Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
The term ‘epic’ is bandied around a lot these days, Transformers 2 is the greatest ‘epic’ summer movie, Australia is a sweeping, romantic epic, and American Gangster is a crime film of epic proportions. Let me be clear – no they’re not. Epic is a film spanning the life of a character, from childhood to old age. Epic is encompassing sixty, seventy years of detailed social history. Epic is fusing these strands into a captivating comment on the human condition. Epic is Once Upon A Time In America. Concealed within its gangster movie trappings the film is a detailed mediation on the notions of loss and time, filtered through the prism of the American Dream from turn of century New York to the 1960’s as it follows the rise and fall of a clutch of Jewish gangsters led by Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods) whose lives are chronicled from childhood friendship to twilight years and death – that is fucking Epic. There will be spoilers around for America and a few other films, we’re talking about movies that have been around for over 20 years here so if you ain’t caught ’em yet then that’s your lookout pal. I’m being all tough n’ shit and getting into character ya frickin mook.
Based on the novel The Hoods by Harry Grey, America proved to be Leone’s final film, the first in yet another projected trilogy similar to the Dollars series. The film concentrates on three periods throughout its exhausting run time, the establishment of the gang – the main other players being Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe) in the early portion of the century, their growing power and influence throughout the height of Prohibition in the early 1930’s and Noodles investigation of a mysterious letter that he receives in 1968 which draws him back to his home, thirty five years hence, all his friends and partners in crime believed dead and buried. Central to the tale is Noodles love for his childhood sweetheart Deborah, played by Jennifer Connelly in the early scenes and Elisabeth McGovern as an adult, a love that is not unentirely unrequited but complicated by Noodles criminal and Deborah’s artistic ambitions.
Out of all the musical pairings of Leone, for me one of the finest all-time Italian directors and Ennio Morricone, one of the all time finest screen composers this is my favourite, of course his spaghetti western compositions have become iconic and the harmonica moments in Once Upon A Time In The West are brilliant but I just prefer the cadence and melancholy wrapped up in the America score. Leone’s directing style, whilst identifiable from the Westerns is somewhat restrained and subdued when you compare it to the bombastic and exuberant methods at play in the likes of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. To echo the themes of memory and nostalgia Leone signposts many of the transitions with slow pans, POV’s and cuts between doorways and apertures, signalling a portal to another time, a journey through a doorway to reach the past. These visual flourishes are compounded with a judicious use of mirrors, smoke and mist throughout the picture to generate a period evocation that is palpable, especially around the 1900’s scenes with the young gang prowling the mean streets of New York, a sepia toned yet unforgiving, brutal playground.
What happened to Elizabeth McGovern? The best scene in the film for me was the 35 year reunion between Noodles and Deborah, that scene really nailed the haunting lamentation of lost time with performances that are given a chance to breathe with long takes and an almost palpable register of emotions raging across the actors faces. According to IMDB she moved into lots of TV stuff which is a shame, I guess she needed a better agent. More pertinently, what the fuck happened Bob? I won’t accept the usual excuse that there is not enough good stuff being green-lit to attract actors of his calibre, there are infrequent gems out there which I’m sure crossed his agents’ desk. Lets have a look shall we – 1973 to 1984; Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Godfather II, The Deer Hunter, 1900, Raging Bull, Once Upon A Time In America, King Of Comedy. 2000 – 2009; Meet The Parents. Analyse This. Analyse That. Meet The Fockers. Rocky and fucking Bullwinkle? I don’t know, I guess your priorities change as you get older and perhaps you want to take in lighter, fluffier fare but that is quite a catastrophic drop in quality. I like to think that he and Marty have one more outstanding collaboration in them but they ain’t get any younger so they’d better pull their respective fingers out, here’s the trailer for Scorsese’s next picture which looks, well, strange…
Let’s alight on the ambiguous ending. It was quite a feat to reach this point after nearly four hours in the cinema and everyone in the audience was absolutely silent or at the very least asleep. I jest of course, it was a fairly packed NFT1 crowd most of whom who returned after the brief intermission at the 3 hour mark. It was quite a moment to reach the crescendo as the music rises and Noodles turns to the camera to reveal that rictus grin after the marathon running time, like my Heaven’s Gate experience I can honestly say it didn’t feel that long and I found the finale quite affecting. Are all the scenes from Noodle’s betrayal in 1933 forward the fevered imaginings of his opium drenched mind? It’s a plausible scenario, after musing over the films opening movement, its almost non-verbal montage of events with the ringing telephone obscuring the soundtrack which occurs at the same point of time could is another signal of the dreamy, hazy mood of the entire film, not dissimilar to your own memories of past events. It’s an interesting take on the film but I prefer to take the movie on face value (if you’ll forgive the pun), one of the key central moments in Noodles life providing the ideal, final moment of reflection.
Gangster movies, I love ’em. Other than America my favourites range from the genuinely classic and obvious to the cult and obscure, you have to go back to the 1930’s to see where this all started and I’m excited to see an upcoming Gallic take on the genre which has gone down like gangbusters in France. Then there’s the comedies, the art-house fusions, the noir hybrids, the chilly Parisian yarns, the obvious and less known British tales, the Yakuza translations and the pulpy oddities. I’m sure such a long running genre will continue to prosper as there is something magnetic about seeing people on screen violate the conventions of society, no matter how loathsome and violent they are you’re always secretly cheering them on to succeed and prosper, even though inevitably their accrual of power is usually met with a violent end or utter destruction of their humanity.