman Mailer) to find the film he believed resided in the novel's prose. The director was also forced to wait until the film rights could be settled, after which five writers ultimately credited with the script (plus himself) made a valiant effort to bring life to Grey's novel and Leone's fixations using a non-linear time-frame.
The Ladd Company and released by Warner Bros., Once Upon a Time in America initially premiered in Cannes after it had already been reduced by the director to almost 4 hours, but the mixed reviews spooked the production company, and for the America release it was truncated to 2 and a quarter hours. Worse, all of the flashbacks and present day scenes were rearranged into chronological order, and it was that version which was lambasted by critics who may have assumed Leone had some hand in the butchery.
The director never quite recovered from the insult, and it was only after his death that the European Cannes edit made its way to home video, and fans could see a closer approximation of Leone's elegant design, plus the controversial ending which left some frustrated that America wasn't Leone's variation of a Godfather-type saga.
America deals with Jewish gangsters in grungy, turn-of-the-century New York City, and its first third focuses on the neighbourhood kids who forma a gang out of friendship, competition, and safety to protect themselves against rival factions, and their efforts to assert themselves within the local criminal network. Their goal is to be masters of their domain, and they come close, even when the group's most beloved and apparently moderate member, Noodles (Scott Schutzman Tiler), is sent to prison for the murder of rival gang banger Bugsy (played by a youthful but ever-sneering James Russo).
When Noodles is released, he's an adult (Robert De Niro), and he’s vital to the growth of their gang, if not its unofficial leader Max (James Woods). The two pals govern over loyal members Cockeye (William Forsythe), Patsy (James Hayden) and Fat Moe (Larry Rapp), and as much as Noddles wants to bed Moe's sister Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), their relationship will never become the passionate fantasy Noddle's been carrying close to his heart since childhood. His biggest effort - an elaborate dinner - fails to change her mind about pursuing a dancing career in Hollywood, and ends in a brutal act of sexual violence.
Their parting - about 2 and a half hours into the film - triggers the film's Intermission, but it also starts Leone’s increasing focus on the present, with Noodles trying to find out who summoned him back to NYC, and why. There are a few more flashbacks in the last hour, but Leone keeps his attention on slow-burning scenes to intensify the suspense mood, and closing the narrative with two scenes that continue to baffle some viewers.
The key to the film’s point of view, according to film historian and critic Richard Schickel, lies in the fanciful title, and perhaps after a second viewing and time for reflection, it becomes clearer whether the characters in America are pure fable, or aspects of a mind trip induced by Noodles' languishing in an opium den. The surrealness of Max' death - stepping into the churning blades of a lowly garbage truck - seem to suggest Noodles' opium-baked mind is losing focus, hence the lack of gore, blood, or screams of pain - aspects that are normal to a death scene based in reality.
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Warner Home Video's Blu-ray replicates the content of the 2003 DVD, but the transfer looks simply magical in HD. Colours are rich but never oversaturated, and reds blaze in a manner reminiscent of vintage Technicolor. The details are so clear one can see the excess makeup on the face of actress Tuesday Weld.
Ennio Morricone's score - which he finished composing before the end of prinicple photography - is a lush, soothing meditation on "Amapola" with enough variation to avoid the heavy repetition in Leone's other American fable, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Unlike West, America ebbs, flows, and kicks into gear when scenes are almost pushed to their maximum stay. The tonal shift near the end is what handicaps the film, but it's also a rare example of where the integration of some of the legendary deleted footage may fill out lingering questions, and smaller characters that lack proper introductions, such as Noodles’ sudden relationship with Eve (ravishing Darlanne Fluegel).
Schickel cites the film as atypical if not anachronistic for its time: the mindless comedies, action films and slasher movies where stylistically at odds with Leone's measured approach, and it's easy to see why the Ladd Company panicked. It was still a dumb move, considering they had handled their share of art films - The Right Stuff (1983) being a perfect example - but we get it.
The Right Stuff may also have sealed America's fate for its U.S. release, as Philip Kaufman's epic space cowboy drama ran three hours, and bombed in theatres; it's a fine work, but the Ladd execs may have sensed a disaster and reacted with a radical plan instead of building on the international respect and admiration for Leone among cineastes.
America is an art film, but it's filled with the director's wonderful gift for character nuances. The potential for the operatic excesses of West were perhaps dialed down due to hard editing decisions during post-production, but scenes with little dialogue convey powerful information purely through performances and careful editing. (A simple example is Noodles trying to flirt with Deborah in Max' swanky speakeasy, while Max repeatedly calls and awaits for Noodles to obediently turn, and follow him into the office. Everything is beautifully understated, but the character conflicts and yearnings are crystal clear.)
The Blu-ray’s extras also include an extract from Howard Hill's hour-long documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone (2001). The 20 minute segment provides a melancholy overview of the film's production from obsession to finished film. A number of the screenwriters provide brief anecdotes, but author / screenwriter Stuart Kaminsky provides the best anecdote on Leone's working methods in developing a script.
There are some recollections by a very select cast members (James Woods, Scott Schutzman Tiler), and producer Arnon Milchan, who approached Leone in Cannes and was "in" as producer after the director recounted the story over several hours. Milchan's the most interesting of the group because while he doesn't clearly admit it, he accepts some responsability for allowing Leone's film to be recut for its U.S. release.
Whether it was his self-assessed naivete (Milchan's prior big credit was the landmark TV mini-series Masada in 1981) or his decision to bend to the whims of the Ladd Comany executives, the recutting of Leone's final film was a terrible move that deeply wounded the director. James Coburn (Duck You Sucker ) recalls Leone's description of the injustice, and Woods pointedly describes the experience of making the film as the greatest moment of his life.
It's a shame there isn't a secondary commentary track (or new featuretet) featuring the cast discussing the film and its personal impact. Schickel's commentary does last the film's running time, but as with his other efforts, he tends to hover within the general informational strata and rarely offers up production nuggets. He's first and foremost a mainstream historian, so there are very few trivia details, anecdotes, or backgrounds on the film's immensely talented cast - many of whom were just starting their careers. (Jennifer Connelly, making her film debut as the tween Deborah, is the lone exception.)
It'll be interesting to see what comes of the film's
restoration begun by Leone's family, but given they possess the Italian rights, that version's release may also be initially restricted to Europe. Hopefully it too won't take a decade or more to reach North America.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan